If you don’t understand this, you’ll never get stronger

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Progressive overload is one of the most seemingly simple, yet widely misunderstood concepts in strength training.


00:00 Introduction

00:20 Misconceptions

00:52 What is Progressive Overload?

02:31 Is progressive overload the cause of our gains?

04:07 What about adding sets, decreasing rest interval, and increasing repetition duration?

09:30 Conclusion: 3 practical take-home messages


Progressive overload is one of the most seemingly simple, yet widely misunderstood concepts in strength training. The following two misconceptions appear on many websites, even in academic textbooks, some scientific articles, and on websites like Wikipedia. The first major misconception is that progressive overload causes muscle growth and strength development. The second major misconception is that progressive overload can be implemented via a variety of equally effective methods, not just adding load to the bar or repetitions, but also decreasing your rest interval.

Adding sets, increasing the training frequency, or in general, doing anything that makes the workouts harder. In this video, I’ll explain why these two statements are incorrect and how to implement progressive overload in a more effective manner. Let’s start by defining what is progressive overload exactly. Progressive overload was, to my knowledge, first introduced as a formalized concept in research after WW2, when it was used to rehabilitate soldiers after the war. But was first implemented by the ancient Greek athlete Milo of Croton. Milo of Croton was an athlete and his neighbor had a calf, a newborn calf. And he would go out and as one of his workouts, he would lift the calf.

And as the calf got bigger, he would keep lifting the calf every day. And therefore implement progressive overload as the calf was getting heavier. So at some point, Milo was supposedly lifting a full bull. Now, that story might also be full-bull, but it illustrates the concept perfectly well, as you can see in the graph here. When you impose a stress on the body, it triggers an alarm or a stress phase. This is followed by recovery and afterwards there is supercompensation causing further adaptation. And that’s how you get bigger. can think of this graph as muscle mass, as strength of muscle protein synthesis. It applies to all of these things.

It’s a very fundamental concept to understand that what we do in a gym is imposing stress on our body, which causes it to adapt to resist that stress better. And the adaptations that we are interested in are strength development and muscle hypertrophy. So the muscle gets bigger and stronger to resist the tension that we imposed on it earlier. And if you keep doing this, you get something like this where you can see that the graph with continuous phases of stress recovery, adaptation curves. It keeps going up and up and up. So that’s how we get stronger and bigger over time.

Based on this, it would seem very intuitive that progressive overload is the cause of our gains. However, it is not. To illustrate why progressive overload is not a cause of your gains. Let’s take, for example, a beginner. A beginner can do sets of pushups, sets of ten. Let’s say they do ten pushups every day. This will get them to a reasonable point. After the first session of ten push ups, after they can do 11 repetitions or 12 repetitions, they will still make some gains when doing sets of ten. Over time, eventually, they will no longer make gains. But the first sessions, those sessions will still cause muscle growth and strength development. On the flip side, let’s take a very advanced athlete and they are squatting 200kg and they want to add 2.5 kilos to the bar. And they did sets of five earlier.

Now they want to do sets of five again, but they can’t. This is normal. They’re an advanced trainee, so they are not expected to be able to add two and a half kilos to the bar and still hit five repetitions. If they know hit four reps or three reps, there may actually be some strength development and muscle growth, but it is not the full 2.5 kilo increment that they wanted. So even though they could not technically implement progressive overload, there was actually a stress recovery adaptation response and they are technically a little bit stronger and bigger, just not to the amounts that we can measure it. So progressive overload is the measure of your gains, and it’s the workout and your body’s recovery and adaptation response to that workout that actually cause the muscle growth and strength development. So Progressive overload tells you you had a successful stress recovery adaptation response and seeing progressive overload as a measure in this way also helps us understand the second major misconception, which is the idea that adding sets or decreasing your rest interval or increasing your repetition duration or anything else that makes the workouts more difficult is equally effective as adding load or reps.

And it’s not. For example, let’s take somebody that’s not progressing very well. Let’s go back to the advanced athletes trying to squat 200 + 2.5kg times five reps and they did 200 times five before. Let’s say that they did 200×5 and now they are adding sets. Their stimulus was already borderline to begin with and there was there would be progressive overload if they tried to add a rep or they trying to add weights. Maybe they couldn’t, but there was some strength development over time. Now they start adding a set. A set is a lot of extra stimulus.

A set is generally something that you would add over a more long term. If you look at research on how muscle develops, contractile tissue doesn’t change that much over the short term. That’s why it’s so difficult to gain muscle. It takes weeks to months to make any significant differences in the structure of contractile tissue. So when we add a set, we are significantly increasing the training stress, but we are not actually measuring progressive overload.

The fact that maybe he can do a second set of five and then a third set of five, it doesn’t mean that he’s actually getting stronger or bigger. In fact, he might at some point be unable to recover from that and he would be turning a workout that was effective to begin with into a non adaptive response. That is something he cannot recover from. Because in the SRA curve, at first maybe he would have the whole SRA curve and actually end up a little bit stronger. But if you keep adding sets, then you will just end up in that recovery phase and before the next workout you will not be fully recovered. You might actually be getting weaker. And the only reason that he can add these extra sets with five repetitions and this is something you see happen in five by five programs often, by the way, is that you just rest a ridiculously long time. So trying to force progressive overload by adding sets when you are not seeing progression in load or reps often just digs you deeper into your recovery goal. If we compare adding a set to adding a rep, adding a set is clearly a lot greater of an increase in training stress.

Whereas normally the reason that you would add a rep or that you would add weight for progressive overload is to maintain the same relative training stimulus. What was your 8RM before is now still your 8RM, but you have to add a little bit of weight to still make it your 8RM because otherwise it may be your 9RM or your 10RM. That’s what happens in the push up example we gave earlier. You do ten pushups. Maybe that’s all you can do, but the next time you can do 11 or 12.

So if you only do ten, you are now training with one or two reps in reserve, which is less of a training stimulus, adding progressive overload by doing as many reps as you can or adding weight to the bar to maintain the same relative rep max maintains the same relative training stimulus. It does not actually increase the relative training stimulus. And this is the big misconception of trying to add sets. It’s a completely different in concepts to adding reps or weight, which just maintains the relative stimulus and measures your progression. The fact that you can progress over time, the fact that you can add repetitions or that you can squat with a higher weight.

That’s the measure that your workouts is that your workouts were successful, your last workouts were successful. Other methods of implementing progressive overload, such as trying to increase the rep duration or shortening the rest intervals suffer from any of the same problems. They don’t make it very easy for you to measure your gains, and they also suffer from significant practical problems for example, decreasing your rest interval is for one very impractical, in that you have to measure your rest interval, which most people do not do. And even if they do it, they typically don’t stick to their stopwatch or whatever to use with high accuracy. Even worse, the very methodology of using your rest interval as a measure of your strength progression is fundamentally unsound because you’re not necessarily measuring strength adaptation, but you might be measuring endurance adaptation If you can do the same workouts with a slightly shorter rest interval, that doesn’t mean you are stronger or bigger necessarily. It might just mean that your endurance improved.

This can be due to cardio respiratory adaptations. For example, your lungs simply being able to take more oxygen, therefore needing less recovery in between sets. It might be due to capillarization of the muscle increasing the blood flow. It might be due to an increase in mitochondrial density, allowing for faster energy substrate recovery, even without any actual strength development or muscle hypertrophy taking place. So the fact that you can do a workout with a shorter rest interval doesn’t mean you’re stronger or bigger, which makes it fundamentally unsound as a measure of your progression or therefore as a measure of progressive overload. At least if your goal is strength, development or muscle growth. Even worse is trying to measure increased durations of your repetitions as a measure of progressive overload. For one, this messes with your technique.

And secondly, it’s completely impractical because these things on paper, like a four second eccentric duration, lowering the weight for 4 seconds, nobody does that. It is extremely slow. It’s excruciatingly slow. If you have to do a bench press or a squats to a near failure. And what almost always happens is that you start doing the reps a little bit faster as you get closer to failure. So even if you could technically do this with a metronome and some studies do this, it’s not a very enjoyable way to train. It messes with your technique, it’s very impractical and therefore not very suited, in my view, as a measure of progressive overload, even though technically it is what constitutes progressive overload.

So what does this mean in practice? Let’s sum this up into three practical take home messages. First, progressive overload is very important. It is crucial for long term strength development and muscle growth. If you keep repeating the same workouts with the same weights and the same reps, you will not get very far. You need to implement progressive overload in your programs for long term muscular development. Second, the best way to implement progressive overload is the O.G method of actually adding load or else repetitions. If you cannot add load, then add repetitions, that’s generally my advice. That’s how I teach it to my students and my coaching client because nothing else reliably tells you you’re getting stronger or bigger. Remember that progressive overload is not the cause of your gains, but the measure thereof. Three – progress is everything. Progressive overload tells you your program is working. If your program is not working, you are not progressing.

Then you need to update your program. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Many people do this in a gym they just keep pushing on a program that is not actually resulting in progressive overload. If you’re not getting stronger during a program, you need to update the program. And if you are implementing progressive overload successfully, you are managing to add load or reps consistently to all of your exercises. Then don’t fix what is broken. Don’t go program hopping or trying to do some other fancy periodization stuff just because you think you should. No, your program is working.

So just keep grinding.

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About the author

Menno Henselmans

Formerly a business consultant, I've traded my company car to follow my passion in strength training. I'm now an online physique coach, scientist and international public speaker with the mission to help serious trainees master their physique.

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