Why You Aren't Seeing Gains in the Gym: Learning About Progressive Overload

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Why You Aren't Seeing Gains in the Gym: Learning About Progressive Overload

What is Progressive Overload?

You’ve probably heard the term “progressive overload” before and in this article, we will break down what it is, how it is achieved, and at the end I will share with you my personal, PROVEN method for busting plateaus and shocking your muscles to grow – So be sure to read it in full!

The principle of progressive overload basically states that In order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced. This principle was first put into practice by the famous orthopedic surgeon, Thomas L. DeLorme, back in World War II for service members going through rehabilitation.

I want you to stop and read that phrase again, “The human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.”

Progressive Overload Explained

Do you ever see guys and gals coming into the gym every day for weeks and weeks and they never seem to look different? They put in ALL the work but for some reason their physiques aren’t changing? This is partly because they are not engaging in the principle of progressive overload.

Progressive overload is the concept that involves challenging your musculoskeletal system with stimuli that will force it to continuously adapt, repairing and building muscle (in a crosshatch formation) that will be stronger and able to withstand more stimuli as time goes on. This principle is simple in theory but takes effort and persistence when putting it in to application. It is important to remember that your body doesn’t care about your goals of building muscle or losing body fat, it cares about survival; if you tear down the muscle fibers with intense training, it will build muscle back even stronger. Your body will not change unless you force it to, and that’s what this principle is all about.

What does it take to Achieve Progressive Overload?

Training for progressive overload means not doing the same number of sets and same number of repetitions and expecting different results (you don’t want to be those guys and gals we mentioned earlier, right? Of course not!). By not increasing the demands being placed on your body, you aren’t giving your body any reason to improve. I’ll say it again, our body only cares about survival – you must force it into adaptation.

Let me give you an example: if you’ve been doing 185 lbs on bench press for 4 sets of 10-12 repetitions every time you hit chest in the gym, you aren’t going to get stronger. Your body will only adapt to handle that level of stress. In order to achieve progressive overload, you MUST go up in weight and/or volume so that it increases the demands on your muscle. Progressive overload may resemble something such as going from the 185 lbs to 200 lbs for 4 sets of 10-12, then increasing to 225 lbs. for 4 sets of 10-12… you get the idea. This is progressive overload – THIS is what needs to occur for muscle growth and development!

What if I am Unable to go up in Weight?

If you are unable to go up in weight by yourself, this is where a spotter comes in to play. First, you should NEVER LIFT ALONE and should never attempt progressive overload without a spotter, as it can potentially be dangerous to your health. Next, you should ONLY attempt to increase the weight when you have perfected the form of that lift – not doing so can result in injury!

When I hit the gym, I always have a lifting partner (most of the time it’s Cody, @Flexm_k on Instagram)! Now that we have safety out of the way, let’s move on. Having a spotter will allow you to throw on that heavier weight and force you to recruit more muscle fibers as you struggle to press the weight (again going back to the bench press example).

As the spotter, it is his/her job to only help you enough to keep you safe and the bar moving, the rest of the movement should be from the lifter. As the lifter, you are pushing and engaging your muscle fibers to help generate more force – BELIEVE IT OR NOT by increasing the weight and stimuli on your pectorals, you are recruiting more fibers to move the weight. THIS is the principle of progressive overload at work.

My Personal Starting Strategy for Shocking Your Muscle

Your body is amazing – it can sense when you are falling into a routine. It knows that you are going to start with bench press for 5 sets of 10, then dumbbell incline press…it knows this! Shocking your muscle is going to place your muscle in a state of panic and leave you feeling sore and with a pec that is going to grow.

HOW DO I SHOCK MY MUSCLE? I love this question, even though I catch some heat for it from others; I honestly don’t care because it works! We’ll stick to the bench press example. Instead of starting with 185 lbs, then moving to 225 lbs, and up…. try starting with a weight that is roughly 20 lbs more than your one rep max; my max is about 305 lbs so I threw on 320 lbs. Keep in mind you want to be able to SAFELY support the weight as you remove it from the bar – you don’t want your arms ridiculously shaky.

Your spotter is going to play a huge role in this shock. Lower the bar in a slow and controlled manner, and once you hit 90 degrees EXPLODE into your concentric contraction. Your spotter is there to ensure that you keep the bar moving, but NOTHING MORE – YOU are doing the work. The point of this is to engage and recruit as many muscle fibers as you can. You’re going to be pushing and engaging your chest against a heavy stimulus – recruitment WILL occur AKA your chest is going to be sore the next day.

Once you finish out on your shock rep, you can either hit it again for another 2-5 sets/reps or drop the weight to 75% of your max and crush some volume sets (5 sets of 10, for example). After doing this, I had an INSANE pump and my chest was destroyed, which is exactly what we want!

Okay, Let’s Summarize What We’ve Talked About

  1. In order for progressive overload to be present the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced
  2. Increasing the weight and/or volume of your workouts is the beginning to achieving progressive overload
  3. Never attempt to push beyond your max weight without a spotter – it isn’t safe nor worth it if you get hurt
  4. Utilizing my method in the last paragraph, you will be able to bust through your strength plateaus on stack on some serious size

Thanks for taking the time to read this article on progressive overload training, more specifically what it is, how to achieve it, and my proven method to bust through plateaus. If you have comments or questions about this article, or would like to suggest a future topic, please drop a comment below or reach out to @TEAMFLEXAPPEAL on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube.

This article was written by TFA Team Member Todd Duquette, BSN-RN, NASM-CPT STUDENT.


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