4 min read

Breaking News: Progressive Overload Isn’t Helpful

Breaking News: Progressive Overload Isn’t Helpful

I can hear you now “what the hell is this guy talking about? Progressive overload is the whole basis of making gains!” And to that I say is it?

If you really break it down and think critically about what progressive overload - especially overload - means then I think you might change your mind on this. Even though this concept has been around for a long time and is broadly accepted as the proper way to resistance train, the concept of overload can be largely unhelpful.

  • What does overload imply
  • Eustress vs. distress
  • Can you continually train in overload?
  • Progressive loading
  • Tomato tomahto, it doesn’t really matter
  • You still have to work hard

What does overload imply

The concept of overload means just that - you are “over loading”. AKA you are using more weight than your body can actually handle in order to try to force adaptation.

At first glance this can make sense, especially because it has just been accepted at face value for many years as the way to make gains. But again I ask is it? If we actually break this down this means that going above and beyond your capacity yields more gains, which really isn’t accurate. Extrapolating this further, it would mean that putting on more weight than you can actually handle would yield more gains.

I hope you are starting to see how this isn’t the case. If you try to use more weight than you are actually able to handle, then you won’t be able to move the weight and you won’t get much out of it. There also seems to be a bit of an optimal amount of loading that the body can handle.

Eustress vs. distress

This ‘optimal’ zone is one where the body is stressed enough that it can recover - and above this zone it either adapts poorly or just gets broken down.

This optimal zone would be considered ‘eustress’ or a healthy amount of stress. And the zone above it would be ‘distress’ or an unhealthy amount of stress. The concept of overload is about pushing past your capacity which would take you into the zone of distress. This is where injuries occur, you start to get aches and pains all the time, and you start to miss a lot of lifts because you don’t have the strength to do them - which can be really discouraging and stressful mentally. If you are constantly missing lifts and are in pain then working out becomes a lot less fun.

Constantly being in overload is not sustainable.

Can you continually train in overload?

No. Like I just said, it is not sustainable. You need to train within your capacity in order to be able to recover.

You cannot just add 5lbs to your lifts every week and expect to keep adapting to the weight increase. And if you are able to add 5lbs to your lifts every week and are thinking that you are “overloading” then you are not actually overloading. By being able to do that it just means that you started at a weight that was too light. You were below the ‘eustress’ part of the loading curve and to be brutally honest, you have been playing yourself by underloading.

Once you reach that ceiling, however, and start to hit true overload then your body won’t be able to keep up if you continually try to overload it. As I mentioned earlier, constantly training in this state can lead to a lack of recovery, and a terrible relationship with training. You feel beat up, you keep missing weights, and your morale around training can plummet.

Progressive loading

The concept of progressive loading is about loading within your capacity, but continuing to increase the weight when your body is ready.

Here is where we flip the script and understand that you don’t force adaptation by overloading. Instead, you train your body within its capacity, then it adapts by getting stronger to that stimulus/weight, then you increase the weight. To tie it back into the concepts of eustress and distress, you train in eustress until your body adapts and that weight is now below eustress, then you increase the weight to put you back in eustress.

Basically, your body gets stronger which allows you to increase the weight, not the other way around.

Tomato Tomahto, it doesn’t really matter

What does it matter? This really just seems like an argument about semantics, at the end of the day it’s just about continuing to challenge yourself.

That argument is somewhat true; however, the language that we use shapes how we view and apply the concept. By using overload, you might be more likely to continually try more than you are used to, or start too low to trick yourself into thinking that you are overloading. By focusing on the adaptation first and not using the language of overloading, you shift your focus more on appropriately challenging your body and paying attention to when you have become stronger. You become more in tune with your body, enjoy working out more, and are more likely to stick to it for a longer period of time.

Semantics matter, especially when they shape how the concept is applied.

You still have to work hard

At the end of the day, it’s the end of the day and you still have to work hard.

Not focusing on overloading doesn’t mean that you are taking it easy. That area of eustress is an area where you have to work hard. If you are taking it easy then you are not going to drive adaptation and you are not correctly using progressive loading. And if you are never increasing weight then you are taking it too easy and not actually progressively loading. The whole point about progressive loading is about adequately challenging your body and increasing the challenge when it becomes easy.

It’s kind of like learning to play an instrument. You start off by learning what the notes are and you play easy melodies. Once that becomes easier you increase the challenge by learning scales, chords, and more challenging melodies. Continuing to progress the difficulty as each stage becomes easier.

With progressive loading you still have to progress the loading - the difference is that you are progressing it within your capacity so that you can adapt.

To leave you with one more aspirational line: if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. Now go out there and make some gains!