What is progressive overload and why do we need it

Progressive overload

One of the main principals of strength training is progressive overload. It means that in order to gain any new adaptation we need to increase the difficulty and/or resistance of a certain exercise. It has to be done in a slow and steady manner in order to give our bodies enough time to get used to the new stimulus. Our body is smart and efficient. It will get stronger, faster, works for longer and whatever else we ask it to do if we keep putting it under stress. If we keep doing the same thing, it will get really good at doing that. But not any more than that. To avoid plateau we need to get out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves.

How progressive overload happens over time

The overload has to be progressive as to allow enough time for recovery. If it’s done too fast and the time for recovery isn’t sufficient, the opposite effect happens and our performance drops. Overtraining can also increase our risk of injury. Optimum performance improvement happens we do more than before, allow time for recovery and repeat it regularly. However the starting point and the rate of progression are different for everyone.

Adaptations don’t just happen to the musculoskeletal system (muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones) but also to our nervous system. Different variables affect these at different rates. Learning a new move can be extremely taxing on the nervous system therefore more recovery is needed to avoid overtraining. From an injury prevention point of view it’s worth bearing in mind that due to having less blood vessels (making nutrient delivery therefore recovery slower), tendons and ligaments take longer to hypertrophy (grow) compared to muscles. So when planning a training programme we need to think about other factors affecting progressive overload.

Using weights you can just put an extra plate on the barbell or go for a heavier dumbbell, however when we use bodyweight as resistance, increasing difficulty can be a challenge. There are several different ways it can be done. Key being that we can monitor progress and it’s not a massive jump like trying to do a handstand push up when you just learnt to hold a 5 second handstand.

Here you can find some ideas on how to increase overload

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