Kamal Singh CSCS: Understanding progressive overload

How can this simple concept help you lose weight or guide you through you fitness regime? And how does your body react to it?
Progressive overload is nothing more than doing slightly more than last time (Shutterstock)
Progressive overload is nothing more than doing slightly more than last time (Shutterstock)
Updated on Oct 02, 2021 10:51 PM IST
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By Kamal Singh CSCS

“You must add weight weekly to your lifts to improve strength and increase muscle mass.”

Recently I heard a popular weight training guru say the above as the definition of the most important principle of weight training – progressive overload. That statement is wrong on so many levels that I do not know where to begin. In fact, it is “gurus” like these who are responsible for so many trainees getting stuck, plateauing or even regressing in their strength and muscle gain goals. But first let us define what exactly is progressive overload.

The principle of progressive overload

Progressive overload is nothing more than doing slightly more than last time. This increase causes the body to adapt by increasing the size of the muscles and the efficiency of the nervous system to handle the new stress. Overload can be achieved by increasing the weight on the bar, increasing the number of repetitions and changing the speed of performing the repetitions.

•Most trainees see adding weight to the bar as the only way to improve in the gym. In fact, because of the wrong advice given the “experts”, they try to increase the weight every week or even every workout! The body does not work in a linear fashion. Adding weight may not be possible every week. Also, most are loath to add a small amount–they try to add 5-10 kgs! This is a good way to hamper your progress as these huge jumps might be possible in the beginning phase and then progress stops! Technique is also sacrificed on the altar of adding weight. The body will compensate and you end up using muscles other than those being targeted.

•Increasing repetitions are also a way of progressive overload. Even a single repetition increase with the same weight from week to week is good progress. Most trainers will dismiss this as too slow but, in my book, slow is good. Adding repetitions has other benefits like increasing capillarization which would improve flow of nutrients to the cells. Upping repetitions also leads to improvements in strength endurance and we can all do with greater strength endurance!

•Progressive overload is also achieved if you can move the weight with higher speed without losing control. The weight you were struggling to move earlier, now can be moved with ease shows increase in strength!

•Some trainees also make a mistake by adding more sets with the same weight and think that they are progressing! Increasing volume like this might increase muscle size but it is an inefficient way and usually leads to excessive fatigue and problems with recovery.

If you can go up by two to three repetitions with the same weight and good form, then it is time to up the weight (Shutterstock)
If you can go up by two to three repetitions with the same weight and good form, then it is time to up the weight (Shutterstock)

Using progressive overload

A trainee needs to earn the right to increase the weight on the bar. There are no arbitrary rules that every trainee must increase load every week. The correct way to use the principle of progressive overload in the gym is as follows:

•First master or control the weight you are using. If the ease of handling the weight goes up, then the required adaptation has occurred and weight can be added to the bar.

•If you can go up by two to three repetitions with the same weight and good form, then it is time to up the weight.

•Everybody is in a rush these days and this shows up in the gym too. Slow cook your progress. Find the smallest plates in your gym to add to the bar. According to Strength Coach Christian Thibaudeau, the average trainee’s strength increases at a pace of 2% per week. For example, if you can squat 50 kgs for 10 repetition in week 1, then week 2, you should be able to squat 51 kgs for 10 repetitions, not 60 kgs for 10! This would lead to continuous gains and not stagnation or even injury.

Progressive overload is the most important principle in the world of fitness. But it is more art than science when it comes to applying it. Keep the above points in your mind when working out and this principle will help you achieve good results. But it must be used intelligently. Now go and do it.

Kamal Singh is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who has been coaching for 15 years

From HT Brunch, October 3, 2021

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021