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The Principle of Progressive Overload

Progressive overload cut

Progressive Overload is an important principle in strength training. Without progressive overload you won’t build strength and you won’t gain muscle. However, too much overload can lead to under-recovery and injury. The challenge therefore lies in getting the balance right, so that you keep improving without exceeding the body’s capability to recover.

Progress is all about stimulus and recovery

Our body is lazy and muscle tissue is actually a burden to it. If your body doesn’t need or use its muscle, then it will get rid of it. If we are inactive, then our muscle will deteriorate - also known as muscle atrophy. If our goal is to build muscle, then we need to tell our body to do so. It won’t build it on it’s own.

The way to tell our body to build muscle is by training. By working our muscles, we are telling our cells to produce new muscle cells in order to handle the exertion. Training is a stimulus that tells our muscles to grow.

After a stimulus our muscles experience something called homeostatic disruption. Again our body is lazy and wants to create a state of balance (homeostasis). The training stimulus leaves our muscles fatigued and our body out of balance.

Our muscles subsequently have to recover from this fatigue to once again reach their baseline level of fitness. The cool part, which is why we train in the first place, is that is doesn’t stop there. The muscles recover further in order to reach a higher level of fitness than before the stimulus. This process is called adaptation or supercompensation.

This is crucial, because we see that training has to create a homeostatic disruption in order for our muscles to adapt and improve. Therefore muscle gain is all about presenting the right stimulus and letting the system recover from it in order to adapt.

Why muscles grow in the first place

The Stimulus-Recovery-Adaptation Model (SRA curve) tells us why the body builds muscle mass.

Let’s say you want big biceps. In order to do so, you do bicep curls with a barbell. You know that you can lift 30kg for 5 clean repetitions. But only choose to use 20kg for 3 repetitions, because you are lazy. Do that once a week for 4 weeks and your biceps probably wouldn’t grow. Why not? Because you haven’t disrupted your system enough to drive adaptations. If you can lift way more with good technique, then you need to train at a higher intensity in order for your biceps to grow. That’s where the principle of progressive overload becomes so important

4 ways to progressively overload

In order to continuously adapt and improve, we have implemented the system of progressive overload. Progressive overload says that we have to continuously stress the muscles in a way that creates homeostatic disruption and thus create adaptations in terms of strength and muscle gain.

Progressive overload can happen in 4 ways:

  1. Increasing Intensity: Lifting more weight in your next training session.
  2. Increasing Volume: Doing more reps, sets or exercises for a certain muscle group in your next training.
  3. Increasing Frequency: Doing more training sessions than the week before.
  4. Increasing Tension: Increasing the duration of each repetition within an exercise. A common technique in bodybuilding is to prolong the time under tension (TUT) of a muscle by focusing on a 4-second descent (eccentric) when you do a bicep curl for example.

The golden rules of Progressive Overload

The Coach uses the principle of progressive overload by carefully increasing the training stimulus without exceeding your bodies capability to recover. That’s why it’s so important you give honest feedback to your Freeletics Coach after your training session. Two rules are crucial in order for progressive overload to be as optimal as possible:

  1. We only increase one thing at a time: We won’t up the intensity, increase the volume and ask you to perform super slow repetitions all at once. Rather, we change one training variable at a time and progress slowly, but steady without overstressing the system.
  2. We increase volume before intensity: Volume is the amount of reps and sets you perform. Intensity is the resistance, either your bodyweight or the actual weight on the barbell. In order to manage fatigue and decrease the risk of under-recovery, we overload on volume first, before we increase the intensity.

Putting science into practice

The good thing is: You won’t have to worry about all this. That’s what the Freeletics Coach automatically does in the background. You don’t have to figure all the scientific details of the SRA curve out in order to grow muscle and increase strength. However, it is good to understand how the Coach works in order to keep you progressing from week by week.