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A Simplified Case For Progressive Overload

Updated: Jun 29, 2023


A Simplified Case For Progressive Overload

The process of program design can be overwhelming and seem like the possibilities are endless. For a new trainer or coach, sitting and starring at a blank excel spreadsheet with the goal of designing an effective training plan can be paralyzing. Likewise, for the non-fitness professional trying to decide their best route, it can be equally confusing or overwhelming.

Do you try to mimic the program of someone you admire, join a fitness class, or create a program that you hope will bring about your desired outcomes based on what you read or found online? The best answer I can give, is that it depends.

As you move through the ranks from a beginner-elite strength training individual, the requirements to satisfy certain principles in your program design become more and more relevant. Although you may experience improvement from virtually anything in the early years, as you make significant improvements, the structure of the training program as a whole becomes more and more important.

To make this as simple as possible, we are going to discuss 4 primary and well accepted principles that should be considered and accounted for when designing or selecting a training program. These principles govern the program design for ALL elite level individuals, and apply to both strength and power sports (powerlifting, Olympic lifting, strongman, etc…), but also to the development of physical traits in all other sports (cycling, swimming, sprinting, etc…)

The primary principles to be covered in this article series are:

  1. Progressive overload

  2. Accommodation/Variety and the Law of Diminishing Returns

  3. Specificity

  4. Individualization

For the fitness enthusiast who is seeking the best improvements they can achieve for their time and efforts, these principles are equally important. So let’s dive into principle 1- progressive overload.

Principle 1: Progressive Overload (necessary increase in stimulus applied over time)

Adaptation in general can be viewed as the adjustment of an organism to its environment. With regards to strength training and exercise, this means that an appropriate stimulus must be applied (Overload) and this stimulus must consistently increase over time if we are to continue eliciting a positive response.

If we want to see a measurable increase in a physical quality (such as going from a 150lb back squat for 5 reps to a 175lb back squat for 5 reps), we must use training loads that have a magnitude greater than the habitual level).

There are a few ways to approach this basic example to bring about a positive change and get the desired result:

  1. Training with 150lbs for sets of 8 reps, and add 1 additional set/week until we reach a point that this is not possible (increasing total set volume weekly)

  2. Train with the same 150lbs and continue with the same number of sets/week, but force yourself to complete an additional rep/set. This will again increase the total training volume and will promote positive adaptations over time.

  3. Train with 160lbs, complete 3 sets of 6 reps on week 1. Add 1 set/week for 3 weeks, then go back to 3 sets and add 1 rep/set. Again, increasing total training volume and stress applied to a system over time.

Although this example is simplified, it gives us a look at the basic premise of progressive overload and the high importance that comes with it:

  1. We must stress the system with a greater magnitude stress over time, otherwise the system or organism has no need to adapt and improveo,

  2. Our bodies accommodate to the same stress over time. This means that if we continue to utilize the same stimulus over and over with no increase in total magnitude, the body will respond less and less (Principle of Diminishing returns- discussed in more detail later)


(Photo taken from Science and Practice of Strength Training, 2006)

  1. Training needs to be progressive, without it, the various structures involved in training will fail to respond and training results will be sub-par and even worse, could regress over time.

In summary, beginners will be able to see improvements from virtually any stimulus, since their general fitness levels are low. However, as training time increases and adaptation occurs, loads used, total volume or both must increase as well. Once an individual reaches a point of advanced to elite, the importance of this principle becomes non-negotiable and can be easily seen in the programming and work completed by these individuals at this level.

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