To start off, progressive overload is how we create a new stimulus to the muscle tissues in hopes that they will adapt to the training.
There are A LOT of ways to progressively overload the muscles, and today I share five simple ways to do so.
Volume is simply your sets x your reps. How many total repetitions are you doing in a given exercise or workout? That’s your volume.
When you increase volume, you are really increasing the time under tension. And time under tension is just that, the amount of time your muscle tissue is under tension. You can look at total time under tension or the time under tension within each phase of movement, right?
So, you have the concentric phase where the muscle fibers are shortening while contracting, eccentric phase where the muscles are lengthening while contracting and then if you pause at any position, whether at the top, bottom, or middle of a phase, then that would act as an isometric phase where the muscle hold tension without changing length.
In short, if you increase your sets or reps, you’re using progressive overload to increase your volume. And that works because you’re increasing your time under tension.
Listen to the episode for a simple example of HOW this actually works.
The second, or maybe even first easiest way to use progressive overload is number two, which is to increase the load, or weight.
I think this is what pops into most people’s heads when talking about progressive overload – using more weight. But it is so much more than that. And the more experience a lifter has, the harder it is going to be to implement this version of progressive overload.
This could be increasing the weight on one set or all of the sets, or going from using all one weight to upping the weight each set.
As long as more volume is completed at a higher weight, you have used progressive overload Because the muscles have undergone a new level of stimulus.
We’re going to continue moving from the simplest uses a progressive overload to the more complex uses.
Next we increase the intensity. And when I say intensity, I am referring to decreasing the rest. Or requiring the same amount of work to be done in less time.
The easiest way to implement this is to decrease rest periods. And this kind of has the same affect as the increasing volume. That is to increase the stress and demand of the muscles.
So, say you were doing 5×8 bench press with 90 seconds rest in between sets. Now you’re doing 5×8 bench press with only 60 seconds rest between sets. Your muscles have less time to recover, and will have to put out repeated force production quicker than they are used to doing. Aka progressive overload.
The same would be true if you progressively overloaded the volume and kept the rest the same. Specifically if you’re talking about increasing reps performed, but decreasing the rest period.
So you were doing 5 x 8 benchpress before with 60 seconds rest but now I want you to do four sets of 10 with still only 60 seconds rest in between sets. Both are 40 total reps, same volume, same rest period, but more time under tension PER SET. That too will have a different stimulus to on the muscle.
As you can see there is not one way to increase the “intensity” of a lift. Just keep in mind, the point here is to do do the same work in less time or more work in the same amount of time.
Now we move into more advanced uses of progressive overload. Number four is to decrease or increase the tempo, depending on how you look at it.
First off, tempo refers to the time spend in each phase – the concentric, eccentric, the top or bottom of the movement or anywhere in between.
For example you can have a tempo of 22.214.171.124 or 126.96.36.199. And something people get confused on often is which number represents which part of a given movement. I personally write and read tempo in the oder in which the exercise is performed.
For instance, the squat and deadlift’s eccentric and concentric phases are opposite one another in tempo because the squat starts with an eccentric phase where as the deadlift starts with the concentric phase. Therefore their first number is not representing the same phase of movement. I hope that makes sense.
With all that, back to how you use tempo in progressive overload…
Like I said, you can increase or decrease tempo depending on how you look at it. Increase the actual numbers, so lowering for three seconds instead of one OR decreasing the tempo as to say you are slowing down. Which is the SAME as increasing the numbers.
Bottom line is that you can leave everything the same, the sets and reps, the exercise selection, and the rest periods, while ONLY increasing the tempo and absolutely destroy a group of muscles.
Back to the first example of increasing total volume. Why is that effective fam? Because what it’s really doing is increasing the time under tension. The same is true when we slow down the tempo.
The muscles are under tension for a longer period of time in a given set, if of course nothing else changes.
A simple way to modify tempo is to add one second spent in the eccentric (or lowering phase). Might seem boring, but is so so so effective.
Our last application of progressive overload is to use variations of a previously used exercise. This aims to stress the muscle from a different angle, or decrease or increase range of motion.
Often the use of variation is paired with another form of progressive overload by nature.
Tune into the episode for two examples of using variation to progressively overload the muscles.
Both are very simple, not sexy examples of how to use variation as a way to progressively overload the muscles, causing them to adapt and hopefully grow.
So, you can use one of these, or combinations of these. And I’d argue that the latter is more common just by nature. Perhaps you have to lower the load for a new variation of an exercise or for a given tempo. That doesn’t mean you aren’t overloading the muscle.
Just remember that, that if one of these increases, but another decreases or changes, that’s 100% okay as long as the change is causing a new level of stimulus to the muscle or group of muscles.
Alright, that’s all I have today on progressive overload. This was a topic that was mentioned a while back and a listener actually requested that I dive a bit deeper into this topic.
So I certainly hope this either helped you or maybe even affirmed that you’re using progressive overload well in your programming. Perhaps you were doing it without even realizing. Well, now you know.
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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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