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Progressive overload, the key to muscle adaptation

Progressive overload

By Jack “Jackpot” Lotter, Personal Trainer, WBFF Pro and Coach (www.sherifftraining.co.za)

A pet hate of mine is seeing the same individuals in the gym doing the same routine over and over again, for weeks on end, and months thereafter. Their rep and set schemes, and the order in which exercises are performed are as constant and sure, one week after another, as death and taxes. These same individuals never progress. They never get stronger, fitter, leaner or harder. Their muscle mass generally stays the same, or may even dwindle, and their adipose tissue reserves remain untapped.

The concept of progressive overload is too often overlooked, and when viewing these same “Groundhog Day” individuals, apparently completely mitigated. Of course we all live for “the pump”, and we train because it is enjoyable as the subsequent rush of hormones and endorphins is nature’s natural high.

However, the goals we set for ourselves are the reasons why we enter the gym in the first place. If our training stimulus, in whatever medium, be it strength training, powerlifting, bodybuilding or CrossFit, is not allowing us to attain the milestones we’re aiming for – getting fit, gaining muscle mass or losing fat – then we’ve either failed or we are doing something wrong.

In order to progress in the gym we need our bodies to adapt. By adapting to a certain stimulus or stressor, in response to the many mediums of training, our body will have to either increase its cardiorespiratory endurance, build more skeletal muscle mass, increase power output or contractile strength in muscle tissue, metabolise body fat for energy production, or a combination of all of these.

“In order to progress in the gym we need our bodies to adapt.”

This adaption is, in fact, what we are striving for at the outset as these physical and physiological changes will reflect the goals we’re trying to achieve. However, once this positive adaption phase has occurred, unless the stimulus or stressor that initiates this process is increased, there is no “incentive” for the body to progress to the next level. This is due to the fact that the adaption means the body, system or muscle being trained is now able to cope with the stimulus or stressor that was used to initiate this process initially.

In order to further the development phase and keep making progress in the gym we need to introduce progressive overload, which in essence is simply increasing the level or severity of the stimulus or stressor (exercise) to facilitate the next adaption phase. We need to do this in a controlled manner to recognise the adaption phase when it occurs as this will halt progress, and make informed decisions thereafter to continue onward to the next phase, and so on and so forth.

The key here is consistency and, in the same breath, inconsistency. We want to keep certain variables in our workouts the same to gauge our progress incrementally so that we have a tangible benchmark from which to work from. However, we also want to change or intensify other variables to leapfrog into the next phase once our bodies have adapted. While this may seem simple, all too often we forget the basics while in search of the “get big quick” or “shred fat fast” plans out there.

We can initiate progressive overload with the following easy steps:

  • 1. Poundage
  • 2. Intensity
  • 3. Frequency
  • 4. Volume
  • 5. New techniques
This is fairly simple. By increasing our weights every week on the respective movements in our routines we’re forcing our body to develop and adapt. To accommodate the facilitation of connective tissue development, which is slower than muscle tissue, aim to increase your poundages by no more than 5% per week.
This point is broad, but by increasing our intensity in the gym we can force progressive overload. An easy-to-explain example would be to simply decrease your rest intervals between sets. By employing drop sets, super-, tri- and giant sets, or rest pause sets, among others, we’re increasing intensity.
By increasing our training frequency, either in terms of training certain body parts more than others to bring them up to parity, or in terms of training more regularly in general, you can force the body to improve.
By upping the sets and reps, or even adding additional exercises to our workouts, we will force the body to get stronger and develop.
The final resort when trying to initiate progressive overload is to try an entirely new training technique. This must only be done when all the other aforementioned points and methods have been utilised and exhausted. Again, once a new training technique is incorporated, stick to it for a period of no less than four weeks. Use that as a framework, then slowly start incorporating the aforementioned points when progress halts. Simple.

One must remember that changing training routines too often, and incorporating everything all at once will simply confuse the body and you’ll go nowhere. The body will, in layman’s terms, be too confused to develop as it is being poked and prodded by too many stressors at once. Start slowly, track your progress and initiate points 1 through 5 as and when adaption occurs.

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