Everything You Need To Know About the Progressive Overload Principle

Everything You Need To Know About the Progressive Overload Principle - 1st Detachment

Written by Justin Harris and Team 1D


What is progressive overload training?

Everyone seems to be focusing on progressive overload training these days -which is great because of all the metrics used to gauge potential muscle growth; an increase in strength is about as direct of a correlation as you'll get. 

Progressive overload is a principle in strength training that refers to gradually increasing the resistance or weight being lifted over time instead of the same weight. The idea is that by consistently challenging the muscles with more weight, they will adapt and become stronger.

You have to consider how you're applying progressive overload training. Are you progressively moving more weight in a movement? Or are you progressively moving more weight because of a stronger targeted muscle because they aren't the same?

What's worse is that it sometimes IS the case that getting stronger in a movement means you have directly increased strength in the targeted muscle and therefore have likely increased its size - and the select use of these movements (and athletes of a particular sport) as examples has sent many a person down the wrong road in the quest for muscle mass.


A case study on progressive overload:

Female powerlifter training deadlift with proper form.

Powerlifter - Probably has a stupid thick back and chest and has relatively weak legs and arms from a bodybuilder standpoint. Think maybe Larry Wheels, your legs are actually pretty well balanced, which actually proves the point I'm going to make because I believe it's your natural form on a squat that is the cause.

Bodybuilder - Often has a weak back and usually has much bigger arms and legs than the powerlifter.



The difference between getting stronger in a movement and making a muscle stronger.

The goal of progressive overload is to make muscles stronger. It can be reasonably assumed that a muscle that continually gets stronger will get larger. There are many other factors in play, but if you're benching 135 for 10 today and in a few years are doing 405 for 10 with the exact same form, you can safely assume your chest will be bigger.


But, there is a difference between making a muscle stronger and getting stronger in a movement. 

In powerlifting, all that matters is getting stronger in a movement. In bodybuilding, if we're using strength gains as a metric for potential muscle gains, all that matters is making the muscle stronger.


So, why do powerlifters have big chests and backs? 

Powerlifter competing in bench press competition

It's because the form that allows you to be strongest in the deadlift or bench is necessarily that form that utilizes the chest and back muscles maximally.

You can vary your deadlift form (stiff leg, Romanian deadlift, etc.), but in any of those variations, you're removing a portion of the stress from the erectors or traps and placing it on the supporting muscle groups (hamstrings, glutes, etc.).

Therefore, if you get stronger in the deadlift, you are by default making your back muscles stronger.

This is pretty much the same with the bench. You can adjust the workload to the supporting muscles (close grip bench, etc.), but since they're the weaker supporting muscles, you will inevitably be weaker with that form.


Now, let's look at a squat.

If you're looking to get big quads, then you need to make the quads stronger - this requires you to use a form on a squat that is probably not the most advantageous for getting stronger in the movement.

Consider a high bar, close stance squat with heels elevated.

Man using progressive overload training squat

Now, if I'm looking to get stronger in that movement, I can very easily get stronger by adjusting my form to adjust the workload from 90% quads/8% glutes/2% other supporting muscles (or whatever it would be) by spreading my stance out, lowering the bar position on my back, sitting back more, adjusting my knee path, etc. The workload distribution is maybe 50% quads, 20% glutes, 10% lumbar, 10% hamstrings, and 10% other supporting muscles (glute minor, adductors, etc.).

In this case, I got stronger in the movement, but I'm working my quads less.


The same holds true for arms.

Since the biceps and triceps are probably going to be the weakest mover in any bar path for any arm exercise AND are such small muscles, you are actually almost guaranteed that any initial jump in weight on an arm movement is because you're using the arm muscles LESS, not that they actually got stronger.

The reason is that even a 5lb dumbbell increase on a curl movement is a proportionally large increase in weight for the small biceps (probably along the lines of a 90lb or more increase in the deadlift).

To consider the extreme, you could turn a curl into a reverse hang clean and perhaps curl as much as 400 lbs., all while using close to zero bicep contraction.


How to use progressive overload to build larger muscles?

Bodybuilding creating bicep muscle mass with resistance training

If the movement used is such that the only way to get stronger is to use the intended muscle MORE (deadlift, bench, that's really about it), then you can focus on simply getting stronger in the movement.

For ALL other movements, you have to mitigate your PRs by making sure that you're making the muscle stronger - not just being more biomechanically advantageous in the movement.

It's actually a pretty subtle point. It's completely obvious once you think about it, but kind of like how people think they're actually using 500g of protein per day without ever considering that 500g is 1/2kg or 1.1 lbs., so if they were actually using that amount of protein for protein synthesis, they'd be gaining over a pound of muscle per day, most of the time we don't stop and really think about stuff.


Other points to consider in progressive overload training

Legs respond to crazy high volume. Same with arms.

Watch Lee Priest train arms - tons and tons of sets and reps. Watch Kai Greene Train legs - tons and tons of sets and reps and a TON of movement variation. The BIGGEST issue bodybuilders have when they start is weak legs (not weak quads - weak legs). 

Bodybuilder quad development through progressive overload training

It's because a few balls-deep sets of squats can nearly put you in the hospital, but the workload is spread over so many muscles that even though the body is wrecked, the individual leg muscles aren't loaded nearly enough to trigger the muscle protein synthesis you want.

Also, there are SO many supporting muscles that are required for true bodybuilding legs.

You should devote as many sets and as much of a physical workload to hamstrings as you do quads.

But you also need to devote that same amount of strength training to glutes (minus whatever workload they receive in the quad movements, e.g., if they get 20% in a squat, then you need 80% of the workload for glute specific movements as you do for quads, or in other words, for every 5 sets of quad-focused work, you'd need 4 sets of glute focused work).

But you also need to consider the adductors, sartorius, and the other muscles of the inner quad.

You also need to consider all the components of the quads.

You also need to consider the calves, gastrocnemius, and soleus.


Progressive overload workout plan for legs

Bodybuilder preparing for lower body strength training set.

For me, I've found that every leg workout should have a minimum of the following:

  • Heavy quad work (squats, leg presses, etc.). Usually, 2 movements.
  • Hamstring curl work (leg curls, seated leg curls, etc.). Usually 2-3 movements.
  • Light quad work (leg extensions, sissy squats, hack squats, etc.). Usually, at least 1 movement.
  • Heavy hamstring work - working the attachment at the hip, not the knee (stiff leg, RDL, sumo stiff leg*watch Kai Greene do them) 1 movement
  • A compound movement to cover the % workload of the assisting muscles (walking lunges, single leg press, Bulgarian split squats, etc.). Usually, 1-2 movements.
  • Inner quad to cover the % of assisting (adductor machine is usually enough) 1 movement.


What is your goal with your progressive overload workout plan?

Bodybuilder flexing upper muscle group

What do I like more? Big legs or a big squat?

Because you'll have a hard time getting big legs when you put 45 min or more of physically draining heavy squats and still have 7-9 other movements left (not including calves).

And the only person I've ever seen come close to doing it was Ronnie Coleman.

But if you look at his leg training routine, it was (he hit them twice a week):

Workout 1:

  • Squat
  • Leg press
  • Lying leg curl
  • Stiff leg deadlift

Workout 2:

  • Front squat
  • Hack squat
  • Seated leg curl
  • Stiff leg deadlift

So, he did 8 additional movements per week on top of his squat sets.

People think he trained for strength or more like a powerlifter, but he really didn't.


Muscle growth takes time in strength training.

Female bodybuilder flexing in mirror to analyze upper muscle group.

Progressive overload is considered an essential component of a well-designed strength training program, as it ensures that the muscles are constantly challenged and continue to make progress. However, it's important to progress gradually and listen to your body, as attempting to increase the weight or resistance too quickly can lead to injury.

Listen to your body during any form of resistance training, and always incorporate proper form.

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