As a bodybuilder, one of the most basic yet crucial concepts you need to understand and apply is that of progressive overload. In the simplest of terms, if you are not increasing the demands that you place on your body over time when exercising, your muscles will never get either stronger or physically larger past a certain point. Once your muscles adapt to the stress being placed on them, they have no further need to grow – leading to a plateau in size and strength. At first your own body weight will provide the resistance you need to build muscle, as you learn to control it. You will make huge gains at first but you will soon need to start making decisions about progressive overload and how to implement it, as you notice the plateau.
A practical example of progressive overload can be shown like this: you have been performing bicep exercises for the same number of sets with the same weight. You are now starting to find this weight easier to lift, you know you could easily do more reps and your biceps have stopped growing. This is because your body has got used to moving the weight, your muscles are no longer challenged and so have stopped growing. If you were to carry on lifting the same weight for the same number of reps for the next twenty five years you still wouldn’t see any extra gains! Your body now needs progressive overload placed on it at this point to grow in size and strength. There are a number of ways you are able to place an extra stressor on it:
Increase the resistance:
The most obvious way is to increase the weight progressively as you get stronger. Look out for the point where you are able to easily perform more repetitions than your target – this is a good indication you are able to add more resistance. Record the progress you are making with each muscle as you get stronger.
Increase the repetitions:
You can increase the number of repetitions performed for any given exercise. Use a spotter if necessary to try and achieve extra reps – when you can do them comfortably and confidently by yourself, it’s time to add more resistance!
Increase the number of sets:
For any given exercise, add more sets. If you usually do 2 sets, add an extra 1, or even 2 to completely wear out your muscles.
Increase your training frequency:
You may find the training a certain muscle group or individual muscle once a week, in line with the traditional approach is not enough and you are not achieving the best results. This is where increasing the frequency can help – you will also find this particular method of adding progressive overload will really help if you have a weak muscle or one that is lagging.
Introduce new exercises:
Add in new exercises for a certain muscle group or muscle. Variation is important, it keeps your routine fresh so you don’t get bored and it also keeps your body guessing – leading to muscle growth.
Increase the intensity:
Increasing intensity refers to increasing the effort you put into every set. This is perhaps the most important way to create progressive overload – increasing the effort you put into every set means more weight lifted and an overall more beneficial workout.
Decrease your rest time:
This refers to decreasing the rest time between completed sets. For example, if you usually rest for 2 minutes between sets, cut this down to 1 minute, 30 seconds. This forces your body to adapt its metabolic rate, meaning by-products of your workout (toxins like lactic acid) are flushed out more quickly and efficiently. The end result is that you are able to lift more weight, in less time.
There are further vital components of progressive overload that also need to be considered – correct nutrition and the need for proper rest and recovery. You can see the importance of these come into play when you consider how (and when) muscles get bigger over time – you do not increase in size and strength when you are physically working out at the gym. They get bigger when your muscle fibres heal themselves in your rest time. This means your rest periods are even more important now that you are utilizing progressive overload. Striking the balance between progressive overload and rest is absolutely vital – muscles are easily over trained, resulting in the actual breakdown of the muscle tissue (catabolism).
A very effective method of ensuring your body gets enough rest is to use a deload week, usually once every 3-4 weeks. A deload week doesn’t mean you avoid the gym altogether. During a deload week your focus should be on allowing your body time to heal, but you also need to keep up the habit of exercise, by working out at around 40% of what you would usually undertake. This is also an excellent time to nurture any injuries you may have picked up. Consider yoga or deep tissue massage – although they may be seen as unusual treatments for a bodybuilder, they can really help stimulate blood flow and improve flexibility, reducing the chances of future injury. Remember as well, correct nutrition is also really important during this time – eating correctly ensures you will experience maximum muscle gain.
When you are considering how progressive overload can be put to work for you, you first of all need to have a look at your current fitness programme and goals you wish to achieve with it. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach with progressive overload – some priorities will be important to some people, others not so much. The most methodical approach would be to incorporate each one into your programme at different times to see how your body reacts to each one, and which ones work best. You may also find it useful to keep a journal, charting your progress and the different routines you have used. Remember, whatever your fitness goals are, your programme always needs to reflect them!