Consistently stacking on gains in the gym, requires one thing – progression. To achieve consistent success, you must design a training program with intent, purpose, and that progressively challenges the neuromuscular system for better muscle growth and recovery. The goal is implementing a training program that consistently and effectively challenges you, with a planned systematic progression over time, and that requires training periodization and specificity.
What Is Progressive Overload and Periodization
Although relatively simply in theory, progressive overload is essentially the application of consistent heavier loads or physical recurring stress over time, as the body systematically adapts to neuromuscular changes. To stimulate muscle growth and achieve consistent progression your body needs added physical stress (resistance training) to increase muscle mass and strength, by way of adaptation.
The human body will not change unless it’s forced to do so. With greater demands placed on your body, it’s essentially forced to adapt to those changes, to add muscle gain and growth.
Periodization is characterized by dividing training into specific cycles or segments, inducing progression and adaptation and different stages, to progressively build more muscle mass, strength, power, and stabilization accumulating to improved overall athletic performance. Periodization provides structure, a plan to get to your goals, while progressive overload is a component of that plan.
Principles Of Progressive Overload
Acute variables determine the amount of stress placed on your body, ultimately influencing the adaptations and changes that will occur. Acute variables include training specificity variables such as volume, intensity, reps, tempo, rest intervals, exercise frequency, and duration.
Training with the same acute variables week after week, with the same load, frequency, and exercises, will lead to muscle plateau, not hypertrophy. As your body adapts, it is crucial to progressively increase the load, the volume, sets, and repetitions to challenge and place more physical stress o your body, to force change. Now, before you start increasing your rep volume to 30, let’s discuss the variables of rep and set count.
Resistance training will induce the greatest changes when it comes to progressive overload. That’s not to say that other training modalities will not produce changes in muscle growth, strength and performance, as new forms of stress will inspire muscle hypertrophy, such as high-intensity functional training programs.
Increasing Rep Count
Reps or repetitions are the number of times you complete a particular movement of exercise. Most repetitions will involve three movements or range of motions: isometric, concentric, and eccentric.
Repetitions are essentially the number of times a muscle is under tension. By increasing the time under tension, your body needs to adapt physically with more muscular endurance, in order to handle the increase in volume.
Each phase of your training program under a periodization model, will have specific goals and a different number of reps, to induce physical neuromuscular adaptation and changes. For example, more muscular endurance is best achieved by performing 12-20 reps at 50-70% of your 1 rep max (1RM), while muscle hypertrophy is best achieved utilizing 8-12 reps at 70-85% of your 1RM.
Determining The Number Of Sets
In the beginning of a periodization training program volume is imperative to build more strength, stability, endurance, and connective tissue, to build a strong foundation to achieve greater gains in strength and muscle growth
The number of sets or a group of consecutive repetitions will also determine strength and muscle growth adaptations dependent upon periodization and goal. Sets and reps are inversely related and combined, is daily training volume. With more added total training volume, you will determine progression and load. Generally fewer sets are performed with more reps, and fewer repetitions are performed, with more sets and higher intensity. For example, if our training adaption and focus is leg strength, your barbell back squat sets will range between 3-6 with 3-6 reps at 90% of your 1RM. Thus, performing fewer sets with performing higher repetitions and low intensity will induce greater changes in endurance and muscle hypertrophy, while more sets when performing low reps at higher intensity will induce greater changes in strength and power adaptations.
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Now, we’re going to talk intensity. Intensity is the effort you give compared to your maximal effort and is one of the most important acute variables in developing a progressive overload training program. Your specific training phase and goals will determine intensity in a periodization model as well as sets and reps for each exercise.
Training intensity for optimal physical stress is important for progression. However, training specificity is dependent upon your desired goal. For optimal strength, stick to high intensity low reps. If you want to get shredded, build more mass, and have a set of six pack abs, then your goals are muscle hypertrophy and strength, considering both are linearly correlated.
Beginning lifters will want to develop their core foundational strength, by incorporating lower intensity as that will result in the most significant gains. Overtime however, intensity must gradually increase to prompt adaptation.
Training frequency refers to the number of times you train a specific muscle group each week. There are several ways to approach the necessary amount of training in a given week to achieve optimal progression. Again, this depends on your goals. Optimal training frequency for strength and developing more muscle mass, is between 3-5 days per week. You will however want to split your workouts accordingly to avoid overtraining and achieve maximal gains.
Elucidate it how you want, but there is no “right or wrong” way to split your training program. Split workouts can take on many different variations such as push-pull splits, 4-day splits, 5-day splits, and lower and upper body splits
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A meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine analyzed the effects of resistance training frequency on muscle growth and strength. The analysis concluded that training muscle groups 2-3 times per week, resulted in significantly more muscle hypertrophy and strength as compared to once per week [R]. A 2018 study in conjunction with Texas Tech University replicated these results, demonstrating that working each muscle group twice per week, resulted in increased muscle size and improved body composition [R].
As long as you have adequate rest and recovery between exercises that involve the same muscle groups, you can also incorporate full body workouts.
When you’re deciding on which workout structure to follow, there are a few key life variables to consider.
- Time: How much time do you have during the week, to dedicate and commit to training? 3 days per week, for 45 minutes per day? 5 days per week? Or maybe just 1-2 days depending on your schedule. If you can remain consistent and time is not a significant factor, a split workout structure, is going to be the best choice for maximal performance. If you have increased variability in your schedule, and you can’t remain consistent, a full body workout is probably a better choice.
- Goals: Defining your specific health and fitness goals, will help determine if a split workout, is a better choice than a full body structure. If you’re an endurance athlete and your focus is running, cycling, and swimming, then full body workouts, with specific emphasis on muscle groups, which need more strength will be the best option. On the flip side, if your goal is to build more strength, maximize muscle growth, and havea defined physique, then a bodybuilding split workout, is going to be the workout structure for you.
- Weaknesses: What are your weaknesses? Do you need to be in overall better shape? Do you want to lose weight at a rapid pace? Maybe you have specific muscular imbalances you need to address? Perhaps you want more functional strength, to move better, improve mobility and reduce minor aches and pains. Whatever your weaknesses may be, hybrid programs, designed to improve strength and burn body fat, such as HIIT, HIFT, or HIFB, are great options to improve all aspects of performance and functional strength. A split program, paired with a cardio component would also be a great option. Again, that depends on your time and your goals.
Increasing Resistance (Load)
Perhaps the most obvious way to induce change, is by increasing the weight. I mean that is the whole point of progressive overload, right? If your goal is to increase muscle growth, and your 12th rep of your 3rd set feels easy, then guess what, you need to increase the load. Remember there is an inverse relationship between reps and sets, therefore the more weight you add to the bar, the fewer reps you’ll be able to achieve. With more resistance, you’ll force your body to adapt and grow.
The last and final principle of progressive overload we’re going to touch on is exercise selection. Exercise selection has a significant impact on your desired training adaptation, therefore training with specific exercises, will be paramount to your goals.
Any resistance training program will build and develop strength, as long as the load is sufficient to induce change. However, to develop full body strength, balance, coordination and stabilization, the use of functional full body compound movements is paramount for optimal strength and neuromuscular development.
Functional strength training incorporates compound movements; multi-jointed movements, which require more than one muscle group to be used throughout an exercise. Common compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, and push press can improve mobility, strength, and functionality. Function translates to purpose, therefore, functional training and compound movements have a specific purpose of movement. These types of exercises, mimic specific movement patterns used for everyday activities such as hip rotation, muscle stabilizers, flexor muscles, and ensure your joints are moving through a full range of motion.
Compound movements require free weights. Machines are great for isolation movements, and do have their place, however the entire purpose of compound movements are to build more functional strength with intent. With compound movements, you’ll burn more calories, increase strength, optimize stability, develop core strength, increase mobility, and further training adaptations in muscle growth.
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Progressive Overload: Takeaway
The impetus for change, is progressive overload. With the same added stress week after week, your body has no reason to adapt or change. Developing training intent, program specificity, and adjusting acute variables will result in the training adaptations you want and desire. Whether it's muscle growth, endurance capacity, or strength, progressive overload is necessary to meet your goals.
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