Ever heard of Milo of Croton? A 6th century BC wrestler and a 6 time Olympian, spanning 24 years of competition. Legend has it, he began training by carrying a bull calf daily until the bull hit maturity. This is the epitome (albeit not so simple) of progressive overload. So, you’ve heard of it, but what exactly is it? Chances are if you’re not sure what it is, your training is suffering because of it. If you’ve:
Hit a brick wall
Plateau’d (stopped seeing results)
Become ill, tired or fatigued
Feel run done or lethargic
You’ve not followed or aren’t following the principle of Progressive Overload. Enough of that what ifs, what does it mean? Let’s look at the word progressive : adjective - happening or developing gradually or in stages. Now the word overload : verb - load with too great a burden or cargo. Put them together and translate it to fitness it means: A principle of training that advocates for the gradual increase of the stress placed upon the body’s systems (musculoskeletal and nervous system to be exact) And in Lehman’s terms it means: Gradually progressing what you are doing to reach an ultimate end goal. So how is it done? Let’s take the simple FITT principle. These are some ways in which you can progress one of the variables to equate to “progressive overload” F = Frequency (how often you exercise) I = Intensity (The intensity of your exercise) T = Time (The time you take to exercise) T = Type (The type of exercise you perform) Each of these principles can be adapted to ensure progressive overload. What's more, is that even with minimal equipment and/or increments in weight you can always progressively overload, utilising a number of different variables. Let's take a look! F = increasing the number of sessions per day, week, month, or year will ensure progression. As you put the body through stresses more often, it will need to adapt and recover. Going from one run a week, to 2, to 3. Or hitting chest once, then twice a week will progressively overload! I = Intensity comes in many forms. Increase of weight, reduction of reps, reduction of rest time, time under tension, altering lever length, running or cycling further, faster! All of these will ensure progressive overload takes place. T = The time in which you exercise or the time spent resting can also be manipulated. Extend sessions to last longer, reduce rest time, reduce time between sessions, all variables which will affect the progressive overload of a program. T = The types of exercise performed. If it's resistance training, it’s progressing from machines to free weights, it’s performing different variations such as Negatives, supersets, drop sets. If it’s cardiovascular training, it’s running instead of cycling, rowing instead of running, performing different variations of LSD, HIT, Fartlek, HIIT Remember, the road to running a marathon, hitting a PB, competing in physique, or even the road to fitness itself is a marathon not a sprint. You must always start somewhere and then adapt, GRADUALLY! rather than rush to the finish line. Simply adding 1.25kg a week or running an extra mile a week will add up, ensure you don’t hit a plateau, but also ensure progression isn’t too demanding, ultimately resulting in injury. Forget the ego lifting.... Whatever the goal. Be sure to periodise. Set yourself an end goal, then break this down into what we call cycles. These cycles are usually referred to as micro (weeks) meso (months) and macro (years , often the end goal) but remember, the road to progressive overload isn’t linear. You’ll have great weeks, crap weeks and average weeks, however a good plan (and a good trainer) will understand and implement this, taking into account the GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome)
Every time you progress a variable you become a “beginner” even if for a very short amount of time. The body must then adapt to the new stressor and master it before progressing again and then, once again becoming..... You guessed it, a “beginner” If the body is never introduced to a new stressor, it will plateau. If the stressor is introduced too quickly, you become injured. Remember, progression comes in the form of many variables and often, only one needs to (or should be) manipulated at once - An increase in weight OR decrease in rest time OR introduction of advanced training systems will be enough. If it’s cardiovascular, an increase in distance OR time, or type of training performed will simply be enough. NOT ALL!