Friday, February 28, 2014

Progressive Overload: Your Key to Consistent Muscle Gains

At a plateau? Want to start adding muscle? Don't know where to start? Want consistent changes to body composition? I introduce the one, the only, progressive overload.

What is progressive overload?

Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. It was a principle founded during World War II by Thomas Delorme, and today it's a method used worldwide in physical therapy, strength training, and power lifting.

Basically, by adding more stress through each workout, your body will continuously adapt. Whether you're increasing one more rep from your squats last week, or adding 2.5 pounds to your bench press, progressive overload can consistently make sure you're improving.

Why is progressive overload important?

Well if you want to continue to see strength increases, body composition changes, or just improve your overall fitness status, you should incorporate some form of progressive overload.

How do I incorporate progressive overload?

Now here's the fun part. There's a myriad of different ways to incorporate progressive overload into your training routine to continue to see gains.

Before I get into these different methods, I would like to suggest that if you aren't already tracking your performance in the gym, you should probably start. Whether you write it down when you're done lifting, or bring a training journal with you to the gym, knowing exact numbers can be extremely beneficial in the long run.

I personally use's BodySpace app to track my workouts, my measurements (weight, body fat, leg size, etc) and to consistently check my performance to make sure I'm improving.
So now on to the good stuff, the different ways to go about progressive overload.

Increase Weight

The first and most obvious way of performing progressive overload is to increase the amount of tension your muscles are placed under. In simple terms, lifting more weight. Now if you're thinking, "I need to slap another 30 pounds on my bench press to see gains," that's not true at all.

Small incremental increases is all you should strive for. By literally adding those small, dinky, who-actually-uses-these, 2.5 pound circle weights to the bar, you can continue to add tension and encourage the muscle to grow. You might think "what's 5 pounds" in the grand scheme of things, but overtime this approach really pays off.

I don't recommend attempting progressive overload in this situation...

When you're doing 6-10 reps of that weight, add another 5 pounds. Initially you might think 5 pounds isn't doing you any good, but in the long run, you'll continue to make progress and get stronger.

Remember, weight training, bodybuilding, dieting or any fitness goal is not a sprint. Its a marathon and you should be in this for the long haul, not for a quick fix.

Increase Reps at a Given Weight

Another method of progressive overload is to add additional reps. By beating your previous attempt at a weight or an exercise by just one rep (one!), you just added more stress to the body to encourage muscle growth without going crazy.

For example, if I'm trying to develop my chest and I'm doing incline dumbbell chest press, all this method prescribes is beating my previous attempt. So if I did 80 pounds for 5 reps, this time through I'll go for 6 or 7. The time after that? I'll shoot for 8 reps.

I don't necessarily have to jump to a heavier weight that I might not be ready for, which, with dumbbells, can be dangerous to your joints.

Increase Set Workload

Increasing your workload is another form of progressive overload. Say you usually do 5 sets of 8-10 reps of squats. You've reached a plateau and past knee issues don't allow you to go heavier.
One method is to increase the actual workload and add another set to the exercise. So doing 6 sets of 8-10 reps.

I don't always recommend this route at first because someone will take it to the extreme and do 12 sets of squats, but its good to do in order to breakthrough a plateau, then return to your normal set/rep scheme.

Decrease Rest

My personal favorite of the progressive overload methods is to decrease rest time between sets and exercises. It is truly an excellent way to continue to grow.

My personal way of decreasing my rest is to plan a workout ahead of time and perform it as I normally would and keep note of how long it takes me. If it takes me 70 minutes to perform my routine, the next time out I'll try to do it in 50 minutes.

The exact same weights, reps, sets, and exercises. Just less time. This increases the stress your body is placed on by providing less rest for your body to fully recover. Again, it's another stressor in place, and in the realm of progressive overload, that's what we're looking for.

Increase Intensity

Increasing intensity might sound vague, "just work harder!" you might say. But I'll show you some simple ways to increase intensity.

Drop Sets

A drop set is one of my favorites. Perform a set as you normally would, and when you finish, immediately lower the weight and continue to press on. Say you do 8 reps of 60 pounds of triceps pushdown, then drop down to 40 pounds and go for 12-15 reps!

Super-Sets and Tri-Sets

Super-sets are when you perform two different exercises back to back with no rest in between. They can work the same muscle group, or work opposite ones. So two different styles could be biceps curl with the EZ Bar and then immediately performing biceps curls with dumbbells.

Another style is to do biceps curl with the EZ bar and then work the opposite muscle group, in this case the triceps, with a different exercise (say triceps kick backs). It allows one muscle group to rest, while you're simultaneously working another.

Tri-sets are simply super-sets but with three different exercises in a row. So for a cheat tri-set, I like to end with low weight/high rep bench press, to incline cable fly's, and then finish off with push ups! 3 sets and I'm good to go.

Increase Frequency

By increasing the frequency you train for a lagging body part, you force the muscle to adapt yet again. 

So if you're used to training each body part once a week, try training each body part twice a week in a different split to change it up, and do this for 4 weeks. 

I like to do a 5 day split hitting every body part twice: Shoulders & Back & Dead lifts/hamstrings (Full Body), Chest & Arms, Rest, Legs & HIIT, Shoulders & Back, Chest & Arms, and then either low intensity cardio or a short core workout. Then, I'll repeat.

I'm personally a fan of higher training frequencies, and one in particular I recommend is Layne Norton's PHAT program. I've done it before, and I like to cycle between what I'm doing now and his.

Increase Time Under Tension

One of the most overlooked ways of incorporating progressive overload is increasing time under tension. Time under tension refers to the actually time your muscle is contracted, extended, or even squeezed.

I love using this method for back exercises, such as lat pulldowns. When I want to continue to see results, I'll incorporate increased time under tension.

I'll pull the weight down using my latissimus dorsi, and then contract the isometric squeeze after the concentric movement. Then I'll slowly return the weight back but consistently make sure my lats are engaged in the exercise. Then repeat.

This style of training is also known as eccentric training. Eccentric training is the idea of making the eccentric phase of an exercise longer to train the muscle in a different way. The eccentric phase is the portion of the movement that lengthens the muscle and/or returns it to its starting point.

For example, the eccentric phase of the lat pulldown is the part where you are returning the equipment above your head. Now instead of letting the weight pull you up quickly, hold the contraction point with your lats, and slowly let the weight return. You'll feel a great burn and its a completely different style of working out!

So as a quick recap, say your bench press is stuck at 185 pounds. You can go about increasing this in any of the ways given above. Maybe you need to try 190 pounds instead of going for 200 pounds.  You can drop down to 170 pounds and try to do 8 reps instead of 6. You can perform some drop-sets from 155 pounds down to 95 pounds. You can do a set, and then bang some push ups out. The possibilities are truly endless!

So next time you're stuck at a certain weight, or you're struggling to see results, incorporate one of these methods to keep pressing on!

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