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One reason people hire a personal trainer is to help them build muscle. For some, increasing muscular strength is most important. Others are more interested in boosting muscle size or improving muscle endurance.
Progressive overload training is important to hitting all these goals. Learn more about what progressive overload is, why it’s important for building muscle, and how to use this type of training in your clients’ workout programs.
Progressive overload involves increasing the load placed on muscle during training, forcing it to adapt. These muscular adaptations result in growth. This concept is so foundational to making resistance training gains that it is often referred to as the overload principle.
There are a few ways to overload the muscle during weight training. One is to lift a heavier weight. Using this approach, the muscle must work harder to perform the exercise, even when doing the same number of sets and reps.
Another option is to continue lifting the same amount of weight, increasing repetitions instead. If the typical repetition count is 8 to 10, for example, you might change the rep range to 12 to 15. Research indicates that this progressive overload approach provides similar muscle growth as increasing load. In addition to increasing reps, you can also increase sets. This increases training volume.
You can also place more stress on the muscle fiber by increasing the duration of the training session or increasing the training frequency. In the first instance, you might work each muscle group for 20 minutes instead of 15. In the latter, you could engage in strength training three times per week instead of two.
Finally, reducing the rest period boosts exercise intensity. The muscle has less time to recover before doing another rep or set. This helps boost strength. And if the progression from one exercise to the next is fast enough, it also helps support fat loss.
Continuing to make these types of changes to a workout plan is what progressive overload is all about. It involves modifying some aspect of the strength training program to promote progression continuously over time.
The most obvious benefits of progressive overload are that it increases muscle hypertrophy, also boosting the growth of lean muscle mass. This helps your client continue to get results from their workout. Yes, hitting plateaus is part of the training process. But if clients are stuck for any length of time, progressive overload can help them inch forward once again.
Making progress is critical to staying motivated. There’s not much incentive to stick to their exercise program if they’re not seeing results week after week. This increases the risk that they’ll quit their routine altogether. Yet, the progress they continue to make by continuing to overload the muscle inspires them to keep going. They’re willing to keep putting in the effort because they can see the muscle gain.
There are even more reasons to use this training method. In one 2019 study, 52 female teens who were overweight or obese engaged in one of two exercise programs that each utilized progressive overload training principles. Participants in both groups experienced numerous benefits, some of which included:
improved aerobic and anaerobic fitness
better motor coordination and balance
increased strength in the knee extensors, plantar flexors, and ankle dorsiflexors
greater functional strength in the lower extremity
enhanced manual dexterity
A report published in The Journal of Frailty & Aging in 2020 adds that progressive overload can also provide benefits for older, pre-frail females—especially when making the association between exercise and functional movements. As an example, it mentions how squats can make it easier to sit down on (and get up from) the toilet. Applying progression to this exercise can make these movements easier to perform.
Overloading is necessary to make gains in fitness and athletic performance. However, there are some important issues associated with this principle, both what can happen if you don’t do it at all and if you don’t do it right.
Hitting a Plateau while Ignoring the Overload Principle
The obvious issue with ignoring the overload principle is the failure to make gains. If you continue to do the same workout or train at the same intensity and frequency, you will make gains only to a certain point. After that, you are not overloading the muscles and hit a plateau with no further improvements or adaptations.
This happens because our bodies are very good at adapting to stress. Initially, for your newbie client, that five-pound weight provides a good amount of stress. The client gets stronger quickly. But over time, the level of stress needed to make new adaptations rises so high the five-pound weights just don’t cut it.
Overreaching and Overtraining Stress
On the other hand, if you use the overload principle in the wrong way, say by increasing intensity too quickly, you get into a state of overreaching or overtraining. Overreaching is a short-term problem, a decrease in physical performance that takes days to overcome.
Overtraining is a more sustained period of excessive training stress. It can take weeks to months to recover from this state of decreased performance. Some signs of overtraining you should watch out for include:
Increased resting heart rate.
Increased blood pressure.
Loss of appetite and weight loss.
Emotional changes or mood swings.
Chronic muscle soreness.
Extended recovery times.
If you’re new to using progressive overload with your clients, here are a few tips to help you get started:
Aim for slow progression.
Increasing the client’s training volume too quickly will also increase their injury risk. It doesn’t take a lot to overload the muscle. So, aim for small increments. If they currently use a 5-pound weight, for instance, increase the weight to 7 pounds. If their rep count is between 8 and 10, kick it up to a range of 10 to 12. Go slow to keep from damaging the muscle by pushing it too hard too fast.
Keep in mind the client’s goals.
Does the client want to boost muscle strength or size, for instance? The way you would apply progressive overload varies with each. If they want to increase strength, this would involve increasing the weight used, reducing rep count, and lengthening the rest period between sets. If the goal is to make the muscle bigger, the use of a heavier weight would also be required. However, the rep count would go up instead of down and the rest period would go down instead of up. Maybe they want muscular endurance. This involves decreasing the weight used while increasing reps.
Only modify one aspect of the training at a time.
Once the client has stopped achieving gains, increase the weight they use, add another resistance training session to the week, or make a different modification. Don’t change all these areas at once. Only do one at a time. When they’re comfortable with the one progression, change something else.
There are several ways you can make sure your client is overloading and not hitting a plateau. Essentially these strategies all involve increasing some factor of a workout. These different factors together make up what is known as the FITT principle:
Frequency. Frequency is the number of times your client works out, usually measured per week. Increasing frequency could mean going from one to two lifting sessions per week, for instance.
Intensity. This is how hard your client is working during a training session. For strength training, you can increase the intensity by using progressively heavier weights. In aerobic activities, measuring heart rate is a good way to monitor increasing intensity.
Time. The time spent doing a particular exercise, like lifting or running, can be increased to progress and overload.
Type. Type refers to the actual, specific exercise your client is doing. You can vary the exact type of strength exercises, for instance, to overload a particular muscle or muscle group. For instance, add leg presses to squats to overload leg muscles.
It’s important to vary the factors that you change for your client. For instance, one day you may focus on increasing intensity by using heavier weights. In the next session, try to focus on another strategy, like increasing the time spent on weights.
For aerobic adaptations, for instance, for a client who is a runner, work on intensity one day, using heart rate or interval training, and increase time with a long slow run on another day in the same week. Mixing up how you overload the body can help to minimize the risk of hitting a plateau on gains.
Overloading should always be progressive and gradual. Increasing intensity, reps, frequency, and other elements of training too quickly is dangerous. It can cause injuries, lead to muscle soreness, and of course, cause overtraining. Follow these guidelines when planning overload for your clients to keep it safe and progressive:
It is essential that progression occurs gradually. You can’t go from five-pound weight bicep curls one week to 20 pounds the next without increasing the risk of injury and overreaching or overtraining. Make a careful plan for how to increase workout factors that is not too abrupt.
For strength training, work on form before moving on to a bigger weight. A safe way to progress with weights is to start with upping time and frequency before intensity. Once your client has mastered a particular movement with safe, good form, start slowly increasing the weight for more intensity.
Test your client’s maximums to decide on weight amounts and appropriate increases in intensity.
It’s also important to keep a log of training sessions and how you are increasing frequency, intensity, time, and type.
Plan for recovery time. This is when gains happen, and it helps avoid overtraining and injury. Recovery can be an active rest day, with a gentle workout like a walk, but it can also involve alternating easy and hard workouts.
Don’t let your client burn out when training. Working out to collapse or exhaustion is never healthy and is more likely to lead to overtraining.
Learn more: How To Determine Rest Periods Between High-Intensity Sets
What does a resistance training program look like when progressive overload is applied? Here are some examples to consider.
Example #1: Progression Through Weight Increases
Your client is currently doing triceps extensions with a weight of 60 pounds. To help them progress, increase the weight to 65 pounds for a few weeks. Once that feels easy to them, increase the weight to 70 pounds. Continue increasing the weight in 5-pound increments, making these increases every 3-4 weeks.
Example #2: Progression Through Rep Increases
On lower body days, you typically have your client do 8 to 10 squats. Increase their rep range to 10 to 12. Next, increase it to 12 to 15. Once they’re doing the desired number of reps, you might start increasing their sets. Just remember to not increase their reps and sets at the same time. And when you start increasing their sets, drop their rep count back down. This will help prevent overloading the muscle too much.
Example #3: Progression Through Training Session Increases
If your client has hit a plateau, increase the duration of their training session. Instead of working out for 45 minutes, have them exercise for 50 minutes. Then increase this amount to 55 minutes, followed by an hour.
You also increase the number of sessions completed per week. If you currently train with them two times per week, kick it up to three. If they currently train three, take it up to four. (If they are resistance training four days per week, be sure to structure their program in a way where the muscle groups you work will have adequate time to recover.)
One way to avoid overtraining from overloading is to apply periodization to your client’s workouts. To get results from overloading, you don’t actually want your client to progress linearly. It is not a good idea to simply make every workout harder, faster, or longer than the previous one. There should be more variation, which is the idea of periodization in training.
Periodization is the specific planning of training cycles. It is a necessary way to train to accommodate the overload principle. In order to progress and make gains, you have to vary workouts to overload the body. But you also need to accommodate the GAS (general adaptation syndrome) principle, which says high-intensity training needs to be followed by low-intensity training or rest.
By periodizing training, you can plan for progressive overload with cycles of more intense, frequent, longer workouts and cycles that are lower in intensity for recovery and rest. There are three types of cycles that go into a periodized training plan:
Macrocycles. The macrocycle is a long period of training, lasting six months to a year. The macrocycle may coincide with a sports season, like summer and fall running races, or culminate in one event, like a fitness competition. Your client will have large, overarching goals for the macrocycle, like running a marathon in a certain time.
Mesocycles. A macrocycle is divided into three to four mesocycles, lasting a couple of weeks to a month. These cycles can hit specific smaller goals, like running a 10k, then a half marathon. They may focus on specific aspects of training, like strength or hypertrophy for lifting.
Microcycles. These shorter cycles last just about a week but maybe two weeks. Each microcycle is the detailed workouts you plan for your client, keeping the larger goals and focuses in mind.
Periodization allows you to vary your client’s overall workout and take advantage of overload with appropriate periods of rest or low-intensity activities. Changing up the focus of each mesocycle and varying sessions within each microcycle provides enough overload, variation, and recovery time to help meet the overall macrocycle goals.
The overload principle is a crucial, foundational idea in fitness. If you don’t overload the body, you will never see gains in muscle strength, endurance, and size or aerobic fitness. Over-stress the body and you will over-train and see a decline in performance or even get injured.
Finding the right balance is essential for careful and effective progression. And when combined with periodization in a good training plan, you can help your clients overload the right way, making important fitness gains and hitting athletic and performance goals.
Strength training is a process. Learn more ways to maximize this process by becoming an ISSA Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach. This course increases your understanding of human kinetics, enabling you to apply this knowledge to your client’s training program for improved gains in muscle strength, size, endurance, and power.
Click HERE to download this handout and share with your clients!
Plotkin D, Coleman M, Van Every D, Maldonado J, Oberlin D, Israetel M, Feather J, Alto A, Vigotsky AD, Schoenfeld BJ. 2022. Progressive overload without progressing load? The effects of load or repetition progression on muscular adaptations. PeerJ 10:e14142 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.14142
Bonney, Emmanuel PT, PhD; Ferguson, Gillian PT, PhD; Burgess, Theresa PT, PhD; Smits-Engelsman, Bouwien PT, PhD. Benefits of Activity-Based Interventions Among Female Adolescents Who Are Overweight and Obese. Pediatric Physical Therapy: October 2019 - Volume 31 - Issue 4 - p 338-345 doi: 10.1097/PEP.0000000000000636
Bray, N., Jones, G., Rush, K. et al. Practical Implications for Strength and Conditioning of Older Pre-Frail Females. J Frailty Aging 9, 118–121 (2020). https://doi.org/10.14283/jfa.2020.15
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