Progressive Overload is something that I think is a bit misapplied. While we obviously need to systematically expose the body to greater stress in order to force it to adapt and improve strength and fitness levels, I think that the idea we have to always try to lift a little more weight or do a few more reps each time we train is taking it too far. Sometimes we can stick with the same load and reps and still improve our strength and fitness, but only if we understand the point of adding more load or reps in the first place.
Instead of letting the weight tell you how hard to flex your muscles you can purposefully flex them as hard as you can, which in essence is accomplishing the same thing as adding more load – creating more muscular tension.
Adding more load or increasing the number of reps with the same load will increase the challenge for the body, however they do it through different ways. Each method will also bring on different results and can not be used interchangeably. By understanding these differences we can both make better use of them to achieve our goals.
Adding load will cause the muscles to reflexively produce more tension in order to complete each rep. Going from 35 pounds to 45 pounds with your single arm shoulder press will require you to produce more tension in all of the muscles that are involved in the exercise.
Adding reps will force the energy systems to fuel the same tension levels longer. Going from 8 reps to 10 reps with the same 35 pound weight on your single arm shoulder press doesn’t require more tension, just the ability to fuel that tension level for 2 more reps.
This is important because one of the first mistakes I see with a lot of training program is the assumption that an increase in the number of reps will equal and increase “strength”, or the ability to produce more tension to move a heavier weight – if I go from 35 pounds for 10 reps to 35 pounds for 15 reps I am better prepared to try 45 pounds. But this is not the case because the increase in reps did not force our muscles to produce more tension, which is what we’ll need to handle a heavier weight. If we want to get stronger we have to use methods that improve our ability to produce more tension, not to fuel it for longer.
This brings me to my next point – the idea that you can’t improve your strength without increasing the weight you lift is not totally accurate. Look again at the point of adding more load – the cause a reflexive increase in muscular tension. The key word there is reflexive because that is not the only way to increase muscular tension. We can also consciously increase muscular tension and teach our muscles to handle a heavier weight before we actually ever attempt it.
Instead of letting the weight tell you how hard to flex your muscles you can purposefully flex them as hard as you can, which in essence is accomplishing the same thing as adding more load – creating more muscular tension. By focusing on this conscious tension with the same weight you can teach your muscles to create the tension needed for a heavier weight without actually lifting that heavier weight.
This means that the Progressive Overload Principle is better applied to long term trends than to each and every workout. Over the long run we want to see an increase in strength numbers but we can go weeks or months without seeing an increase in load to achieve it.
I think that this idea is beautifully demonstrated in the 8kg increments traditional kettlebell come in. In the US kettlebells have been “Americanized” and one of the first things we did to them was get rid of that cumbersome 8kg weight increments and start doing them in 5 pound increments so that it was easier to advance from kettlebell to kettlebell.
However, this totally missed the point. The beauty of the 8kg increments was that you had to learn how to handle the heavier weight without using it – for more people a nearly 10 pound increase in load each time they train isn’t going to happen for very long. This meant that you would get “stuck” with a certain weight and have to figure out how to lift the next weight up with it.
For example, the first time people try 24kg for a Turkish Get Up they usually struggle with it but are able to do it. However, there is no hope of getting a 32kg kettlebell up so they are “stuck” at 24 kg for the time being. Eventually they start to find were their technique can improve or were they are losing tension in key areas on the way up. These improvements make 24 kg feel easier and allow them to focus in on other things they can do a little bit better.
Slowly but surely they start to dial things in to the point that 24kg feels relatively light and they can do while also consciously adding tension, preparing them for the 32kg kettlebell. When they ready to take a crack at the 32kg kettlebell odds are they’ll repeat the process – struggling at first but eventually finding the things they need to work on to make it feel easier and perhaps take a crack at 40kg TGU.
The point is that strength training isn’t always about adding more weight or doing more reps and forgetting this takes away a very valuable training mindset – make your light weights feel heavy and your heavy weights will feel light. No one can add more load and reps forever so eventually the pursuit of reflexive tension has to give way to the pursuit of conscious tension and when that happens you can indeed stick with the same load and reps yet improve your ability to produce tension within the movement.