Progressive Overload and Muscle Growth

I was at my local gym this morning for a great chest and back workout.

As I sat there, resting between sets, I looked around the gym and noticed a lot of the usual faces.

What really caught my attention though, was that many of the same people I’ve seen in here for the past year are still lifting the exact same weight, for the same number of reps.

My internal critic kicked in and posed two questions:

Why are these people still lifting the exact same amount of weight after a year of consistent training?

And more importantly, why aren’t they building any noticeable muscle?

Answer: Because they’re ignoring the principle of progressive overload, a key component driving muscle growth.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

Getting bigger, stronger muscles won’t happen without progression.

Your job in the gym is to continually force your muscle to adapt, and you do this by progressively overloading them with incremental increases in training stimuli.

Without correct progression, your training efforts won’t get you far. It’s likely the leading cause of frustration, program hopping, and failure to “get big”.

Let’s elaborate on that.

If, week after week, you lift the same weight, for the same number of reps, what will happen?

Well, things will remain… the same.

You’ll reach a certain level of strength and muscularity, and then… nothing.

You see, muscle growth is triggered by the body’s adaptive response to its environment.

Failing to force this response will mean that you’ll maintain your current level of muscularity and power output, and nothing more.

Lifting weights creates tension in the target muscle, and it’s this tension that the body is reacting to. If you continue to apply the same level of muscular tension, then the body has no further reason to continue adapting.

You’re training is not challenging enough and will result in a stagnant plateau.

The cure for continued progression in muscle size and strength, is the gradual, careful increase of either more repetitions using the same weight or the same number of repetitions with a heavier weight – or a combination of the two.

What is Progressive Overload, Exactly?

Have you heard the story of Milo of Croton?

He was a renowned wrestler, an athletic champion from Ancient Greece who lived around the 6th century BC.

He was most famously known for his extraordinary, ‘God like’ feats of strength.

Legend has it, that his superhuman strength was gained by lifting and carrying a baby bull every day until it grew into an adult.

The story goes that he started this training routine when he was just a young boy, lifting this new born calf once a day, until the calf reached full maturity.

You can see from the image above how his muscularity and apparent strength increased, adapting to compensate for the weight of the bull as it grew bigger and heavier.

It’s not known exactly when he died, but he’s reported to have been attacked and eaten by a pack of wolves.

How much of any of this is true, I don’t know.

Perhaps at least parts contain some truth, but it’s unlikely he was carrying a fully-grown bull, since they can weigh over 1,000 pounds and reach over 6 feet in height.

Regardless, the story is a great way to demonstrate the foundational principle of gaining strength and size through progressively overloading the body’s muscular system.

Progressive overload is the principal that refers to the continuous increase in the demands you put on skeletal muscle through progressive resistance training.

This is done to continuously make gains in muscle size and strength.

In order to get bigger and stronger, you will need to lift more and more weight over weeks / months / years of your training.

If you do not demand more from your muscles over future training sessions, you will not force your body to adapt to any overload.

Basically, you’re not giving your muscles a good enough reason to build new muscle.

Think of this adaptation in muscle and strength as the body’s defense mechanism at play.

The body is reacting to the external stress (in the form of resistance) – and if your body could talk, it would say – “I’m not able to resist this force effectively, I must grow stronger to stay safe”.

The Progressive Overload Principle Explained

Progressive weight training was formally introduced to the world in 1948 by an American army physician named Dr. Thomas L. DeLorme.

If you’ve ever had success with – or seen – programs prescribing 3 sets x 10 reps, you can thank Dr. Thomas L. DeLorme.

He was the founder of the 3 x 10 protocol and referred to his new program as simply “Progressive Resistance Exercise.”

We’ve all heard of this, now you know that it originated from real science, not bro science.

His work paved the way for scientific research into the application of resistance exercise as a way to effectively increase muscle mass and strength.

He published an impressive textbook on his training program – “Progressive Resistance Exercise: Technic and Medical Application” – which was widely used by medical professionals of the time.

Within the document he describes:

“The term “Progressive Resistance Exercise” means exercise performed against Resistance which is increased periodically as the exerciser gains strength”

“To achieve gains in muscle strength and hypertrophy, progressive resistance is essential to compensate for gains as the training progresses. Without this, the body’s adaptation to the stimulus is limited.”

“the process by which muscle forces or torques are increased to overcome the internal or external resistances imposed upon skeletal muscles”.

Aside from optimal protein intake, we’ve known for a long time that one of the primary keys to making progress in muscle growth and strength is to progressively overload your muscle with more weight over time.

Simply put, you must make ongoing, consistent progress in your training sessions to manifest results.

That will mean adding weight to the bar over time, typically when you hit a target rep total for three workouts in a row.

For example, right now, you may have the ability to bench 70kg for 8 reps.

If you just keep pressing 70kg for 8 reps on the bench press week after week then why would your chest muscles need to get bigger or stronger?

They wouldn’t, because they have adapted to the resistance of 70kg, to make them adapt further you must add more weight to the bar.

By increasing the weight to 75kg on your next workout your muscles now have no choice but to adapt and grow to meet the demand of the newly increased stress on the muscle.

After a few weeks, or however fast/slow your body adapts, you will get stronger and will be able to increase the weight to 80kg.

However, there is a limit to the progression, which I’ll get into later.

Factors such as, using proper form, having a good nutrition plan in place, and getting enough rest are all contributing factors to your ability to lift increasingly more weight and keep growing.

Never neglect these over chasing progressive strength.

By creating a progressive overload, you will give the body the ability to gain strength and build more muscle tissue. As you get stronger, you can increase the weight you are lifting for the same amount of reps. You can move up in weight once you are able to do the same exercise for more reps.

You will not be able to increase your weight every time you train. It’s impossible to do so and pushing yourself too hard every session will lead to over training, injury, or both.

You should strive to increase your demands as often as possible, though. A majority of your success will be your individually driven motivation and effort to lift more weight and train hard.

Let’s take a deeper look at this process.

Example of Progressive Overload in Action

Let’s say that right now, you can bench press 100kg for 10 repetitions.

As your chest muscles adapt and grow stronger, you’ll soon be able to move that 100kg 12 times. When you reach this point, increase the weight to 110kg.

Your reps will naturally increase, when you can easily go 2 or 3 reps over what the program calls for, add more weight, and go back to the program-prescribed rep total.

When your strength starts to increase and that 100kg for 10 reps starts to feel easier, it’s time to expose your muscles to more tension by adding more weight.

On your next chest workout (or whichever muscle group you’re working on), try 110kg for 10 reps, as this becomes easier go up again to 115kg for 10 reps, and so on.

Just keep gradually increasing the weight over weeks / months / years so that your muscles are getting sufficient progressive tension, and your training intensity remains high.

For example, let’s say your workout program calls for 8 reps of bench press and you’re working with a weight that has you reach failure around the 8th rep.

This is your 8-repetition maximum and is a challenging weight.

Everything is looking good.

Eventually, as you gain strength and progress over the coming weeks, you’ll be able to hit those 8 reps easily and your new failure point will become 10 or 12 reps.

At this point it’s time to add some weight to the bar so that you’re reaching failure around the 8th rep again.

Once your body has adapted to a specific weight, you must force it to adapt to a new stress by increasing the weight.

You get the picture: A gradual increase in weight.

And I mean gradual, small increases in weight.

Don’t do anything stupid like overload the bar with a ton of weight you can’t handle safely, let the gradual, incremental increase in weight and strength come naturally.

Don’t overly force it, let it come naturally with consistent, intelligent training.

Don’t train like a powerlifter.

Repeating this processor as you adapt to the weight is progressively overloading your muscle with more growth stimulating tension over time and is crucial for continued growth.

The key point here is to work hard every workout to move forward, do not become complacent and stagnant in your workouts.

This isn’t to say you have to make such increases every workout – but do attempt them as often as is feasible.

You’re not going to gain extra strength on every workout. Some sessions it might seem like your strength has dipped – this is normal – as strength gains will ebb and flow in an upward trajectory.

It’s not a completely linear process, so don’t feel discouraged if you have a bad workout.

Bodybuilding is about growth – not just visible muscle growth, but about progressing in terms of strength – so keep chipping away at your goal.

How to Create an Overload

As mentioned, you’re primarily looking to add more weight as you get stronger.

But what happens when you reach a limit?

Of course, you’re not going to keep getting bigger and stronger forever.

The world record bench press is currently 1,075 lbs (487.6 kg), it’s highly unlikely any human will ever bench 2,000 pounds – progression does eventually grind to a halt.

If you’re a beginner, you don’t have to worry about this, as you’ve got several years of upwards progression to enjoy.

Muscle hypotrophy correlates with strength gains, and just like there’s a limit to the amount of strength you can gain, muscle growth has a limit, too.

Beginners tend to see a rapid increase in both strength and muscle mass, which starts to taper off after 2 – 3 years of lifting.

It’s crucial that you pay attention to exercise form from the very start of your training. By doing so, your brain and nervous system becomes better at activating the target muscle and moving the weight through its correct trajectory.

The better you become at exercise execution and target muscle activation through correct form, the more gains in muscle size, strength, and power you’ll achieve.

Always start with developing excellent lifting technique before progressively overloading your muscles with weight.

At the advanced stage of bodybuilding, other progressive training techniques need to be applied, as moving increasingly more weight just won’t be attainable.

Things like, increasing exercise volume by doing more sets and introducing different exercises.

I’m sure you’ve heard bodybuilders talk about “training angles” – what they are talking about is creating tension across the muscle at different points of the strength curve.

You see, when you take a muscle through its full range of motion, depending on the exercise, there will be more or less tension at different points of the movement.

Manipulating tension at different points of the strength curve is a great way to introduce new growth stimulus to the muscle.

Increase training frequency is another technique. By bringing your muscle group training sessions closer together, you can squeeze more training sessions into a year and maximize protein synthesis between workouts.

Instead of working a muscle every 7 days, you might increase the frequency to every 5 days.

These techniques are suited to more advanced trainees. For beginner / intermediate trainees, stick to optimizing protein and calorie intake in combination with a progressive resistance training program.

Focus on lifting form and building strength over time, as this will maximize growth. Only after a few years of consistent training and when growth slows would you need to consider manipulating things like volume, frequency, and the strength curve to keep progressing.

Ok, so here’s what beginner / intermediate lifters need to focus on:

1: Increase the Resistance of your Training

After each workout, you should record or take a note of what you’re lifting on each muscle group.

Set goals and strive to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting on each body part.

Take one of the big exercises and use this to measure your progressive strength gains.

For example, for chest, just measure how much weight you are increasing on the bench press each week.

Don’t bother noting how much you’ve gained on dumbbell fly’s or pec deck or any isolation exercise. You only need to track strength of one main compound exercise for each muscle group.

Try to force the muscle to do more than its accustomed too.

2: Increase the Amount of Repetitions of Each Set

Try and push yourself to do one or two more reps each time you feel that you are going to fail.

If necessary, use the aid of a spotter to help push you past your limits and reach new personal bests.

Don’t stop at a set number in your head. Lift a weight that is heavy enough that you fail between 8 – 10 reps, when you reach failure, you should be pushing for ‘one more rep’!

I hope I’ve got the message across. If I haven’t, then it’s partly your fault for not listening and reading this article in its entirety.

Remember, you won’t see an increase in strength on every training session, week in week out. You will have good days and bad days in the gym, some days you’ll feel stronger than others, but keep pushing and the good days will soon add up.

The Importance of Progressive Overload

The law of progressive overload states that it is the primary way to scientifically gain mass on your muscles – at least in your first few years of training, when muscles are very responsive to growth.

The law states that in order to ignite muscle growth, you need to increase the amount of reps you are doing and the amount of weight you are lifting across workouts over time.

Our bodies will adapt to the demands we place on them. They are machines when it comes to adaptation. In the world of fitness and bodybuilding, it is key to understand that we adapt and that is what you should be striving for.

If you wish to gain muscle mass and immense strength, then you need to keep forcing your muscles to adapt through a cumulative weight lifting program.

Last updated: 14/06/2018

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