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Progressive overload could be considered a bodybuilder’s best friend. Whether your main goal is to put on muscle mass, get stronger, or improve endurance, progressive overload is the base principle that will help you get from “Point A” to “Point B”.
Simply put, progressive overload is the concept of continually placing progressively more difficult demands on the body. Utilizing the SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) principle, the body is then forced to continually adapt to these new stresses. Do this enough in a particular fashion, and the body will improve. The mistake most lifters make is that they think there is only one type of progressive overload, when in reality, there are many.
This is the one most trainees think of. Today you’re lifting 300lbs for 5 reps and a month from now, you’re lifting 315lbs for 5 reps. Striving to continually add weight to the bar (while keeping sets and reps the same) is one of the best ways to get stronger. There are many ways to go about this, but starting out well below your max and adding only a few pounds every time you perform an exercise works well – especially for newer lifters. As they say, if you can’t perform reps with the correct form then the only thing you’re working out is your ego.
Another way to place increased load on the body is to continually up the reps. This could be doing more reps per set or simply more reps in total every time you do an exercise. So say this workout you squatted 275lbs for 24 total reps done in sets of 4-6. The next time you squat, do 25 total reps. Then do 26 reps the squat workout after that. And so on. This can be a way of adding volume for strength purposes as well as improving muscle mass.
A way of increasing endurance as well as improving work capacity could be to simply perform a workout more often. Starting out, you might squat 3x per month. Increase that to once per week. Then squat 3x every two weeks. After that, do two squat workouts per week. This can condition your body to be able to perform certain activities (and at certain levels) more often with less repair and recovery time needed.
Not every form of progressive overload has to be about increasing something. By keeping your sets/reps/weight the same but continually decreasing the rest time every few workouts, you can dramatically improve your endurance and short-term recovery. Applying this principle to interval training could also see radical progress in your cardio as well as burning additional body fat.
One other mistake some trainees make is that they try to overload too many things at the same time. You can make consistent progress by focusing on only adding weight or reps etc. However, by trying to add weight to more reps, done more often and with less rest, you’ll likely not get any better at anything. Instead you’ll be asking your body to adapt to too many things at once and it won’t know what to improve first. You’ll likely end up overtraining or even injuring yourself.
By intelligently applying progressive overload principles to your workout, you can not only make dependable progress, but better plan out and assess your training for the long-term. In other words you’ll know when you need to progress, and if you need to change things up if you’ve hit a plateau.