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It’s the principle: progressive overload explained

As a strength and conditioning coach one of the most fundamental principles that I emphasize in training programs is progressive overload. Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed on the body during exercise over time, with the ultimate goal of enhancing physical performance and achieving fitness goals.

The principle of progressive overload is based on the concept of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) proposed by Hans Selye in 1956. GAS states that the body undergoes three stages of adaptation when exposed to stress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. In the context of progressive overload, the body is exposed to a gradually increasing level of stress, allowing it to adapt and improve physical performance over time.

The prime objective of progressive overload is to stimulate the body to adapt to the stress imposed upon it, resulting in the improvement of physical performance. This can be achieved through several methods such as increasing weight, repetitions, sets, volume, intensity, and frequency of training.

For example, if a client is performing the squat exercise with 135 pounds for three sets of eight repetitions, the next step would be to gradually increase the weight to 145 pounds or increase the number of repetitions to 10 or 12, or even both. This will place a greater stress on the muscles, forcing the body to adapt and improve performance.

It is important to note that there are limitations to progressive overload. One limitation is the risk of injury. If the body is subjected to too much stress too quickly, it can lead to injury, which can hamper progress and negatively affect performance. Therefore, it is important to progress gradually and follow a well-designed program.

Another limitation is the point of diminishing returns. This occurs when the body is no longer able to adapt to the stress imposed upon it. In this situation, the body has reached its genetic potential, and it may be difficult or impossible to make further gains. However, this point is rare and generally only applies to elite athletes who have been training for many years.

To cycle progressive overload into a training program, it is important to start with a solid foundation of strength and movement patterns. A good starting point is to focus on the fundamental compound movements, such as the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press. These exercises involve multiple muscle groups and are highly effective at improving overall strength.

Once the foundation has been established, progressive overload can be introduced gradually, ensuring that the body has sufficient time to adapt to each new stressor. It is important to vary the stress placed on the body, using a mix of weight, repetitions, sets, volume, intensity, and frequency of training. This helps to prevent plateauing and keep the body challenged.

Here are some examples of how progressive overload can be cycled into a training program:

  1. Squat: Start with bodyweight squats, progress to goblet squats, then front squats, and finally barbell back squats. Increase weight and repetitions as you progress.

  2. Deadlift: Begin with kettlebell deadlifts, progress to trap bar deadlifts, then barbell deadlifts. Increase weight and repetitions as you progress.

  3. Bench press: Begin with dumbbell bench press, progress to barbell bench press. Increase weight and repetitions as you progress.

  4. Overhead press: Begin with dumbbell overhead press, progress to barbell overhead press. Increase weight and repetitions as you progress.

While there are limitations to progressive overload, it can be cycled into a well-designed training program, ensuring that the body has sufficient time to adapt to each new stressor and helping to prevent plateauing. With careful planning and execution, progressive overload can be used to drive significant improvements in strength, power, and overall physical performance.

  1. Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human Kinetics.

  2. Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (2014). Designing resistance training programs. Human Kinetics.

  3. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(10), 2857-2872.

  4. American College of Sports Medicine. (2018). ACSM's guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. Wolters Kluwer.

  5. Bompa, T. O., & Buzzichelli, C. (2015). Periodization training for sports. Human Kinetics.

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1 commentaire

Really good read!! Thanks Coach

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