It is simply impossible to write an article on everything that the term “progressive overload” covers. It can get pretty detailed, very personalized, and it is my belief that reading every piece of literature ever published on the topic would be undoubtedly overwhelming for the general fitness enthusiast.
An article on the exact steps outlining how a person should progress their fitness program, i.e. “Take 10 seconds off your mile pace time per week” or “Add 15 lbs to your squat every time you lift” is not a one-size-fits-all article. The art and science of progressive overload is based on each individual, his/her fitness level, and the goal in mind. If I were to give you, the reader, specific instructions around this, I would need to be with you while you train, watching your form and execution on a regular basis.
However, there are some basic principles that can help guide you to successful progressive overload.
1. Find & pay attention to your starting point: The only way to progress is to first figure out where you are progressing FROM. In other words, where is the starting line? Figure out what you can do RIGHT NOW with perfect form. Each person will be starting out at a different place. Person A may need to begin with simple hip hinging drills for proper mobility, and Person B may start by Deadlifting 95lbs with proper form. Where do you fall in this spectrum? Be honest about your starting point. You can only go up from here.
2. Progression comes in many forms: There several types of progressive overload:
- Increase in Range of Motion (ROM)
- Increase in number of reps (volume)
- Increase in load (heavier weights)
- Increase in number of sets
- Increase in speed/acceleration
- Increase in frequency of lifting same load and volume (more days/week)
- Decrease in total time of lifting a load
Be aware that you may be achieving progressive overload in a fashion you might not be “looking for.” You may struggle to go from 25 to 30 lbs on your Kettlebell Sumo Squat, but you’ve been tacking on an extra rep with the 25lbs for the past 5 sets. You’re still achieving progressive overload!
3. Form over Fatigue: Never let your form waver just to bust through another rep when you’re tired. True progression is all based on proper technical form, so be aware of any breakdowns in form, and regress the exercise accordingly. There will always be next time.
4. Progression, like life, is always in flux: Do not let yourself forget that! Just because you reach a new Personal Record on a 5k today, doesn’t mean you will forevermore only be faster. Progression happens in flux and is not a linear process. Variables such as fatigue, stress, fluctuation in weight, nutrition, etc. all play a part in whether you can go little bit further on any given day and progress to a new record. If it doesn’t happen, don’t push it. Injuries are NEVER worth trying to make your ego bigger.
5. Write, record, measure: Folks who are serious about goals, be it a faster 5k or a personal record on a back squat, will all do one thing: record their efforts and progress. Keep a notebook with you and write down what you did on each day. Take notes on what you excelled at and what you struggled with. Review your notes. Make appropriate changes the next time. If you’re always tracking and recording, you will show up prepared and have the best shot at doing better.
6. You must always measure the same thing: By this I mean, you must execute lifts, exercises, runs, etc. in the same fashion every single time. As they say, you can’t compare apples with oranges. This is another reason to learn how to lift, run, etc. properly. Do NOT trust the guy/girl at the gym who looks tan and has a six-pack. Find a qualified professional: a personal trainer, a coach, etc. to teach some foundational basics. Learn how to do something properly or you’ll make a habit of doing it poorly.
“Practice does not always make perfect. Practice makes permanent”
Progressive overload, or progression, can mean many things to many people. It can be detailed and very specific, or it can simply mean “movin’ on up!”
For the average fitness enthusiast, keeping the above points in mind, it will be something that can successfully be implemented into a workout program to yield great results.