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The Progressive Overload Principle

Milo of Croton was a six-time Olympic Champion who lived in the 6th century BC. As a young man, Milo is reported to have gained his tremendous strength by carrying a calf on his shoulders each day for four years until it grew into a massive bull. As the young calf grew, so did Milo’s strength. This story represents the first principle of strength training – the Principle of Progressive Overload.

The Principle of Progressive Overload states that a muscle must experience an increased overload in order to adapt and become stronger. Progressive Overload just means working a muscle or muscles slightly harder than they are used to working. With proper rest and recovery, the muscle will grow stronger.

Overload can come in many forms including increasing the amount of weight, sets or repetitions performed, decreasing rest periods between sets, increasing the range of motion of an exercise, using more challenging versions of an exercise and increasing the frequency of training.

Increasing the stress placed on a muscle causes the muscle to adapt and become stronger following a period of rest and recuperation.

Adaptation takes time. Stick to a particular exercise, weight, number of sets or repetitions for a period of time so the muscle can adapt to the new load before increasing the amount of stress.

Progression means moving slightly past your comfort zone. When you increase the weight, sets or repetitions on an exercise or decrease your rest period between sets, you may be uncomfortable. This is ok as long as you maintain proper technique and good range of motion on an exercise. Do not cheat in order to lift more. Using good form and range of motion will limit the risk of injury and help your progress over time.

At Strength for Life we have an order in which we teach and progress any exercise. First is to master good technique. Strength training is a skill and the form for each exercise should be learned first. Once you are able to perform an exercise correctly, the next step is to be able to move the exercise through the proper range of motion.

Proper range of motion refers to the acceptable amount of movement a muscle can make around a joint.

Finally, once you can demonstrate good from and adequate range of motion on an exercise, we add resistance. The amount of weight that you lift is the least important variable in strength training. To develop optimal strength, you must practice the skill of lifting correctly. Avoid jerking, cutting the range of motion, bouncing or using momentum. Poor form can limit your strength gains and increase the chance of getting hurt.

If you are new to strength training, you will experience faster gains in the first months of your training. Gains are slower as you become more advanced since you are approaching your potential. In the first month of strength training, most of the improvement you experience will be neurological. The brain becomes more efficient at sending signals to the muscle to contract and improves coordination of muscle fiber contractions causing a more forceful contraction.

Although in the story of Milo, he was able to continually improve his strength as the calf grew into a bull, science and experience tell us that progress in not linear. When we work out consistently, we will experience plateaus. Strength increases in waves over time. Don’t be discouraged if you have a bad day or even a bad week. Look for improvement over time.

Here are a few other guidelines that will help you incorporate the Progressive Overload principle into your training.

1. Keep increases small. Radically increasing the amount of work or weight that you lift can cause injury. Be smart and train safely. You will make better progress over time by making small adjustments over a long time than trying to be the strongest person in the gym in a week or two.

2. Increase your reps or resistance depending on your goals. Increasing reps helps overall strength and muscular endurance. Increasing resistance will increase the amount of weight you can lift. For overall general strength and endurance, vary your sets, reps and volume of work.

3. Adding more sets will increase your strength levels, but beware that there are diminishing returns as you add sets. A good range of sets on any exercise is three to five per workout to increase strength.

4. Add other exercises to increase volume and strength of particular muscle groups. If you are trying to increase your bench press, you can add close-grip bench presses, triceps and shoulder exercises. Training the back muscles with rows and pulldowns and your core muscles will help generate stability.

5. As we age, our bodies take more time to recover from exercise. Also, our ability to process and synthesize protein decreases which limits muscle and strength gains. At some point, maintaining our strength is progress!

6. Progressive overload may be the most important factor in gaining strength or muscle. Consistency, rest, recovery, stress, nutrition, age and gender, puberty, hormones, menopause and medications also have an impact on becoming stronger.

Apply the Principle of Progressive Overload to your training and you just might become the next Milo of Croton.

Strength for Life specializes in providing personal training to mature adults and people new to exercise. We guide our clients to live their best lives possible through safe, effective strength training and conditioning programs. To find out more, contact or visit our website:

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