April 19, 2016 in Programming
  • Progressive overload is defined as doing ‘more’ of ‘something’ over time.
  • Strength gains do not happen in a linear fashion.
  • Athletes will see quicker progress early in their career compared to with later stages.
  • An athlete needs to increase training complexity and specificity over time to continue working toward his or her potential.

This three-part blog series suggests that many powerlifters have a narrow vision of progressive overload.

Progressive overload arises from the idea that an athlete must do ‘more’ of ‘something’ over time in order to create new stimuli, and therefore, produce new adaptations. Part 1 of our blog is entirely focused on defining progressive overload and how training programs must evolve over time to continue reflecting increases in performance.

The idea of progressively overloading an athlete’s training is widely understood in strength and conditioning as one of the most dominant scientific principles leading to better performance. While the principle of overload is undisputed, most powerlifters fail to recognize what ‘more’ of ‘something’ actually means. Rather than planning to overload across an extended period of time, most powerlifters tend to focus on short term gains. Planning for the long haul involves understanding and tracking trends in your training and knowing the variables and metrics that lead to enhanced performance over the course of your career.

Before we explain further, let’s find out where the term ‘progressive overload’ started.

The Greek Story of Milos

Milos was a 6th century wrestler from Greece. More famously, he was known for lifting a baby calf every day until eventually it became a fully grown bull. His ability to lift a bull was thought to be possible because day-by-day, bit-by-bit, Milos was lifting more than he did the previous day. Right here, we see the idea of progressive overload take form as the practice of doing ‘more’ of ‘something’ in order to create new strength adaptations. As Milos was lifting the calf every day, the calf grew, and so did Milos’ strength and size.

What Do Milos and Powerlifting have in Common?

Milos lifted more weight each day as the calf grew, which yielded new adaptations in strength. In powerlifting, we can view ‘more’ in a number of different ways. We can do more weight (like Milos), more sets, more reps or we can do a combination of these things – i.e. more weight, more sets, AND more reps. If a new training stimulus is greater than the most recent stimulus, then there is a cascade of neurological and physiological events that lead to adaptation. It’s adapting to new stimuli that will lead to an increase in strength. Failure to provide the body new stimulus will lead to stagnation in strength – this is called a ‘plateau’.

The Linear Progression Fallacy

There is an inherent problem with the story of Milos: it assumes that strength is linear. In other words, it’s believed as you lift ‘more’ of ‘something’ then the proportional amount of adaptation compared with the stimulus ought to be realized. For example, if for every 10lbs of additional weight lifted for a particular exercise yields 1% overall strength gain, then lifting 20lbs of additional weight should, in theory, yield 2% overall strength gain.

However, this notion of progressive overload is overly simplistic and impractical. In the real world, strength does not follow a linear pattern. There are periods throughout an athlete’s career where he or she will experience different rates of progress, sometimes attaining strength at faster rates (usually earlier in a person’s career) and sometimes at slower rates (usually later in the career). In addition, there are also periods of normal regress attributable to a number of factors, including life events, injury, psychological factors, motivation, and among other things, planned de-load or rest periods within a training cycle. Nevertheless, what we want to avoid is regressing due to an ill-planned training program. We cannot ignore the fact that programs need to mold and adapt to your current training context, areas of strength / weakness, developmental stage, and training numbers. Let’s be clear: training programs need to evolve as you evolve as an athlete.

Training Complexity, Rate of Adaptation, and Strength Performance

As athletes move through the course of their career, ultimately getting closer to their potential, the rate at which they adapt to training stimulus begins to slow. By comparing strength and rate of adaptations earlier in an athlete’s career, we can conclude that the later-stage athletes simply do not see as fast progress as their novice counterparts. Early stage athletes can implement basic strength training principles in order to see quick returns on their performance. On the contrary, those athletes who have had years of experience under the bar will need to evolve from their early programming methods to deeply understand the parameters that lead to continued success on the platform.

(original image from: Practical Programming 3rd Edition, Mark Rippetoe, Aasgaard co. 2014.)

By way of summary, strength adaptations have diminishing returns. While most athletes accept this fact, they fail to understand the parameters and training metrics that lead to continued progress over time. As athletes get stronger and go through the intermediate and advanced stages of their career, their training complexity and specificity must increase in order to remain competitive and move closer to their potential. A failure to do so will cease any sort of progress and breaking through performance plateaus will be near impossible.

The real issue lies in an athlete’s ability to translate how ‘increased complexity’ and ‘specificity’ actually pans out in daily workouts and program planning. So how does an athlete increase training complexity and specificity? This is where we need to shift our perspective on progressive overload from focusing on the now or near term gains to planning to overload over the long-term.


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