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How to use progressive overload the right way

Progressive in an over simplified way is the concept of over time doing more work will lead to greater results. While this makes sense and works really well early on in your training career even when you don’t understand it, it has some flaws. I’m actually a big believer in the concept of progressive overload I just think it’s misunderstood throughout the fitness industry and here’s why. Most people don’t understand how the human body adapts to stress. You can’t adapt everything all at once for an extended period of time.

When asked to explain what progressive overload is most strength coaches and trainers would give an example something like this- “if you do X amount of weight one week on a certain exercise the following week or the next time you perform that workout you should try to do a little more”. In the short term this definitely works, especially with people who are new to working out. This is due to neurological adaptation to movement, which means because you performed this movement before the next time you do it you’ll be a little better at it. This is because you have become more efficient at that movement. This adaption is not due to increase in muscle mass or strength, power or endurance. Those are all longer-term adaptions; this result is a short-term adaptation due to improvement in the connection from your central nervous system to your muscles to move in specific patterns more efficiently. This is why when you first start working out you see a lot of improvements very quickly; this low hanging fruit can be great for getting someone to buy into training but it can produce a warped perspective on how you should see results in the future.

The problem is that most people are looking at progressive overload through volume and intensity, they’re also often looked at through short windows of time like weeks or months. What you need to understand is that there are so many different factors and qualities that can be used to progressively overload that it’s hard to list all of them and even harder to consider all of them at the same time. When you see that your strength is not increasing or you’re not able to perform better in the gym it may be because you’ve been progressively overloading your volume and intensity for so long that you’re neglecting other qualities that are holding your performance back. This does not mean that progressive overload doesn’t work. Most people are just looking at it from such a narrow lens they’re failing to see the whole picture. You can progressively overload specific qualities of training while you maintain others. You’re still training in a progressive overload manor but now you’re looking at all the qualities of strength and how to influence performance.

What are some of these qualities and how can I train them?

Here’s 7 quailities I aim to progressively overload during the course of the year, no matter what your goals are in the gym these qualities should be considered in your programming because they will be trained in varying degrees which will determine the outcome. The ones that are lacking the most in your training will require more attention at some point in order to continue on with your results. You can train all these quailities at once but once you’re past the novice stage of training you won’t be able to progressively overload all these at the same time and continue to see results. Through various points of the year you need to increase your focus on 1 or 2 of these qualities the most while the other receive maintenance levels of training.

1. Max effort (intensity)

Max effort training can be looked at as the amount of weight you can do in a certain exercise. Traditionally as a 1 rep max which is valuable to use and test at specific points of the year. I also look at it through the scope of how much weight and athlete can perform in a specific rep range for specific exercises. This can be done through a 2RM, 3RM, 4RM and 5RM generally I don’t go past a 5 rep max on an exercise to test max effort. Over time increasing the amount of weight performed on these exercises is a great way to increase force production. For most athlete I focus on this the most during the offseason when they are the farthest away from their competitive season. Developing a solid foundation of max effort strength in the offseason while maintaining it during the preseason and inseason.

2. Volume of workout

Volume of the workout is the total work done in a given workout. An easy way to figure this out is to take the weight performed X the Reps X the sets of each exercise to get the total amount of volume in a given workout. You can do this through total volume of a workout, volume of specific exercises that you want to focus on or even total volume of specific muscles groups. Volume and intensity are inversely related, if your primary focus is max effort then your workout volume will decrease. If your main focus is volume of workout then the overall intensity will also decrease. This doesn’t mean you can do high amounts of volume via accessory work on the days that you perform heavy strength training but it does mean you should be aware of what your primary focus is that day/week/month and make sure that stays the main focus.

From the perspective of training an athlete I also try to increase work volume of a workout during the offseason but most of the high-volume work will be done through the accessory exercises after the main limit where maximum effort style training is done. This is great to also build up weakness that present themselves in the main lift. Paring this up with heavy main lift work during the offseason will develop higher force production and a larger cross-sectional area in the muscles.

3. Speed of max effort work (strength-speed)

This is a quality I most recently started paying more attention too, this can be a great way to also measure an increase in strength and an increase in higher rates of force production. To train this you need to focus on the time in which it takes you to perform your heaviest exercises. This would traditionally be done with the squat, bench and deadlift but can be used across the board with any exercises that’s a main strength builder. The easiest way to do this is to perform exercises at 90% or more, mostly with heavy singles. While doing this video how fast you’re able to complete the lift, this can be the whole lift or just the concentric portion depending on the exercise. Over time increasing your ability to move weights that are 90% and above faster will create drastic increases in strength-speed. This can also be considered compensatory acceleration work. I use this focus of training the most during the preseason and inseason where we don’t want the wear and tear of max effort training but we want higher rates of force production. This does a great job to transferring to explosive movement and maintaining max effort strength.

4. Speed of submaximal work (speed-strength)

Speed-strength is just like strength-speed but faster. Now we’re looking at how fast can you move submaximal weights (generally 30%-70% of max) This can be estimated but is far more effective for the higher intermediate to advanced lifter to have precise percentages to base progress off of. Just like strength-speed exercises recording your exercise and seeing how long it takes you to perform each one can be helpful to measure progress. three ways to progressively overload this quality would be to move submaximal weights faster and faster within the percentages given, to increase your ability to stay fast as the amount of sets in the workout go up and lastly staying at a speed-strength speed at higher levels of percentage. Building your speed-strength via dynamic effort work can help to increase higher rates of force production and explosiveness as well as a way to train high force production like max effort training but without the overload to joints and connective tissue. The main differences between strength-speed and speed-strength is that speed strength not only is faster overall but the eccentric muscle contraction is much faster as well. Often bands will be used to accelerate the eccentric muscle contraction to enhance the stretch reflex in the muscles and develop better reversal strength. Just like with strength-speed, speed-strength will be developed the most during the pre-season and inseason. Developing this will have the most transfer over to sport, therefore performing this the most in the preseason and inseason where the most sport specific work is performed is ideal. This method also does a great job creating better neurological drive and stronger tendons.

5. Work capacity (how much work you can do in a given period of time)

This seems similar to volume of a workout which it is with one main difference…time. You can greatly increase your volume of workout just by being in the gym longer but it’s a lot more challenging to increase your work capacity. This can be done through setting a time limit on your workout, or timing every workout and training to get the same amount done or more in shorter periods of time. This can be done in traditional strength training sessions as well as separate workouts that are geared more towards conditioning and endurance. This will be the most effective towards the end of the offseason and into the preseason of sport. Higher levels of work capacity will develop a platform in which higher amounts of strength-speed and speed-strength will result in better recovery and adaptation. Your total work capacity will always determine how much you can recover from.

6. Joint angles/variation of exercises

Far too often do people training in the gym perform the same exercises over and over again mainly because they’re good at them without changing joint angles and variation of exercises. There’re many ways to perform a squat and if you want to be good at squatting you should be good at all of them. Trying to set personal bests on all the different variations of exercises is a great way to continue to progressively overload over time. If you’re always changing your variation of exercise it’s easy to hit personal best consistently. This should be done all throughout the yearly training cycle with an exception being during the season where less variations are ideal to avoid soreness that will get in the way of performance.

7. Volume of training cycles (year over year)

This is a much longer-term view of increasing your work overtime. While most people look at progressive overload in terms of workout by workout or weeks/a month the more appropriate way to measure increased work volume in regards to how fast the body really adapts is year over year. Are you doing more total volume year over year in any of these specific qualities? Not necessarily in every one of them but the ones you chose you need to work on. This is why keeping a training log over the years can provide valuable insight on how you’re progressing in your training. Once you’ve hit your peak potential maintaining your work volume/performance will become the main goal of training.

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