Are you someone who has gone to the gym for months or even years without seeing many change in your body? Don’t worry, it’s actually pretty common. And I can tell you the main reason why you’re not building muscle or losing weight anymore.
If you’ve been hitting the gym pretty regularly, you’re probably not in the “newbie gains” phase of your fitness journey anymore. This phase usually happens during your first few months of going to the gym consistently after a long break. During the “newbie gains” phase, you’ll see fast muscle growth and/or rapid weight loss. Your body will seem to change after every workout. It’s seriously a wonderful time during any workout-journey.
So if you’re passed that stage, the most likely cause of your stagnation in growth, regardless of your consistency in the gym, is not using the overload principle.
You must progressively overload your muscles to see continual changes over time.
Your Body is an Adaptation Guru
You can’t go to the gym five times a week, using the exact same reps, sets, or weights as you did a year ago and expect to see changes in your body. The human body will only adapt when it’s forced to. By using the same weight over time, you’re only training your body to adapt to that weight.
Muscle growth is adaptation. Cardiovascular endurance is adaptation. Losing body fat is also a form of adaptation. These adaptations are how the body ensure that the next training session is easier.
But as much as your body likes things to be easier, you have to make things harder for it to grow. It will always adapt to how you train. So it’s important to use progressive loading.
Progressive Overload by Definition
“Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training,” (source).
The key term in the definition is “gradual,” as in, “over time.” So in order to see changes to the body, you must increase your training workload in small increments over time. You must NOT use the same weights, reps, and sets every time you go to the gym. Easy right?
This method sounds simple and obvious, but many people aren’t using it. I’m guessing it’s because many people just don’t know how to overload the body. Hopefully this post educates you so you can use it in your own fitness-journey.
Again, over time you can increase the resistance in your training. Today you may lift 100lbs at eight reps, next week try 105lbs at eight reps. The common rate of increasing weight with overload training is usually about 5-10% per week.
It’s completely fine to grow at a slower rate than that. Aim to increase the weight as much as you can, and as often as you can, while maintaining the best form an staying in the rep range. This could mean two or three weeks before you’re able to increase the resistance by 5%. Building muscle is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. And every body adapts at a different rate.
Increasing the weight each week works best with big compound lifts like the squat, bench, and deadlift. For isolation exercises, or perhaps a compound lift that you are weaker in, try one of the methods below.
This is a less common route to overload your muscles, but very effective if you have weak points. For me, bench press is not a strong suit. I can’t increase the weight on the bar by 5-10% each week. Instead I’ll increase the amount of reps I do using the same weight.
This means that week one, I’ll perform eight perfect repetitions. And week two, I’ll aim for nine perfect repetitions at the same resistance. And so on.
Once I am able to do ten to twelve perfect repetitions at the initial resistance, I’ll increase the load by about 5% and go back to eight repetitions. The cycle starts over. This is called double progressive overload.
One of my favorite ways to apply the overload principle with my clients is by increasing the amount of sets per week. Basically, one week you would perform three sets at a certain intensity. Week two, you’ll perform four sets. Week five, five sets… and so on.
Usually after doing five sets, it’s time to increase the weight using the double progressive overload principle, and subsequently drop the sets back down to three at the higher weight.
I use this method because it seems easier for my clients to do another set with a rep range they already know they can do. In the end though, it’s not easier on the body because adding another set increases the total volume more than adding another rep.
The total volume is an equation that determines the amount of work you put in for the day.
sets X reps X weight
So if we started with 3 X 8 @ 100lbs, our total volume is 2400.
By overloading with one more repetition: 3 X 9 @ 100lbs is 2700.
By overloading with one more set: 4 X 8 @ 100lbs is 3200.
Adding a set increased the work volume by about 20% more than adding a repetition.
Increasing training frequency over time is best saved for more experienced lifters who are already adapted to the basic body-building split. But I’ll dive into it a bit because I assume that’s you 🙂
If you train legs once a week without seeing much growth, and without being very sore the next day, it may be time to train legs twice a week. You’re body may be too efficient at recovering from one leg day a week, which means you aren’t getting much more growth during your leg day.
This also works for cardio endurance. If you’re recovering well from a single five-mile run during the week, it may be time to add another running day in the week.
To increase stimuli over time, you can decrease your rest times between sets. This method amplifies the difficulty of a hard conditioning workout at the end of your main lift. It’s mostly used for cardio-based workouts, but can still be applied to core lifts. Decreasing rest times can add a lot of stress to your body, but it teaches your body to recover faster from the previous workload.
At this point, I hope you understand the different ways to implement the progressive overload principle in your training program.
The Golden Rule for Change
If you’ve been working out day after day at the same level of intensity for the last six months, it’s time to progressively overload your muscles.
To see changes, whether it’s muscle gain, weight loss, or cardio endurance, the body must be demanded to adapt to increasing training stimuli.