These days, even among the Instagram age of “influencers”, you hear the term progressive overload a ton. More often than not it seems that this term is used without deep understanding of it’s application or why it’s a foundational principle for hypertrophy. The most common misconceptions are that this term speaks only to increasing the loads we lift and each week’s effort needs to be maximal or greater than the week prior. However, overload can be achieved through countless different strategies. Furthermore, a lot of these beacons of inspiration are also hashtag team no days off, the grind never stops bro **Husky Bro voice**. You may see these individuals often attempt frequent large increases in load or volume. While hard work is admirable our ability to “will” our goals into existence through enduring a whole lot of suck is limited.
While you’re newer to training you probably won’t need to put a ton of forethought into your training since just about everything works. Your rate of adaptation may be so rapid that it makes sense to be a bit more aggressive with load increases. Unfortunately, things slow down after a while, nothing works forever, and at some point applying large weekly jumps in load isn’t an option. Pushing for the same rates of progression can often end with poor quality training, stagnation, frustration, and sometimes injury.
Before we get into our main tools for progression, it may be helpful to have a better conceptual understanding of progressive overload and why we do it…
The principle of overload simply emphasizes that over time, our training stimulus needs to be one that is greater than what we are accustomed to. To really break this down consider that regardless of your experience there is some threshold of work that is needed to make progress. As you become bigger and stronger the work that you used to do crosses into that threshold less until it’s overload potentially no longer is stimulative enough to provide further adaptation. This would infer that you would only need to increase your overload stimulus as fast as you’re adapting. For bodybuilding this means you have to lift more because you got bigger. Since most of us are rarely making huge jumps in strength or adding slabs of muscle from session to session it is probably not necessary to apply large adjustments to training stressors as frequently as possible. We are talking about accumulating changes at the microscopic cellular level. Therefore, the time it takes for a non beginner to see muscle growth takes a very long time.
This concept of diminishing overload with training is illustrated in Figure A. with a sharper decline in our curve as we repeat similar workouts.
This matters because I often need to help clients understand that more isn’t always better. Excessive and frequent variations in some training stressors have the potential to result in suboptimal returns. Changing movements too often may not allow us to develop skill and technique to allow optimal overload and progress monitoring. Increasing load and/or volume by excessive degrees may increase injury risk. Furthermore, if you alter your form for the sake of moving a greater load you may actually be providing a less overloading stimulus by giving yourself a mechanical advantage. Pushing past your capacity for the hope of faster progress can ultimately expose us to more risk and less reward.
However, I don’t think this means you shouldn’t attempt to progress in some way. Attempting to progress is fun, it keeps you motivated, and when things are going well it provides you with feedback that things are moving in the right direction. Figure B presents an elongated and less steep curve and expresses being able to get a bit more out of training over time. Conceptually, this is what would happen if an individual were to make small incremental adjustments to training over time.
To expand on this concept, let’s say we have a years worth of training mapped out. If we were to pull a training cycle from early in the year and compare it to one several months later toward the end, they may appear pretty different depending on client needs at the time the training was conducted. However, if we examined one training cycle to the very next, variations between the training program would probably seem less substantial. Breaking training into smaller time frames, week to week adjustments within a single training cycle may show very little change. Between these weeks we might see some variations in load, or reps, or sets, but those changes should generally work within a narrow scope with a focus on a progression toward a target goal. Within bodybuilding gradual adjustments in progression would be a good thing since constant variation isn’t very important to hypertrophy training like it may be for activities on the other side of the spectrum, such as CrossFit ® where the expectation is to become pretty good at a lot of different things at the same time. Within bodybuilding you really only have one major and valued outcome, which is hypertrophy. Since growth is a very slow and gradual process, strength improvement within appropriate rep ranges are your most important indicator that you’re moving toward the ultimate goal of accumulating more precious muscle. It becomes very hard to monitor strength at a given rep range if many variables are frequently changed.
For a quick example, you may spend 4-6 training cycles and bench press the entire time starting with improving strength in the 10-12 rep range and incrementally working to improving 5 rep strength. But maybe every 2-3 training cycles your secondary pressing movement changes from machine variations to dumbbell or some other training tool. Notice I didn’t say every 2-4 weeks we completely and drastically change movements and reps across the board or start incorporating kegels and gymnastics to mix it up.
Moving forward I’ll discuss some useful tools to apply overload from week to week…
For the purpose of this article let’s define effort as proximity to failure. If you have a lot of reps left until you hit failure on any particular set that is considered low effort. If you are very close or at failure we will call that high effort. Therefore, I’ll commonly use repetitions in reserve (RIR) as a programming variable.
Your gym bros and favorite influencers might tell you that in order for a set to count that you need to take it to or past failure. This just isn’t the case. For instance, Helms and colleagues conducted an intervention that revealed significant increases in strength and muscle growth among participants, despite most of their training being performed at approximately 3 or 4 repetitions from failure (~3-4 RIR) (Helms 2018). This would tell us that repetitions at least 3 or 4 away from failure are disruptive enough to create a stimulus that causes adaptation. This may not make much of a case against the use of failure. We actually don’t know if they would have gotten better or worse results by training to failure and there are plenty of studies that show sets taken to failure can provide an appropriate stimulus as well. Surprisingly, the research looking at failure versus non failure training research is sparse and not without plenty of limitations. One new publication worth mentioning is a study conducted by Caroll and colleagues, where the non failure group showed more favorable changes in whole muscle size, fiber size, and myofibrillar proteins compared to the failure training group over 10-weeks. The researchers classified their participants as well trained due to possessing an average of 7.7 ± 4.2 years of training experience and comparing their participants baseline performance data to previous research examining well trained competitive athletes. Although I’m obviously a proponent of training short of failure most of the time, I’ll admit that the literature has a long way to go before we can unequivocally say whether you’re leaving gains on the table by training short of failure, and I do think failure has its place in training when used strategically.
If we spend most of our training shy of failure then we probably need some proxy of effort to ensure we are working hard enough. A trending concept within evidence based crowd termed the theory of “effective reps” fulfills this purpose. This theory proposes that repetitions closer to failure offer the largest stimulus for adaptation and repetitions further from failure provide the least stimulus. Correspondingly, the same can be said about fatigue.
The major application most have taken away from the theory of effective reps is that within typical hypertrophy and strength rep ranges most sets in training should be somewhere within 5 repetitions from failure (~5-0RIR). It is common for those who use RIR to modulate effort and intensity so that sets that are taken to 0-1RIR used cautiously and sparingly to avoid excessive fatigue that may negatively impact near upcoming sessions. There are many ways to adjust effort from week to week and you don’t have to be married to any one way. As a general concept keeping overload in mind, the most obvious way to program RIR would be to start a training phase at a higher RIR within an effective rep range and progressively work toward failure (Shown in Figure C).
You can check out my article here at Gifted Performance if you want more details on RIR:
Repetitions and Effort
One of our basic tools for progression is to add more reps. Adding reps can be a little tricky, when you’re no longer a novice, if you’re already training a lot of sets to failure. However, if you’re appropriately managing fatigue and planning training cycles to begin at lower efforts adding repetitions becomes a bit more predictable and reasonable. In this hypothetical example, let’s say your 10 rep max was 200lbs. On week 1 you do 6 repetitions at 3-4 RIR with 200lbs. If effort is increasing by approximately 1 RIR from week to week then we would probably expect for 7 reps on week 2, 8 reps on week 3, and so on. However, in our example you’ve actually adapted and improved over the training phase and completed 12 repetitions with your old 10 rep max. You probably won’t experience this outcome all of the time within every 4-week training block but this highlights flexibility and auto-regulation in programming since it allows your application of overload to keep pace with your adaptation and current abilities. As an added benefit it also helps to insure that you’re training within your target efforts within an effective rep zone.
Furthermore, this type of progression can work well in circumstances where increasing load from week to week is not practical. This may apply to individuals who are not very strong or on movements that are limited by loading capabilities. For example, if an individual’s 10 rep max on lateral raises is 20lbs then a 5lb increase is a huge 25% increase in load. For most people a 2.5% change in load would roughly impact a change of 1 rep. That means that if you add 25% to a 10RM you could potentially add no reps without greatly altering lifting technique. So there are plenty of circumstances where increasing load by 5lbs may cause form and workout quality to suffer.
Set progression has become a very hot topic recently along with volume. These days within the evidence based community, sets have actually almost become synonymous with volume. Volume is simply an expression of work and there are many ways to quantify volume but “volume load” specifically is one of the most common and straightforward methods used to measure work in training. Volume load can be expressed as:
number of sets x number of reps x load = volume load
If you increase one variable within the volume load formula, the product of work increases provided the other variables stay the same or increase. It just so happens that adding sets is a really effective way to greatly increase the volume of work done in training.
Consequently, increasing set number can also have a larger negative impact on fatigue and recovery and thus may contribute to an increased risk of overtraining and/or injury. You’ll need to gauge recovery and performance to really know if you’re doing too little or too much. If you’re improving then it’s likely the number of sets you’ve been doing is enough so it would probably be a good idea to use some caution when increasing set number. Regardless, increasing number of sets over time can be a useful tool for overloading purposes.
This is what volume load looks like with adding sets:
This is what volume load looks like with just a 5lb or 2.5% increase in load:
This is what our volume load looks like when we add a couple reps:
By increasing with a single set volume load increased by 2000lbs, by adding a couple reps we increase volume load by 1200, but when we add 5lbs to the bar we only increased volume load by 150lbs. All methods can be a good way to progress depending on how your needs evolve over time.
BUT HERE IS THE BANGER
This figure demonstrates the compounding potential of adding 1 set, 2 reps, and 2.5% in load, resulting in an increase in volume load by 3840lbs. The sum of a few seemingly small changes result in the potential for a large increase in overload. Over several weeks and months you can implore a variety of these tools and others as they fit with your rate of progression to ensure you’re moving in the right direction and progressing appropriately.
Occasionally I’ll get asked, “how long did it take you to get that big?” Although flattering, that is a really awkward question that feels undeserving with all the real monsters in this world. I’ll usually answer by saying, “well, I’ve been training for about 12 years. So I guess it’s taken me about 12 years to get this big”. Then when asked for the “how”, I’m usually left baffled as I try to gather the words to sum up the last decade of my life. Through all the ups and downs and all the different things I’ve done over the years I attribute most of my progress to making small gradual steps toward my goals. Like most things in life, overnight success is more of an exception and not the rule. Some will have it easier than others but most of us won’t reach the peak of our potential in a few short months or years. I once heard someone say “bodybuilding is an endeavor of delayed gratification”. Over my 12 years I can attest that my personal journey has felt anything but fast. I’ve had to learn, try new things, and trust in people or processes that weren’t immediately enjoyable or rewarding for the sake of a better long term outcome. Every session, meal, pound, and rep added to the bar was a part of the process of chipping away at different versions of myself over the past 12 years. After reading this article, my hope is that those who feel they have been spinning their wheels from constantly pushing for maximal effort, maximal gains, and maximal everything all of the time will see the potential for small incremental changes to add up and compound over time to a much greater outcome.
Carroll, Kevin M., et al. “Skeletal Muscle Fiber Adaptations Following Resistance Training Using Repetition Maximums or Relative Intensity.” Sports 7.7 (2019): 169.
Helms, Eric R et al. “RPE vs. Percentage 1RM Loading in Periodized Programs Matched for Sets and Repetitions.” Frontiers in physiology vol. 9 247. 21 Mar. 2018, doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00247