People (enter trainers, coaches, physical therapists, body builders, and strongmen) toss the term “progressive overload” about in the absence of context for the larger audience. I believe progressive overload can be seen in lights:
One view is the pre-planned process. While the other is outcome. I can see the logic in both. Take whichever you like. Because the focus either way is the same – more stress via different training factors.
Hope this graphic helps. Let me know below:
A question I get asked often by coaches and trainees is “what do I change first for progressive overload? – up the weight? Increase reps? Slow down tempo? Add a set? etc” This is an incredibly fair question and one that has the same answer as most things in health and fitness – it depends.
What’s most important is the logic behind the decision. The examples shown in the graphic above are based on hypertrophy – muscle growth. That’s the stimulus we are attempting to program for in order to receive the adaptation of increase muscle cell size. Make sense?
I see nothing wrong with playing a bit of back and forth with volume and load. Increase reps first (to drive up your capacity for work), then increase load for the same amount of reps. When that RPE (rate of perceived exertion) drops at the given load and reps, increase reps completed or add another set – drive up volume. Then load.
After load and reps have both been increased, we can play with other factors like tempo. Slowing the tempo down simply gives us more time under tension by nature. And mechanical tension is the main driving force of hypertrophy.
I hope you can see where there is no black and white rule to how you can best use and/or make progressive overload happen. The main desire and need is to push the body to the point that the wanted adaptation takes place.
Choose ONE factor at a time to increase/change. That’s the “best way” if there is one. Happy lifting.
If you’d like to learn more about program design for strength, yes, and hypertrophy training over long term periodization, check out Pure PROgramming.
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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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