What is Progressive Overloading and Why is it Important for Strength and Mass Gain

In this article we talk about progressive overloading a simple recipe for continued strength gain and mass gain.

To understand progressive overloading, let’s refer to the legend of Milo of Croton. He was the 6th century BC wrestler in ancient Greece who won many victories in the athletic festivals all around Greece. Legend goes that to get strong, he used to carry a calf on his shoulders. As the calf grew in size and became a bull, Milo also grew stronger to be able to carry the bull on his shoulders. Although we doubt the authenticity of this legend, the gist of it is quite relevant for understanding the process of progressive overloading. As we put more load on our body, our body compensates for it by becoming stronger.

Whenever we start a new workout, we always find it difficult in the beginning. Everyone remembers the day after performing heavy squats for the first time. It was incredibly hard to go down the stairs. However as time progresses we no longer feel sore after the same workout. This is because our body and mind both are incredibly efficient at getting used to stresses.

When we first started the workout, our muscles were not used to lifting heavy weights and our mind was not efficient in utilizing our muscles to perform the task. However after performing the workout for sometime, our body and mind overcompensates for the stresses of our workout and develop capacity to handle all the insults. Our muscles become strong while our brain learns how to engage our muscles most efficiently. The workout then no longer feels hard to us.

At this point it could be enticing for many of us to just keep performing the same workout, as we can now perform it quite comfortably. However this approach will stall our progress, as our body is no longer challenged. In order to continue making progress, we need to make our workouts challenging through the process of progressive overloading.

There are a number of ways one can use to progressively overload their workout. The 6 most common methods include
1, Increase the weight lifted in a workout just as Milo did.
2. Keep weight the same but increase the number of repetitions.
3. Keep, weight and repetition the same however decrease the rest between sets
4. Increasing the range of motion with the same amount of weight.
5. Lifting the same amount of load for same number of repetitions, but performing those repetitions in shorter time period.
6. Lifting the same amount of load for same number of repetitions, but performing those repetitions slowly to keep the muscles under tension for longer periods of time.

Progressive overloading constantly keeps our body under stress, such that it is always compensating for the increased stresses we subject it to. Under such a process our body has no option but to grow in size and strength. In theory this all sounds simple, however in practice this is quite difficult. Increased load is highly uncomfortable to an athlete during the workout, moreover since the body gets exposed to increased stresses in every workout some amount of muscle soreness is always there. We must keep in mind that to attain anything substantial in life, we need to get out of our comfort zone. It applies to everything in life including fitness. If we want to get strong or grow muscles, we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

To summarize, even the most optimally designed workout will not provide results if we are not pushing ourselves hard. If we are serious about making strength and muscle gains we need to continue to challenge ourselves by progressively overloading our workouts.

Over a period of time though, we will notice that it becomes harder and harder for us to be able to progressively overload our workout. At this point we would have hit a plateau in the strength and mass gain. Before that happens we should change our entire workout. It is recommended that one should never continue the same workout routine for more than 12 weeks. Starting a new workout is a way of jolting the body to adapt to a new stimulus.