Progressive Overload – When The Gains Stop Coming!

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Hey everyone.

Welcome back or welcome to the page.

Today I would like to talk about progressive overload. There are times when your muscle gains are going to stall, and you will become frustrated with working out. Never fear: progressive overload is here!

In the discussion today, I will define progressive overload, give you a few ways to progressively overload, and give you my opinion on when to give it a try.

Let’s get started!

Progressive Overload Definition

thomas delormeThe idea of progressive overload can be traced back to Thomas Delorme, an army physician during WW2. He realized that there was a great backlog of patients needing rehabilitation, and the protocols of the time involved a lengthy rehabilitation.

He had used strength training himself to overcome a childhood illness, and he wondered if strength training would benefit the many patients awaiting rehabilitation.

He started with a simple method. He had the patients perform multiple sets of resistance exercises lifting their 10-repetition maximum weight. He later added to the system 3 sets of progressively heavier sets of 10 rep maximum exercises.

All the patients responded positively and quickly to this rehabilitation process, and thus was born the concept of progressive overload (1).

The definition of progressive overload states that in order for a muscle to grow, or strength to be gained, or performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.

If we continue to lift the same weight for the same number of reps and sets for the next ten years, our muscles will not grow. There needs to be some form of increased tension.

So, what does that look like in the gym? Thanks for asking!

Progressive Overload Training

Our body really has only one purpose in its own mind. You know, the one that works in the background without your input. Not your conscious mind. The unconscious, automated functioning mind. That purpose is to keep you alive. Your body will continue to function, given the correct nutrition, for a long time. A very long time if you feed it correctly.progressive overload

What won’t happen is any significant change to your appearance (other than aging). You can eat the most healthy foods there are, and your muscles will not grow,

In order for your muscle to grow (change) they must be forced to adapt to tensions that they have never had to adapt to before. You need to lift some heavy weights; not too heavy. You don’t want to hurt yourself. But the weight should be heavy enough to cause your muscles injury so they will have to rehabilitate and grow in the process.

That is the entire premise behind resistance training. You lift weights so that your muscle can grow. You figure out how much you can lift at any given time, you lift that amount for a couple workouts, and then you add weight so you are putting your body in a stressful, tension-filled situation where it is forced to adapt.

Then you progress by adding more weight and the process continues. All should be fine for quite some time. As long as you are adding weight, your body will continue to be forced to adapt, and your muscles should grow.

muscle plateauThere may come a time however, when your muscle growth hits a plateau. You will be unable to force your muscles to grow. You may become frustrated at this point, but I am here to tell you to stay calm and read on!

Keep in mind that you need to be sure that you are feeding your body the proper nutrition. The correct amount of protein, carbs and fats every day. An abundance of calories that give your muscles the proper food for growth. You also need to be sure to give your muscles enough time between workouts to recover. 24 – 48 hours is a good time. Also, be sure you are getting enough sleep. This is when your muscles grow. You only break them down when you work out. They grow when you are resting and recovering.

Remember, the concept of progressive overload is quite simple. This diagram shows it best.

progressive overload

So, what does progressive overload look like?

Thanks for asking!

Progressive Overload Variations

You really shouldn’t overthink progressive overload. Your body has adapted to whatever level of tension you are exposing it to, so you need to change it. It is really that simple. Change the level of tension you are putting your muscles under.

But how do I do that, you ask. Well, there are a variety of ways.

  1. You can simply add more weight and keep everything else the same.
  2. You can leave the weight the same and add more reps.
  3. You can leave the weight and the reps the same and add another set.
  4. You can increase your training frequency.
  5. You can decrease your rest time, either between sets or between workouts.
  6. You can slow down the repetitions, therefore increasing the time your muscles are under tension
  7. You can increase or decrease the range of motion for each exercise

All of those options should allow you to push through the muscle gaining plateau you have come up against. I do need to offer a word of caution here, keeping in mind that I am not a doctor or a professional, I just have an opinion based on a few years of experience in the resistance training world. The word of caution is to listen to what your body is telling you and do not over train. If you decide to do all the above, you will be more prone to injury due to fatigue. Be smart. Be cautious. Go slowly. Pick one or two of the suggestions and give it a try.

Here is a graphic for three of the options. It adds consistency, and I agree. The only way you will make consistent gains is to be consistent and keep track of your workouts. Write it down or use an ap. But keep track.

progressive overload

There really isn’t just one way of doing progressive overloading properly. As long as you are changing the tension that you are putting the muscles under, you should continue to see growth.

Should I Use Progressive Overload Now?progressive overload

If I am being honest, and I always am, I would have to say that we are always using progressive overload when we work out. Every time we increase the weight from one work out to the next, or add one more rep, or just slow down the tempo for the last set of the workout, we are technically progressively overloading the muscle we are working on.

I wanted to dedicate this article to the process of progressive overload in case you have hit a plateau and can’t seem to gain any muscle. I am at that point. I have been working out for two and a half years, four to six times a week, and I am at the point where I am not gaining any muscle mass.

I am starting to use some of the techniques mentioned above in the hope that they will stimulate some growth.

If you are at a point where your growth has stopped, then perhaps a bit of a shake up in the routine is needed and one or two of these techniques may work for you.

Last Words

So there you have it.

Progressive overload began as a way to decrease the rehabilitation times of WW2 patients in the hospital and hasprogressive overload progressed to be a very real way of increasing the growth of our muscles. Excellent.

Thanks for listening.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

Also, if you are a father (or mother) (or anyone for that matter) who would like an easy to follow program that includes a menu and work out information, check out this article from a few months ago.

See you in the next post.

Have a great day!


Tom Fitzsimmons

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