What you are getting yourself into - 1500 Words
Estimated Read Time - 10-15 Minutes
Let me start off by saying a mountain of information exists regarding progressive overload but most of it pertains to how progressive overload works and the body of work that focuses on the theory rather than practical implementation of the concept. This is rather a crash course into how you can apply the concept into a practical setting for your training.
To start we must first define Progressive overload. It is a gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. The term progressive resistance exercise was coined by Thomas Delorme, M.D. when he rehabilitated soldiers after World War II. He noticed that by placing gradually increasing weights on soldiers ankles and doing a leg extension while their broken leg was in a cast that they would return to service much faster after the cast was taken off as opposed to the soldiers that did nothing with the broken limb. Later this became what we now call progressive overload. In the search to become stronger and improve performance in physical endeavours coaches took this concept and applied it to training utilising a few methods; the most popular being adding weight to the bar over a gradual period of time. Later these methods would be organised into a timeline an athlete can follow to peak for their sport. This was the seed that started the tree of periodisation.
Learning From Our Predecessors
Before Delorne ever touched a scalpel progressive overload was being practiced in ancient times. The simplest depiction of progressive overload is the now famous illustration of Milo of Croton. It’s used to explain progressive overload in the simplest of ways.
The image is self explanatory; lift more weight gradually over time and you gradually get stronger. In other words your body adapts to the imposed stress gradually (I’ve said gradually a lot because people forget the word looking to get stronger). The golden rule being that more stress than before needs to be applied otherwise the organism (us) doesn't have a reason to adapt because it’s strong enough.
Seems relatively simple at first, but as anyone who has lifted weights for a long period knows imposed demand on the body by increasing load alone eventually leads to diminishing returns. Initially we make fantastic progress but if you could continually add 2.5kgs (5lbs) to a lift every week everyone would be lifting a tonne by the time they hit their seventh year of training. There comes a time when adding more weight on the bar actually becomes counter productive and can even lead to regression. The aim of this article isn't about breaking down why we have these adaptions or their mechanisms as it is a very complicated subject that requires much more than a short piece like this. Although knowing why helps you understand the how within contexts I will be focusing on giving you some tools to assist you in continuing to progress when the weight on the bar doesn’t want to budge. Nothing I will be sharing with you is new; but it’s a good summary of the primary ways how you can progress without adding more weight for the same reps. It’s the practical toolset every lifter needs.
How to Increase your 1RM
Before I give you methods let’s put a practical example of how this can work over a short period of time using a theoretical lift. For the purposes of all my examples we will use a theoretical lifter that lifts 100kg (225lbs) in the bench press. The main goal would be to get 90% (90kg) of that weight for a set of 5-6 reps over a period of 6 weeks. Typically 90% can only be performed for about 1-3 repetitions for a max. Below is a series of ways to get to that goal using various percentages of your 1RM without ever adding weight/percentages to work sets. Stay until the very end and i’ll show you how to incorporate all of these techniques into a single program that you can apply immediately if you so choose.
So let’s say after the initial warm up we work up to one set of 2 repetitions with 90% (90kg). For ournext session we will be aiming for 2x2 rather than 1x2, 3x2 the session after and so on. It doesn’t have to be so aggressive though. A better way to go about it would be to hit 1x2 twice or three times in a row and then increase to 2x2. Rinse and repeat. I have to say this is my favourite of the primary methods I will show you. Adding sets is brutal and effective!
Week 1 - Day 1 - 1 x 2 @90%
Week 1 - day 2 - 1 x 2 @90%
Week 1 - day 3 - 1 x 2 @90%
Week 2 - Day 1 - 2 x 2 @90%
Week 2 - Day 2 - 2 x 2 @90%
Week 2 - Day 3 - 2 x 2 @90%
Week 3 - Day1 - 3 x 2 @90%
Week 3 - Day2 - 3 x 2 @90%
Week 3 - Day3 - 3 x 2 @90%
Typically I would use this approach in conjunction with adding sets; after adding a sufficient amount of sets you can reduce sets and add reps. Using a percentage like 90% it is difficult to achieve as the working repetitions are too high to add reps week after week. For this I would recommend using something around 80-85%. For this example I will use 85% on our theoretical lifter. You may ask; but how do I get stronger with 90% if i’m only using 85% Steve! It’s pretty simple really; if you increase the amount of reps you do with something as close as 85% you will also increase your ability to punch out reps at 90% as it’s a close percentage. Obviously this approach has diminished returns the further away you are from your goal percentage you are trying to improve. That has big implications regarding 1RM strength but thats a long conversation for another day.
Week 1 - Day 1 - 3 x 3 @85%
Week 1 - day 2 - 3 x 3 @85%
Week 1 - day 3 - 3 x 3 @85%
Week 2 - Day 1 - 3 x 4 @85%
Week 2 - Day 2 - 3 x 4 @85%
Week 2 - Day 3 - 3 x 4 @85%
Week 3 - Day1 - 3 x 5 @85%
Week 3 - Day2 - 3 x 5 @85%
Week 3 - Day3 - 3 x 5 @85%
To make this work two things need to be considered. The amount of volume in a single session needs to be capable of either increasing or decreasing or alternatively starting with a low frequency, low volume approach and simply adding frequency. For the sake of simplicity we will opt for the latter.
Week 1 - Day 1 - 2 x 2 @90%
Week 2 - Day 1 - 2 x 2 @90%
Week 2 - Day 2 - 2 x 2 @90%
Week 3 - Day1 - 2 x 2 @90%
Week 3 - Day2 - 2 x 2 @90%
Week 3 - Day3 - 2 x 2 @90%
Implementing any of these primary approaches will inevitably increase volume. As you add more sets, repetitions or frequency either daily, weekly or both daily and weekly volume will increase. Typically as volume rises we see a diminishment of intensity but that isn’t necessarily true as the models I have used have kept the chosen intensity constant while increasing volume over time.
Combining All Three Approaches
A combination of all three primary approaches can yield significant returns. By mixing and matching the body must respond to the added stress placed upon it by becoming more robust or put simply; get stronger. We are replacing weight on the bar with added sets, reps, frequency and rotating volume. The program below doesn’t have much volume initially but gradually increases. Obviously warm up accordingly before hitting your top sets; something like 2x5 with 50%, 1x5 with 70%, then a set 5% below what you are hitting for working sets with the same repetitions as the working sets. I’ve added a taper or deload on the seventh week so you can be primed to hit more than 5 reps come testing time with 90%, or alternatively go for a new max.
Turning Something Simple into Something Complex
I left daily volume and weekly intensity in there to show you all something. Although the average percentage doesn't change much week to week this is still a simple model of daily undulating periodisation or DUP as intensity varies and so does volume. It’s all the rave but like most things it’s just a term and has been done for a long time. I am trying to illustrate that with a little bit of knowledge you can apply simple concepts to make a program that at first seems to be using very complicated mechanisms. Ultimately this is progressive overload placed within a time sensitive model or to use another word it is periodised into what could be referred to as a microcycle.
I acknowledge there are other ways to make this more advanced such as using variations of the primary movement you are looking to increase (pauses, close grip, rest pause sets, etc) but this is a KISS model and not tailored to each individuals needs. Feel free to try the program above or make your own using the tools i’ve outlined; just remember not to get carried away with volume! everything adds up and you can easily bite off more than you can chew.
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