Originally published on January 21, 2013
Progressive overload is a term that is used a lot in strength training. We can’t define progressive overload, for strength training, or any other type of training, until we define the word overload.
What is Overload?
Overload is simply an increase in the total work performed that is above that which you would encounter from day to day. For instance, walking up and down the stairs at work several times a day would not constitute overload, as the amount of work continues to be the same from one day to the next. So overload could be applied by adding a load to the body while walking the stairs, walking at a faster pace, or walking up more flights of stairs, etc.
Overload Alone Is Not Enough
However, if you apply “overload” to walking up the stairs, by say, walking up a couple more flights than usual, and you do this every day for a week, your body will adapt. The body, after all, continually adapts to the demands placed on it. So, if you stop adding anything to those demands — that is, you stop adding more flights of stairs — it is not progressive overload. Since the body continually adapts to the demands placed upon it, the amount of work must be gradually increased after previous workloads have been adapted to. If there is no progressive increase — you don’t walk up more and more stairs — there will be no further change in fitness.
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Basic Ways to Apply Progressive Overload
So, let’s continue with the stair walking example, as, although this is a mundane everyday activity for many of us, it is actually a very good exercise! I said you could walk at a faster pace. That would mean that you changed the intensity. You could also add external weight to the body, or walk up steeper stairs, if possible. As well, you could add more stairs — more flights. That would mean that the duration, and the volume of the exercise increased. Also, you could walk up the same amount of stairs, but do it more often. This increases frequency, and that would increase fitness as well. The three basic ways, then, to apply progressive overload are increases in frequency (how often you do it), intensity (how “hard” you do it…intensity is a tough one to pin down for all types of training), and time (how long you do it — this may also be the same as volume, since to train for longer, means a larger volume of training).
Without Specificity, Progressive Overload is Meaningless
Now, let’s say that you stopped walking up the stairs, but instead walked on a flat path, or tiptoed through the tulips, or what have you. Even if you did it for a longer time, or more often, it’s not progressive overload. It may change your fitness, but not for walking up stairs. This has to do with specificity. Without specificity, progressive overload is meaningless. You see, walking across a flat surface and walking up stairs, if you want to get better at either of them, are specific performance goals. Sure, they are very closely related activities, and they are both good exercise, but working on one does not do a very good job at making you better at the other. Specificity means that the stimulus that is applied must be appropriate to the performance goal being sought. For example, it would make no sense for a sprinter to regularly increase the distance ran, as this would violate specificity. Even though the increasing distance would still constitute progressive overload, it would be progressive overload applied to a brand new performance goal. If you don’t have a specific performance goal, then talking about progressive overload becomes meaningless. Therefore, part of the concept of progressive overload is that it cannot occur unless the type of exercise remains constant.
FITT – Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type of Exercise
The parameters that can be changed to constitute progressive overload, frequency, intensity, and time, together with the need for the type of exercise to remain constant, gave rise to the acronym FITT.
Progressive Overload in Strength Training
In strength training, progressive overload can be applied in specific ways, and we can use more specific terms to describe them. You can use more external resistance, as in more weight on the bar, for a given volume of exercise. You can do more repetitions of an exercise, or more sets of exercise. Training density can also be manipulated by decreasing the amount of time in which a given volume of exercise is performed, such as by decreasing the rest periods between sets. This means you do more “volume” but you compress this into shorter and shorter time periods, making the training more “dense” (increase in density). Let’s say you can do 5 bench presses with 100lbs. If you add 5lbs, and do 5 reps, that is a form of overload. If you add 5 more on the next session, that is progressive overload. If you keep the weight the same, but add more reps, that is also progressive overload. All of these are not always appropriate to every goal but they can all be applied at some point in a training career, and much of the time they are mixed together, because manipulating one thing can lead to the ability to increase the other, etc. and all this taken together can help you add overall strength.
So, I’ve given you the technical definition of progressive overload. That is more or less what you’ll find in the physiology books, and the biomechanics books, and all sorts of books written on general fitness and health. Now, I’m going to critique the term, and turn it on its head, by talking about how it is used in popular information about strength training.
How Important is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload is one of those jargon terms that is just thrown around a lot, but becomes quite meaningless. It really seems to be a requirement to use the term in most strength training articles, and there is rarely a clear idea of how the general concept really extends itself to all the various things we do within a training career. It’s too vague. Basically, it means “progressively doing more” and this means more quantity of some training parameter. Big deal, so what? I’ve mentioned many times that most people, if left to their own devises in resistance training will do “more” each time without even being told. And, you may see people asking questions about how to get stronger or fitter, and they say, I do the same thing every single time in the gym…so how do I get better? See, they already know they aren’t supposed to be doing the same thing. They understand that getting more fit means doing more in some way, they just don’t know how, or are hesitant.
This is NOT the Goal of Strength Training!
But, that is not my problem with the overuse of the term in strength training. My problem is when we are told the goal of training for strength is progressive overload. No, it IS not. Progressive overload itself is not a performance goal! We are talking about maximum strength, here.
The Goal of Strength Training is to Increase Your 1RM
What is the goal for training for maximum strength? Increasing your 1RM…lifting as much as possible for one rep. Lifting heavier, and heavier weights. Getting a personal record, or a PR, as we call it, is the GOAL! Progressively overloading your body is a TRAINING TOOL! And this tool may help lead to achieving the goal. Now, sometimes lifting a heavier weight is progressive overload in itself. And it may just so happen that this heavier weight is also a PR, right? But, most of the time, we separate testing for performance — that is when we “max out” and go for a PR — from our actual day to day training. At least in our minds.
Not Every Type of Training Has to Constitute Progressive Overload!
Maxing out, in itself, is a really good thing to do and it may not constitute progressive overload. So that illustrates how the usual ways described to apply progressive overloads are indeed training tools, but may not the ONLY training tools.
It is also quite possible to derive benefit from other changes in training that are not, technically, progressive overload. For example, it may be very useful to increase the weight you use on the bar even if you must use less volume. Since the volume is not maintained with the increased weight, we cannot really say this is progressive overload, but since applying more load to the muscles and requiring them to exert more force than before has its own benefit, this may still be progressive. So, you see that “progress” does NOT always come in the form of overload.
The reason I am saying this is because I am seeing this trend where people say “I am not going to chase PR’s and obsess over numbers and progressive overload anymore.” I’ve probably said this in talks and articles before because it bugs me so much. Chasing PR’s and obsessing over progressive overload are not the same thing at all. They are two different things. To be clear, I do not believe in chasing numbers, either. But the language tells the tale. Those who believe they have been chasing numbers probably had unrealistic expectations of getting PR’s every week or something similar. When this fails to come to be the reality there is this mental backlash and they throw out the baby with the bathwater. Striving to achieve a goal is not “chasing” something because to chase something means that you are desperate. It’s the desperation that needs to go, not the PR’s. Realistic expectations, always.
Apply It, But Keep the Primary Goal in Mind
And here is the biggest problem. When we talk about progressive overload as if it is the whole point, and we never talk about the actual act of achieving a new performance goal, we are talking nonsense. Remember that progressive overload can only really be applicable to a specific performance goal. The goal of a sprinter is to run faster. Sprinters might engage in all sorts of training, and a lot of that is the basic act of trying to run the sprint faster, but regardless, they never, ever, get the training tools confused with the goal. Strength training is the ONLY discipline where the training tools get confused with the goal. It’s the only discipline where words like progressive overload become more important than words like performance. I think that most of us strength trainees, we don’t want to say “I feel stronger” or “I might be stronger because I progressed in training.” We want to BE stronger and to know it when we lift a heavier weight than ever before.