Progressive Overload

Kevin Turner-Turner Strength and Performance

Milo of Croton was a 6th century wrestler fabled for his amazing athletic abilities and his super human feats of strength. In one of the most famous legends of progressive overload, it was said that Milo started lifting and carrying a new born calf. He repeated this feat daily for four years before slaughtering it, roasting and devouring it in one day.

Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. In 1945, an army physician named Dr. Thomas L. DeLorme created a new rehabilitation protocol to help alleviate the overwhelming backlog of American servicemen who had sustained orthopedic injuries in World War 2. Dr. DeLorme had used strength training to recover from an illness he had suffered in his childhood. Pulling from his personal experience, he concluded that the same methods of heavy training would be beneficial to the injured servicemen as well. Delorme’s original protocol was to have patients perform 3 sets of their 10-repetition maximum. In 1948, he revised his original program to consist of progressively heavier sets of 10 repetitions, referring to the new system as “Progressive Resistance Exercise.”

The technique that Dr. DeLorme used is recognized as a fundamental principle used in fitness training, weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman and of course, physical therapy programs. The use of progressive overload promotes not only muscle hypertrophy (increase in size of skeletal muscle) but the development of stronger and denser bones, ligaments, tendons and cartilage.

Progressive overload is the foundation of all successful training programs and is one of The Seven “Granddaddy” Laws categorized by Dr. Fred Hatfield. The Overload Principle states that in order to improve strength, muscle growth or endurance you have to do more than you did previously. By continuing to use the same resistance every workout, you will not be able to improve your body’s last adaptations. For many people just beginning to lift weights, overloading the exercise can be as simple as adding small incremental jumps in weight every workout. At the beginner stages of training, progress will be made very quickly but after time the stress needed to make new adaptations will increase to the point that adding weight every workout will not be feasible.

Once the training has progressed past the novice stage, overloading by simply adding resistance will no longer produce the results it once did. At this point, it will be necessary to explore alternative options to overloading.

Methods of Overloading

  • Increase frequency- frequency is the number of training days, typically measured by week. An example of increasing frequency could be going from training 2 days a week to 3 days a week.
  • Intensity- For strength training this would mean progressively heavier weights over time. In aerobic activities, heart rate would be a good way to monitor increasing intensity.
  • Time- Time performing the specific exercise. Prolong the time under tension. Change the tempo of the exercise. Slow down the eccentric portion of the lift for time or speed up the concentric portion of the lift to improve force production.
  • Type- Vary the specific exercise. For example, in strength exercises, you can add front squats in addition to back squats to overload the leg muscles.
  • Increase volume- Do more in the workout. Volume can be increased by performing more sets, reps or weight. Volume can be calculated by this formula. (reps x sets x weight)
  • Increase density- this simply means doing the same workout in less time.
  • Increase range of motion- perform a close grip bench press instead of your competition grip. A few more examples would be snatch grip deadlifts, deficit deadlifts or deep Olympic style squats.

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