Plateau Busting Progressive Overload Program
Progressive overload is what makes muscles grow bigger and stronger. But if you follow a traditional workout routine, your progress will inevitably stall at some point.
After several years of training, I got fed up with spending hours in the gym each week and not seeing progress. Then I realized most workouts only overload your muscles in one way. As a result, we fall short of our strength and size potential.
For that reason, I developed a progressive overload program to break through plateaus. And within 1 year I was able to put on 30 lbs of mass!
So if you’re not getting the results you want from your training, read on to learn how to train smarter and tap into new gains.
What Is Progressive Overload?
Overload is subjecting your body to something it isn’t used to. And this unexpected jolt causes an adaptation response.
In the case of resistance training, your body adapts by building bigger and stronger muscles. Thereby ensuring you can handle similar stress in the future.
Progressive Overload Definition
The gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training
An intentional and sequential increase in physical stress is called progressive overload. When used properly, this progression leads to substantial muscle and strength gains.
One example of progressive overload goes back over 2,500 years. Milos of Croton was six-time Olympic wrestling champion. He was a man of incredible strength and athleticism.
And it’s said that he gained his great strength through one simple strategy. As a boy, Milos decided to pick up a young calf near his home and put it on his shoulders. Each day he went back and put that calf on his shoulders. Then, years later, he was no longer lifting a calf but a full-grown bull.
Of course, this old tale has probably been embellished over the centuries. But the moral of the story is true. When you gradually introduce new challenges, your body adapts to handle the load.
Why Is Progressive Overload Important?
Once your body adapts to something new, you develop a tolerance. And when that happens, your body is resistant to change.
As an example, say you drink a cup of coffee every day for energy. After a while, you develop a tolerance for caffeine. Then you have to drink two cups of coffee to get the same energy boost.
Similarly, your body develops a tolerance for resistance training. At first, you gain muscle with little effort. But, over time, you have to increase your workload in order to continue gaining.
Progressive overload prevents your body from getting used to the stress of training. And that means you continue to grow.
Two Types of Progressive Overload
You’re reading this because your goal is to get stronger and increase muscle mass. But let’s pretend for a moment that you want to improve conditioning and burn fat. So you start a cardio program where you run a mile a day.
After a few weeks, running a mile feels easy and you’ve already lost 10 lbs. So you decide to run 2 miles a day. Then, in a few more weeks, running 2 miles feels easy. But this time you only lost 3 lbs. Eventually, you stop losing weight entirely, even though your conditioning slowly improves.
That’s because the overload is better suited to conditioning than fat burning. Therefore, you need to incorporate a second kind of overload that prioritizes fat burning over endurance. Such as an interval training program designed to burn fat.
In the same way, the goals of muscle strength and muscle growth are not always related. So if you only train for one, you eventually hit a plateau in the other. As a result, you need different types of overload to achieve ongoing gains in strength and growth.
1. Increase Load (Strength)
Like Milo and the calf, the classic example of progressive overload is a gradual increase in load. In other words, the amount of weight you lift. Most likely, this is how you’re used to training.
When you do this day after day, you see steady strength gains. However, as you reach your limits, getting stronger gets harder. So you are incentivized to change your form in order to lift more.
During a heavy squat, for instance, you tend to use a wider stance and place the bar lower on your back. This technique spreads the load to other muscle groups, allowing you to generate more power and lift more weight. Basically, you train your body to become more efficient at moving heavy weight.
Meanwhile, you take some of the load away from specific muscles like the quadriceps. Therefore your quads are no longer directly stimulated and do not continue to grow.
In this case, you get stronger without gaining muscle. And it shows that muscle strength and muscle growth are not always directly related. For that reason, you have to implement the second type of progressive overload to continuously improve.
2. Increase Intensity (Growth)
The second type of overload is about using less weight to do more work. In resistance training, the amount of energy you expend in a given time is called exercise intensity. And intensity increases when you do more work in less time.
As a simple example, consider the amount of work you do in a set of bench press. Work is equal to Force times Distance.
W = F x D
So let’s say you can bench press 250 pounds for 3 repetitions. And for simplicity’s sake, assume you move the bar a distance of 1 foot. Then the amount of work you do in that set is:
250 lbs x 3 reps x 1 ft = 750 ft-lbs
On the other hand, you can also press 200 lbs for 8 reps. So the amount of work you do in that set is:
200 lbs x 8 reps x 1 ft = 1,600 ft-lbs
As you can see, you did about twice as much work even though the weight was less. In addition, it takes less time to recover from lifting moderate weight. So you can take shorter rests between sets.
For instance, in a span of 5 minutes, you might only complete 2 sets with 250 lbs. But you can do 3 sets with 200 lbs. Therefore, the total amount of work you do in 5 minutes is:
750 ft-lbs per set x 2 sets = 1,500 ft-lbs
1,600 ft-lbs per set x 3 sets = 4,800 ft-lbs
So you did over 3x the work in 5 minutes with lower weight! As a result, you shock your muscles into new growth.
Of course, this isn’t to say that intensity is more important than load. Instead, each is a critical component of progressive overload. Therefore, a progressive overload program includes both.
A Progressive Overload Program
Periodization is cycling between different programs in order to achieve greater results. With regards to progressive overload, you should alternate between periods of strength (increasing load) and periods of growth (increasing intensity).
The length of each phase will vary depending on your current state and your final goal. But it’s advisable to stick with any one phase for at least 8 weeks to see the benefits. Furthermore, phases longer than 4-5 months can be counterproductive.
During the strength phase, your priority is heavy weights for lower reps. In other words, use a weight that you can lift for 3-5 reps before failing. In addition, you should rest between sets for around 3 minutes.
In contrast, during the growth phase, you should target moderate weights and reps. That is, weights you can lift for 8-12 reps before failing. And you should rest for 1.5 to 2 minutes between sets. Although it may be tempting to do even lower weight for more reps, studies show sets of more than 20 reps do not result in muscle growth1.
For each phase, you should prioritize either strength or size but not omit the other entirely. For that reason, I recommend at least one exercise using heavy weight, low reps during a growth phase and vice versa.
In addition, it’s not just the weight and reps that affect exercise intensity. In the article below are several techniques that you can add to do more work in less time. Use these to make your workout a little harder each week.
Related Article: High Intensity Training: More Muscle In Less Time
Learning is great, but it doesn’t do you much good if you don’t apply it! So here is a summary of the basic steps you can apply to your next workout and in the coming weeks:
1. Overload your muscles by training in a way they’re not used to
2. Gradually increase the overload to stimulate new gains
3. Alternate phases of training for strength and training for growth
4. Increase load for strength, increase intensity for growth
5. Be consistent – stick with one phase for at least 8 weeks but not more than 5 months
And the next time you’re stuck in a rut, revisit this progressive overload program. It could be the catalyst you need to bust through your plateau. Of course, you’ll get even better results if you combine training with a muscle gain nutrition plan.
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