By Scott A. Jansen

As a fitness expert who has spent over 10,000 hours in a fitness facility either training myself or clients, I observe habits and hear discussions between members that I want to interject as a positive agent of change. One of the hardest things for me to see is the gym member who comes in 3 to 5 times a week for an hour at a time and does the same exact full-body workout every time. They often use the same exact weight, sets, repetitions and speed of movement and over.  To me, it is no shocker that their body never changes in appearance or performance level.

From my experience, it seems that these individuals either mistakenly tell themselves that it takes years to notice any changes, don’t know what else to do in the way of movements, are scared to research or ask for help, or end up seeing limited results and get discouraged and quit altogether.

Granted, there are also those people that workout merely to maintain their current physical condition and attempt to maintain what they have and just hope to keep the bodyfat off. There are others who view the gym as merely a social place where they have friendships and get their fix of interaction from people. I know that it shouldn’t take 3-5 hours a week to achieve this goal, though. My hope is that all could be more efficient and productive with their time.

For those individuals whose intention is to change their bodies, the main reason for failure in this area is the lack of use of the “overload principle” in their workouts. Instead of creating progressive overload or forcing the body to do more than it’s accustomed to, they simply go through the motions and maintain what they have.

The human body will not change unless you force it to. One of my favorite quotes is: Without challenge you have no change!


What Is Progressive Overload?

This theory was developed by Thomas Delorme, M.D. while he rehabilitated soldiers after World War 2. ( Every segment of the wellness community uses it including Physical Therapists, Cardiac Rehab Specialists, Athletic Trainers, Personal Trainers, and Sports Performance Coaches.

This principal refers to continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system in order to consistently make changes in muscle size, strength, endurance. In simplest term: In order to get bigger, stronger, faster, have better endurance, or increase longevity, you must continually alter your workouts.

Conversely, if the demands on your muscles or cardiovascular system are not at least maintained and are potentially decreased, you lose strength and stamina. Progressive overload is a very simple concept, but it is impactful. It is the foundation for every scientific based exercise and rehab program today!

The progressive overload principal doesn’t just apply to resistance training and increasing muscle growth and strength; it can also be applied to growing bone and connective tissue strength (through resistance training) as well as cardiovascular fitness and the associated physiological changes that take place through a progressive cardiovascular exercise program.

7 Ways to Create Progressive Overload

  1. Increase Resistance
    Progressively increase the weight you lift as you become stronger, and the weight becomes easier. A good indicator of when to increase the resistance is when you can perform more than your target repetitions (e.g. your lifting program calls for sets of 10 repetitions, but you can do more).
  1. Increase Sets
    Increase the number of sets you perform for a given exercise. Instead of 2 or 3 sets maybe you’ll want to increase to 3 or 4 in order to really fatigue the muscle(s). Power lifters often use sets of 5.
  1. Increase Repetitions
    Increase the number of repetitions you perform for a given exercise. Don’t stop yourself at some magical number – Push yourself to do 1 or 2 more reps with the aid of a spotter if necessary. If you can get those extra reps completely by yourself and it is higher than your target rep range then you know it’s time to increase the resistance.
  1. Increase Frequency
    Increase how often you train a particular muscle or muscle group. This technique is most useful for improving injured or weak muscles or muscle groups, potentially rehabbing a muscular imbalance. The traditional approach to training a muscle group is only once or twice week. This may not be sufficient enough for every individual to create the desired change. Be careful not to over train as that would become negative and counterproductive.
  1. Increase Exercises
    Increase the number of exercises you perform in each workout. This is one of my favorite styles of adaption. Increasing the amount of movements you do during a workout enable for better efficiency of time and create the ability to be a balanced athlete. This steers you away from the bodybuilding strength training methods and makes you more functional for everyday life and decrease the chance of injury. An example would be Cross Training.
  1. Increase Intensity
    This is the most common method of training today. Examples of this style of training would include HIIT Training, small specialized exercise gyms (Spin Studios, Cross Fits, etc.), small group training, and bootcamps. This is accomplished by increasing your exertion or how much energy you put into every set. This is one of the most important factors for creating a progressive overload. The modern science proves that this principle creates change immediately.A good training partner, personal trainer, or coach will push you harder and keep you focused to accomplish this task. Having a fitness professional is advised for this principle to help avoid injury. All I have to say is Cross Fit, and you’ll know what I mean.
  1. Decrease Recover Time
    Decreasing the recovery time between consecutive sets will force your body to adapt metabolically. This affects your muscle’s ability to adapt to the demands placed upon it at a cellular level. Serious athletes spend lots of money trying to aid in this recovery with supplements such as electrolytes, and Creatine. With or with extra nutrients your body will adapt and eventually you will be able to more work in less time.

In Summary

You need to take a good look at your current fitness program and fitness goals and determine which of the 7 ways described above are going to be best for you to create a progressive overload. I suggest incorporating all of these methods into your program at one time or another to see how your body responds and see which works best for you. Incorporating various methods at various times will also serve to keep your body confused and changing for the better.

While factors such as increasing total volume will be important to a bodybuilder, decreasing the rest time between sets coupled with higher repetitions may be more beneficial for endurance athletes or individuals concerned with muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness rather than gains in strength and power. This is where having goals and creating specific workout programs for you are essential.

If you’re an endurance athlete, and muscular endurance is important to you, you should increase the repetitions first rather than increasing the resistance. If your strength and/or muscle size is important to you, you should increase the resistance first instead of the repetitions. Prioritize what is important to you; nothing beats specificity and focus on the task at hand.

If you increase your overall intensity make sure to listen to your body and know when it’s time to rest. Training less frequently and allowing your body to recover can be as important as applying overload training principles.

As always, I am available to offer advice to help you achieve your goals and to better live a purposeful life. I suggest you seek professionals to save time and get a better outcome, or at the very least read my articles and apply the principles.

Until next time…

Scott A. Jansen
Magnuson Athletic Club/ Fitness Manager