Progressive Overload – What is This Anyway?

Have you heard of progressive overload before?  It’s something that was glossed over in a few fitness courses I’ve taken and I see notices about its importance at the gym.  But, do we really know what this means for our fitness?

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload pops up more in the bodybuilding community but it’s not necessarily only for super humans!  Even you and I can take advantage of the benefits of progressive overload.

Why Progressive Overload?

Do you tend to stick to the same workout routines or use the same equipment over and over again?  I know there are a few people at the gym who only ever run on a treadmill or who only ever do biceps curls, pushups and squats (this would be my husband!).

Day in and day out, they feel great about their ability to drag themselves to the gym for a workout – and rightly so!  However, they also seem to be stuck…stuck at the same body composition or number on the scale.  They’re frustrated because no matter how far they run or how many squats they do, their bodies aren’t changing.

This is where progressive overload (and variety) come in!

Progressive Overload Defined

The principle of progressive overload states that adjusting the demands on your muscles through increased repetitions, weight, speed, or a combination of these will help you reach your strength, endurance and agility goals much faster.

Your body gets used to doing the same things after a while – it adapts.  If you want results, you need to switch it up!

In bodybuilding, progressive overload typically means adjusting or increasing weights and load on the muscles.  But, you can also apply progressive overload to your cardio workouts.

How Progressive Overload Works

By continually adding resistance to your muscles, you will make them work harder.  And, muscles that work harder tear and repair to create strength in the tissue.  Switching up cardiovascular workouts with higher intensity bursts or inclines can improve heart function and boost metabolism.

Anytime your muscles or tissues need to try something different, they are fully engaged, using energy faster and working hard to keep you safe.  Engaged muscles get stronger, faster, and bigger.

What Can You Do?

You don’t need to be a bodybuilder to practice progressive overload.  There are a few ways to increase your load while building strength and increasing speed.

  1. Increase the resistance. You can do this by adding more weight when doing strength sessions.  Or, you can tighten up the resistance on the stationary bike or add an incline to your treadmill run.
  2. Do more reps. This is pretty obvious, right?  A lot of people do 12-15 reps per cycle so add 3-5 more reps for more work.  Or, instead of doing 3 cycles of 12 reps, do 4-5 cycles of the same amount.  On the cardio equipment, go longer than normal.  (Sometimes, if I’m feeling good, I’ll run 3 miles but tell myself to go just a quarter mile more.  If that still feels good, add another quarter mile, and so on!)
  3. Combine exercises. If you do cardio one day and weights the next, try combining the two into a single session.  Perform your cardio first – working muscles after a good bike ride or run, especially the leg muscles, can do wonders for your physique!
  4. Adjust workout timing. Add another cardio session to your week or increase the amount of time spent in the weight room.  You don’t need to go crazy here but just increasing the amount of exercise you do can be a big step forward.
  5. Reduce rest time. This is more applicable to intervals or strength sets than steady-state exercise.  Just like it sounds, reduce the rest time between sets to keep your body engaged.

Keep It Safe

Progressive overload can be very effective at pushing past a plateau.  However, you need to apply this principle safely to avoid injury.

Add one of the above methods of progressive overload at a time.  Give your body time to adjust to the change before adding any other methods.

When you add reps or weight, try to add an additional 5-10% more than what you’re currently doing (or lifting).  For example, if you run for 30 minutes, add 3 minutes one week, 3 minutes the next week, and so on.

And, add changes in gradually.  Don’t rush this.  Try something new for a week before changing things again.

Remember, variety in your workouts is the key to success!  Make sure you’re performing some steady-state cardio, strength training, interval training and stretching / relaxation each week!




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