Not Getting Results With Your Training? Chances Are You Need to Focus More on Progressive Overload

woman-strength-trainingIn Tuesday’s post I talked about the biggest mistake I see a lot of people make with their diet, which is basically that they’re not eating “real food”, but instead consume mostly evolutionarily novel foods and spend their money on supplements, shakes, “Paleo” bars, protein powders, cleanses, energy bars, and other food items that are typically marketed as quick and simple solutions that will make you healthier, slimmer, and/or more energetic. Today I wanted to make a similar post, but this time about exercise.

My fitness journey, which has involved working with hundreds of clients, spending a lot of time following how people around me exercise, and a lot of trial and error with my own training, has given me a lot of insights into why so many gym goers never get their desired training results. Because as everyone in the fitness industry knows, a lot of the people you see at the training center fail to reach their goals, quit after a couple of months of training, and/or gradually transition over from the stringent exercise plan they had set up towards training once every now and then.

One reason why people don’t get the results they want is simply that they have set their sights too high, perhaps thinking that exercising regularly will help them lose a lot of weight (which it usually won’t) or that they can build massive amounts of muscle in just a couple of months. Other times, the lack of results can largely be attributed to poor exercise technique, which often sets the stage for injuries and stagnation.

However, while these factors can certainly help explain why so many people don’t achieve their training goals, I would say that they aren’t as important as the one I wanted to discuss in this article, which is a lack of focus on progressive overload.

Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.

… In order to minimize injury and maximize results, the novice begins at a comfortable level of muscular intensity and advances towards overload of the muscles over the course of the exercise program. Progressive overload requires a gradual increase in volume, intensity, frequency or time in order to achieve the targeted goal of the user. (1)

Plan for progress

While progressive overload should be a familiar concept to most people who’ve been training for some time, it’s often not applied correctly.

For a lot of gym goers – in particular those who have just started working out – strength training involves sticking to a loose program/plan, doing a lot of different exercises each session, and regularly trying new and interesting workout programs and training methods. A little something is perhaps written in a training journal every now and then, but there is no consistent focus on programming or progressive overload.

I’ve been there. When I first got started with strength training I wanted to try “everything”. I did a lot of different exercises, frequently changed my training program, and added some drop-sets, super-sets, etc. here and there. While I did pay some attention to slowly increasing the weight I lifted and/or the number of reps I did, I didn’t consistently focus on progressive overload or making gradual progress over months and years.

Unfortunately, this is the way a lot of people approach strength training when they first start lifting, and for some, it never changes. They may be training hard, perhaps pushing themselves to the brink of complete exhaustion every workout, but the importance of making small incremental weight increases and creating a specific adaptation is often forgotten.

It’s not really a surprise that this is the way a lot of people approach strength training, as you could quickly be led to believe from reading muscle magazines and fitness blogs that “more is better” and that you should do a wide range of exercises every workout, “confuse the muscle” by regularly changing your workout routine, and completely exhaust each major muscle group with 20+ sets once a week.

The main problem with how a lot of lifter approach progressive overload is that they don’t track their progress over time and don’t have a system that allows them to adequately assess if what they’re doing is actually working. When they’re in the gym, they might try to remember how much weight they lifted and how many sets and reps they managed to do on each exercise the last time they were training, and then aim to increase the load and/or reps and sets. However, since they change the exercise order from workout to workout, don’t write things down, and/or do a whole bunch of different stuff every training session, it’s very difficult to track how they’re actually progressing over time.

Inadequate focus on progressive overload is also commonly seen in all other forms of exercise people do, whether it’s endurance running, rowing, sprinting, or kettlebell training. It’s perhaps particularly visible when it comes to group training.

The step or zumba session you go to today is largely the same as the one you went to a month ago… and a month before that. You can definitely make an attempt to push yourself a little harder each time, but you have little actual control over how you’re progressing. This doesn’t mean that fitness classes aren’t great for a variety of purposes, it just means that they may not be the ideal choice for people with specific training goals.

Should everyone focus on progressive overload?

For those who have specific goals with their training (e.g., building a lot of muscle, gaining strength in a couple of compound lifts, becoming a really good sprinter), putting some emphasis on progressive overload and creating a specific adaptation is usually a good idea.

However, I think it’s very important to note that not everyone needs to focus on progressive overload. If you don’t have any specific goals with your training besides perhaps building a little muscle, improving your health, and/or achieving multifaceted fitness, you don’t necessarily have to keep a training journal or focus on slowly increasing the load you lift or the distance you run every workout.

Actually, doing this may be detrimental to your progress, as it can take some of the joy and spontaneity out of the training. If your goal is simply to stay healthy and fit and achieve multifaceted fitness, I would argue that adhering to a hunter-gatherer style fitness regimen, which doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on progressive overload, is the way to go. That doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from paying attention to your progress, but you don’t necessarily have to follow a stringent plan or write everything down in a training journal.

Most strength trainees don’t need a lot of accessory lifts

I think most strength trainees and coaches/trainers would agree that strength training machines (e.g., the leg press, chest press) are vastly inferior to multi-joint barbell movements and bodyweight exercises such as the chin-up, dip, and push-up.

A lot of people make the mistake of doing advanced strength training programs before they have taken the time to gradually increase their strength in the most basic multi-joint movements, such as the squat, deadlift, chin-up, and press.

I’ve found that a good strategy for novice-intermediate lifters is to choose 4-8 good exercises that form the foundation of the training program, learn proper technique in these exercises, buy a training journal, and focus on slowly increasing the weight they’re lifting in these exercises over weeks and months. Adding in some additional lifts, perhaps done for higher reps, can be a good idea as well, but it’s not always necessary.

The mistakes I’ve made during my training career have definitely been valuable in the sense that I’ve learned a lot from them. However, if I could go back and do things differently when I first started lifting weights, I would have definitely made some changes. Perhaps most importantly, I would have taken a lot of exercises out of my program, in particular those performed on strength training machines, focused on learning proper technique in a couple of compound lifts, and followed a “Starting Strength” type training program that is based on progressive overload in the squat, deadlift, and other multi-joint exercises.

Now I want to hear from you: Do you focus on progressive overload when you’re at the gym?

Picture: Creative Commons picture by greg westfall. Some rights reserved.

Comments

  1. It’s the only thing I focus on while training………………………..

  2. Erik, thanks so much for this post….very helpful confirming that my focus is on track. I keep a journal to track my progress and focus on large compound exercises for strength coupled with some kind of cardio based exercise days (sprints, HIIT, agility, balance, ladder drills, etc.).

    I’ve learned to focus on movement-based goals as a guide to determine my progress and next steps (for example, to do 1 arm inverted rows, 1 arm barbell chest press, bodyweight pull ups, etc.).

    I do have one question for you and would really appreciate your insight on this. Normally I prefer weighted lunges but due to an injury I’m currently subbing in front and goblet squats. I have no difficulty performing front loaded squats (front barbell squats and goblet squats) with a good range of motion. However, when I attempt a bodyweight squat or barbell back squat, my torso leans too far forward (more than 45 degrees) although my spine remains neutral throughout the movement and everything else is good form. My trainer thinks its just a balance issue and gave me a conditional pass on including back squats in my own workouts but to keep it to bodyweight or light weight only. I’d really like to include barbell back squats in my current routine but am not sure on how to correct my movement? Any help you can give me is greatly appreciated, thanks in advance for your help.

    • Hi Alison!

      Hope you’re having a great summer.

      The problem you describe is very common. Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of clients that have the same problem as you do, and I’ve worked out a couple of strategies that seem to work very well for combatting this issue.

      To really help you optimize your training I would need to assess your movement pattern, see how you perform the exercise, and give you face-to-face instructions. However, instructions over the web are certainly better than nothing.

      You may find that the following tips are enough to fix your technique:

      The first thing I would do is to work on the bottom position of the squat.
      Get into the bottom position of the squat, force the knees out with your arms/elbows, maintain a neutral spine (chest up!), and keep the weight on your heels. Pic: http://darwinian-medicine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/eirik-garnas-bottom-position-squat-organic-fitness.png

      Then start performing barbell squats with no added weight. Focus on the following:
      – Squeeze your shoulder blades together (scapular retraction) and get your chest up.
      – Spread the floor apart by pushing against the outside of your heels like you’re literally trying to pull the floor apart beneath you (This also forces your knees out).
      – Drive up through the heels.

      Sometimes, simply getting the “knees out” is enough to fix things.

      Also, check out this article.

      Good luck!

  3. Hi Erik!
    Thank you so much for the advice…I played around with the bottom position of the squat yesterday and found that taking a stance that is slightly wider than shoulder width coupled with the ‘sitting in the bottom position’ appears to work well for me…

    I’m thinking that this drill should also help me out with my pistol squats…Right now I’m using a combination of squatting down onto step risers to master the feel of the one leg squat, eliminating one riser at a time until I can’t go lower, and holding onto the handle of the free motion cable machine, pegged at the highest weight, to sink into the rock bottom position before coming up, using as little help as possible when I’m coming out of the hole.

Trackbacks

  1. […] strength trainees, putting “a lot” of focus on progressive overload is usually a good idea (especially in the major lifts), but including some random “pump” work, unplanned exercise […]

  2. […] being said, there is no doubt that setting performance goals and focusing on progressive overload should be done by more people. This is especially true for gym members who keep paying the membership fee, but rarely get in the […]

  3. […] to near failure as soon as you master the technique. As with resistance training in general, focus on progressive overload (e.g., by increasing the load every time you reach your desired rep […]

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