Colin Gentry

Avoiding training plateaus with progressive overload

Written By

Colin Gentry


General Fitness, Personal Training

Posted On

28 November 2016

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Not seeing results? Here's why you should be stressed out.

Progressive overload is crucial.

Want to gain muscle mass? You need progressive overload.

Want to improve endurance? You need progressive overload.

Want to get stronger? You need progressive overload.

Get the picture?

Progressive overload lays the foundation upon which training is built, whether that is resistance or cardiovascular. Without it, the body will stop adapting and your goals will either plateau or diminish.

Doing 30kg barbell curls may be taxing at first. As the muscle adapts to this stress, growing bigger and stronger, the exercise becomes easier. If the demand on the body stays the same, the gains lessen. The only way to see an increase in results from the exercise is to change the demand. Progressive overload is this gradual increase of stress upon the body during training.

There are a number of different ways you can achieve progressive overload. Whether you are planning your own workout or planning for a personal training client, you should have short-, medium- and long-term goals to work towards. Progressive overload will help get you there. 

Below are three examples to suit three particular goals:

Want to be a bodybuilder? Increase total volume

Increasing the number of exercises performed in a workout and the number of times a body part is trained each week will kickstart the desired muscle mass.

Adding more exercises to a workout means you can add symmetry to a muscle group. For example, perhaps the three heads of the shoulder muscle are being let down by the posterior head. Adding in reverse flys will place a fresh demand on the muscle group to bring them up to scratch.

Increasing how often a muscle group is trained is useful for targeting a weak overall muscle group. If prioritizing the t-shirt muscles has left the quads looking underdeveloped, increasing the number of times Legs Day appears in your calendar will allow them to catch up. 

This is where good personal trainers can really shine, utilising their knowledge of specific muscle groups and how best to develop them.

Want to run a marathon? Decrease rest time and increase number of reps

By decreasing the rest time between your sets, the body will be forced to adapt metabolically. This means the byproducts of anaerobic and aerobic exercise – such as lactic acid – will be removed faster and more efficiently, improving recovery.

Increasing the number of sets you perform for a given exercise means you will fatigue the muscles even more, creating greater microtrauma and therefore encouraging muscles to get bigger and stronger to work effectively. Whether you are on the treadmill or running outdoors, the principles are the same. 

If you're a serious runner or want to be a sports conditioning coach, this is an approach that will help you and your clients cross the finish line.

Want to be stronger? Increase the resistance before the number of reps

Whether you want to be a powerlifter or simply conquer some those Olympic lifts, progressively increasing the weight will help you to become stronger. A good indicator of when to increase the resistance is when you are able to perform more than your target repetitions. For strength training, five reps is good territory to be in. If you can do more reps than that, it's time to add on some weight plates.

These are just three ways to achieve progressive overload. Think about what you are trying to achieve and how different stresses will help you to reach this goal. Will more sets get you to where you want to be, or is it intensity you lack? Is it the muscular endurance from higher reps you seek, or improved recovery time from shorter rest periods between blasts of cardio?

Prioritise what is important to you, avoid overtraining, and apply progressive overload to your workouts to see real change.

Find out why athletes like Dwain Chambers choose to become personal trainers with us:

Why the rowing machine should be in your next workout

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