As a fitness professional who spends many of his waking hours in a fitness facility either training others or training himself, I tend to see many habits or hear discussions between members that make me cringe or bite my tongue.
One of my biggest irritations is the gym member who comes in 5 to 7 times a week for more than an hour at a time (usually mostly socialization), does the same exact full body workout with the same exact weight, sets, repetitions and lackluster effort for years and years. And of course their body never changes in appearance.
From my experience it seems that these individuals either mistakenly tell themselves that it takes years to notice any change from weight training and accept it as the way it is, while others on the other hand get discouraged at seeing no results and quit all together.
Granted there are also those that workout merely to maintain their current physical condition by maintaining what lean muscle tissue they have and by keeping the bodyfat off, but it definitely shouldn't take 5-7 hours a week to achieve this goal unless anything resembling a nutrition plan is nonexistent.
For those individuals whose efforts are to change the appearance of their bodies, the main reason for failure is EFFORT, or lack thereof. Instead of creating progressive overload or forcing the body to do more than it's accustomed to, they simply go through the motions and maintain what they have.
The human body will not change unless you force it to. As with all things in life, you get back what you put in and if you're not putting in the effort to your training that is needed then you don't stand a chance at reaping the body changing rewards of resistance training.
What Is Progressive Overload?
This principal refers to continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system in order to continually make gains in muscle size, strength and endurance. In simplest terms - In order to get bigger and stronger you must continually lift more and more and make your muscles work harder than they are used to. If you don't, your muscles will not become any stronger or bigger than they currently are.
Conversely, if the demands on your muscles are not at least maintained and are actually decreased, your muscles will become smaller and weaker. Progressive overload is a very simple concept but it is crucial - it lays the foundation upon which resistance training is built.
The progressive overload principal doesn't just apply to resistance training and increasing muscle growth and strength, it can also be applied to increasing bone and connective tissue strength (through resistance training) as well as cardiovascular fitness and the associated physiological changes that take place through a progressive cardiovascular exercise program.
An Example Of Progressive Overload
Say you perform 1 set of the biceps barbell curl for 20 pounds at 8RM (8 repetitions maximum), but as your training progresses 1 set of 20 pounds for 8 repetitions becomes easier and easier and your biceps size have grown since you first started but they have reached a plateau and stopped getting bigger.
What has happened is your biceps muscles have adapted to the demands you placed on them but there is no longer a need for them to try to get bigger and stronger because the demands are no longer sufficient enough. Even if you continued performing 1 set of 20 pounds for 8 repetitions for the rest of your life, your strength and muscle size would never improve beyond a certain point.
In order for your biceps muscles to get even bigger and stronger than they presently are you need to place even more demands on them. And so on and so on until you've reached your genetic potential.
7 Ways To Create Progressive Overload
#1-6 are ways to increase training "volume" or make the muscle(s) do more total work.
#7 is a way to make your muscle(s) do more work in less time.
1 - Increase Resistance
Progressively increase the weight you lift as you become stronger and the weight becomes easier. A good indicator of when to increase the resistance is when you are able to perform more than your target repetitions (e.g. your lifting program calls for sets of 10 repetitions but you are able to get 11).
2 - Increase Sets
Increase the number of sets you perform for a given exercise. Instead of 2 or 3 sets maybe you'll want to increase to 3 or 4 in order to really fatigue the muscle(s).
3 - Increase Repetitions
Increase the number of repetitions you perform for a given exercise. Don't stop yourself at some magical number - Push yourself to do 1 or 2 more reps with the aid of a spotter if necessary. If you are able to get those extra reps completely by yourself and it is higher than your target rep range then you know it's time to increase the resistance.
4 - Increase Frequency
Increase how often you train a certain muscle or muscle group. This technique is most useful for improving lagging or weak muscles or muscle groups. The traditional approach to training a muscle or muscle group only once a week may not be sufficient enough for every individual to make continual gains.
Learn to listen to your body and make sure that muscles have had enough time to recuperate between training sessions before increasing frequency. Every once in a while though it could be useful to train muscles even if they haven't fully recovered in order to shock them and keep them guessing.
5 - Increase Exercises
Increase the number of exercises you perform for a certain muscle or muscle group with the addition of a new one to your current program.
This technique works well if you are trying to add symmetry to a muscle group by increasing the size of individual muscles or parts of muscles within a muscle group (e.g. if the long head of your triceps is smaller than it should be in proportion to the lateral and medial head you may want to include an additional exercise to your triceps routine that targets the long head)
6 - Increase Intensity
Increase your perceived exertion or how much effort you put into every set. This is the most important factor for creating progressive overload.
Increased effort and intensity for every single set translates into more weight lifted and/or more repetitions performed and thus a more productive workout because your muscles have been pushed beyond what they are used to. The help of a good training partner, or at the very least a trusted spotter, may be crucial for you to achieve this.
A good training partner will serve to push you harder and keep you on task if you are not easily internally motivated.
A spotter will serve to prevent injury, help you with an extra rep or two, as well as eliminate any subconscious thoughts of getting stuck with a heavy weight on your chest or throat or falling with a crashing thud in the squat rack.
7 - Decrease Rest Time
Decreasing the rest time between consecutive sets will force your body to adapt metabolically by removing toxins and other byproducts of anaerobic exercise (weight lifting) faster and more efficiently over time. Eventually you will be able to lift more in less time.
Making Progressive Overload Work For You
You need to take a good look at your current fitness program and fitness goals and determine which of the 7 ways described above are going to be best for you to create progressive overload. You may want to incorporate all of these methods into your program at one time or another to see how your body responds and see which works best for you. Incorporating various methods at various times will also serve to keep your body confused and growing.
While factors such as increasing total volume will be important to a bodybuilder, decreasing the rest time between sets coupled with higher repetitions may be more beneficial for endurance athletes or individuals concerned with muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness rather than gains in strength and power. The technique(s) you use should fit in line with your fitness goals.
If you're an endurance athlete and muscular endurance is important to you, then maybe you'll want to increase the repetitions first rather than increasing the resistance. If your strength is important to you, then maybe you'll want to increase the resistance first instead of the repetitions. Prioritize what is important to you.
If you increase your overall intensity be sure to listen to your body and know when its time to back off. Training less frequently may help with your intensity - your rest days will allow both your body and your mind to rest.
Whatever progressive overload technique(s) you incorporate make sure it fits in line with your fitness goals, your program is designed correctly so as to avoid overtraining, and you enjoy what you do.