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I can’t tell you the number of clients I consult with who ask whether they should lift less weight for more reps or more weight for less reps. And my advice is always to follow a progressive overload program.
Progressive overload is a buzzword in the fitness space lately, but it’s really just a more technical way to say “overloading your muscles over time” — something you’re hopefully doing in some capacity if you’re on a workout program or following a structured plan. Progressive overload is the fastest and most effective way to stimulate muscle growth (aka hypertrophy).
Most often applied to strength training, the theory behind progressive overload can also be lent to endurance activities such as running and cycling. It should come as no surprise that progressive overload entails increasing the frequency, reps and load in any given set over months or weeks. Doing the same workouts over and over again or using the same weights all the time will never yield the aesthetic changes you are looking for.
While volume, intensity, and load are still the most common variables used in strength training, research on functional training suggests a new load variable: complexity. By increasing the complexity of an exercise through components such as coordination, balance, core stability, power and agility, you can raise its physical demand and push your limits. This also challenges the body with new variables, decreasing the rate at which it adapts over time. With adaptation comes plateaus, so that’s a good thing.
If you’re looking for body recomposition or a leaner, more toned look, progressive overload is where it’s at. You can avoid plateaus and injuries while making the absolute most out of just three to four training sessions each week.
What Does Progressive Overload Look Like?
There are multiple ways to approach this strategy. Here are a few:
1. Increase Weights
Adding more resistance, stronger bands, heavier dumbbells, heavier sandbag or med ball. These are all means to the same end: breaking down muscle to rebuild and increase strength.
10-12 reps is the sweet spot to obtain a comfort level with a given weight before moving on to a heavier resistance.
The last 2-3 reps should be a challenge in each set. Give yourself at least 60-90 seconds between sets before beginning the exercise again to allow your muscles enough recovery
Ensure you are taking 2 rest days per week in order to recover fully between sessions
2. Increase Reps and/or Sets
For example; week one: 2 sets of 10, week two: 2 sets of 12, week three: 2 sets of 14, week four: 3 sets of 10. Choose a rep range that remains a challenge for you but allows you to still complete the sets with full pain free range of motion.
3. Add Tempo or Paused Sets
Adding tempo to reps can boost muscle hypertrophy by increasing the time the muscle spends under tension.
Example: back squat with a 3-3-1 tempo: 3 second down, 3 seconds in the squat, 1 second up. Building eccentric strength, or the lowering down phase of a movement, is critical for powerful and effective muscle contractions and hypertrophy.
Initially, the weights you are using for tempo should be lighter than the weights you would normally use
How Much Is too Much?
How do you navigate walking the line of progressive overload without overtraining to the point of injury? The subtle art of gradually progressing is difficult for many of us to manage and understand. You see it all the time when the excitement of beginning a new weightlifting program or gearing up to train for a marathon leaves you sidelined due to pain or injury.
Acute chronic workload, or AWCR, is a calculation that compares the workload a person is prepared for to their current workload. This calculation compares workload over the last week (acute workload) to workload over the last month (chronic overload). AWCR indicates how prepared you are for the workload you are trying to accomplish. While the math required here is beyond the scope of this blog post, the fundamental idea behind it is key to staying healthy over time. Athletes looking to improve performance and physique can unequivocally reduce their risk of injury by avoiding huge spikes in workload.
Moreover, the more exposure an athlete has to load and the greater the gradual progression in chronic load, the better the body becomes at withstanding injury. Of course, it goes without saying that sleeping eight hours every night, managing your stress and anxiety, staying hydrated and recovering between sessions will also play a huge role in injury prevention between sessions and ensure proper recovery as you effectively implement progressive overload into your training.