Originally published on January 19, 2017
In my article Progressive Overload and Its Application to Strength Training, I stated that the term progressive overload gets thrown around so much in fitness that it loses all meaning. I said that it is too vague and misconstrued. I complained that the goal of progressive overload is often substituted for the actual performance goal, as if these things are one and the same. In many fitness domains, they may be, but in strength training, they are usually not. Progressive overload is a principle. While progressively overloading your body is a training tool, principles themselves are not tools.
This probably seems like a contradiction.
To explain, I’ll use a labored, but hopefully illustrative analogy.
First, what do I mean when I say that a principle is not a tool? A principle that underlies the adaptation to exercise such as progressive overload is not a tool in itself that tells you what to do. It explains WHY what we DO works. Yes, most people explain it as a tool, and most books will list some of the ways that the principle of progressive overload can be applied such as:
- adding volume (more reps and/or more sets)
- adding weight
- decreasing time (shortening rest periods but maintaining volume)
- increasing frequency (doing it more often)
Now, for the analogy part. Let’s say that I tell you that spending too much time in the sun will make your skin turn red and become inflamed. What we call “sunburn.”
So, later on, you come to me and say, man, I got this cleaning fluid on me and my skin turned red and got very irritated! You didn’t tell me that would happen, you said the sun would do that!
OK, the hypothetical “you” is a sort of dumb-ass but, knowing that too much sun exposure would inflame your skin will not necessarily make you understand that other things could inflame your skin in similar ways.
Suppose then that I had explained the underlying physiology. I explain to you the principles behind these reactions of the skin. So, now, are you armed with all the things that may result in inflammatory skin reactions?
Listen to the voice version (video presentation)
You may have a better idea, right? You might know that some examples are noxious chemicals, etc. But, you don’t know every single thing that your skin might possibly react to. How could you? How COULD you? Some things you must learn through observation, experience, even experimentation. You may, beforehand, through your knowledge, have a pretty good idea that a certain thing will result in a bad reaction. But you don’t KNOW. You still have to find out. And other things, they will still surprise you.
This analogy, well it’s the same as for the principles of training! If something WORKS, it is because it obeys the principle. The fact that you failed to predict it would work through your knowledge of the principle does not mean it doesn’t work, and that you are crazy and unscientific.
Some of these things, we know and we can predict. Other things you do which constitute progressive overload may not be as apparent. I’ll relate a story to illustrate.
Back in the day, on one of the bodybuilding forums I was a member of, someone came on and said that he wanted to build up his arms. Mostly biceps, of course. So, he listed his routine and what he had been doing for his biceps. And he said that on non-biceps training days he liked to just throw in some extra sets of biceps here and there. Not always, but sometimes he would do some sets to failure.
So, the board gurus came on and flamed him up good and said, NO, you CANNOT do that! You have to stick to your schedule and if you do biceps on the off-days you won’t be able to progress. And then they explained about progressive overload. The geeks of the board, like me, came on and said, how the hell can you fools be sure that the extra work is NOT progressive? After all, frequency and hypertrophy are good friends.
Do you see the point here? The gurus were very myopic in their viewpoint. Progressive overload is THIS and entails THUS.
As I’ve said in countless articles, principles are not methods. Many methods or changes that you put into your training may well constitute some sort of progressive overload even though you don’t think of it in those terms and even though it doesn’t fit into the neat little package list above. So, the next time someone tells you that you need to use progressive overload, tell them that if you get results then that is exactly what you are doing!