Progressive Overload Strategies

When performing resistance training, there should be some goal you are working toward such as becoming stronger or more powerful. To achieve these goals, one simple principle needs to be put to use.

Progressive Overload – gradually increasing difficulty of skills/exercises to continually cause the body to adapt

The easiest way to do this is to increase the total volume you are doing while training. Volume of resistance training is the sets x reps x weight. So if you do 4 sets of 5 reps at 100 lbs., your volume would be 4 x 5 x 100 = 2,000. Here are three ways to increase the volume of your training.

1. Increase the weight - This is the most common one. If you can do 4 sets of 5 at 100 lbs., increasing to 4 sets of 5 at 105 lbs. makes sense. This along with #2 are the easiest two that increase the volume. With most gyms going down to really light plates, even if you add the smallest one on, you increase the total volume of your workout and are following the principle of progressive overload.

2. Increase number of reps - This one gives you a little more freedom than the increase weight as you can decide on your last rep if you want to add another or not. If you were to increase weight, that’s the weight you would be doing. Giving yourself the opportunity to try for 4 sets of 6 reps at 100 lbs. still increases volume, but you can always top out at 5 reps if needed. I like this if I know I’m on the border of moving up to the next weight, but can’t quite hit all reps at that weight. I can try to add another rep at the lower weight until I can finally go up.

3. Increasing number of sets - This is by far the most challenging and increases your volume by the most.

Here are three other ways to follow the progressive overload principle, not necessarily by volume, but by difficulty.

1. Time under tension - This means how long you take to do one rep. It is common for people to do slower eccentrics (such as 3 seconds lowering during a squat) or holds (such as holding for 3 seconds at the bottom of a squat). These can be beneficial for different goals depending on what you are working on.

2. Rest periods – Resting less gives your body less time to recover and makes it more difficult. Your goal of power, strength, etc. has ranges of rest periods you should be training in, but if you stay in the range, this is another strategy for progressive overload. For example, if training for strength, resting 2-5 minutes is prescribed. If you did your sets with 3 minutes rest one week and then decreased to 2 minutes the next week, you are still in the range for strength and you made it more challenging by decreasing the rest.

3. Unilateral training – Unilateral training is doing exercises with one arm/leg such as a lunge or dumbbell bench press. This sort of fits into the topic, but is more for if you don’t have enough weight to challenge you. For example, if you only have a dumbbell that goes up to 50 lbs. and you can easily goblet squat it, changing to a lunge or Bulgarian split squat makes the weight more difficult since you can only use one limb instead of two. This isn’t saying that you should do unilateral training over bilateral training as there is a place for both, it was only to bring up a point to make things harder if you don’t have the resources.

Each of these strategies has their place and can be used for different goals. By combining these to make sure you continue to challenge yourself and to follow the principle of progressive overload, you should move toward your goals

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