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Maximizing Progressive Overload

Updated: Apr 15

Progressive Overload - What is it and what do you need to know about it to achieve the best workout

functional training

Progressive overload is a key strength training concept that stimulates neuromuscular development. Though it's easy to accomplish the same routine every time you hit the gym, maximizing results comes from gradually increasing intensity or difficulty over time. Progressive overload is achieved by manipulating intensity, volume, rest times, and frequency variables. Overall, making progress in training requires the right amount of stress to stimulate change.  Overdoing it can lead to injury, but underdoing it may leave you chasing a goal you’ll never meet.


The key to pushing hard enough to achieve overload, while minimizing risk, requires not only quality programming but also the individual’s ability to cover the range of motion and stability strategies each exercise demands. If an individual struggles to cover the movement with body weight alone, adding additional variables of overload (strength, speed/power, endurance) will cause compensations that often lead to injury. No one wants to get hurt while doing something that should create positive results. In this day and age, having the natural ability to cover a movement well is the biggest hurdle.



Environment and Progressive Movement Training

Our physical development is a direct result of how we engage our environment: active play vs. sedentary entertainment, physically demanding careers vs. computer-bound work, walking vs. driving…etc.  Though we are designed to move and adapt to physical stressors, our current environment doesn’t demand it to be successful in life.  Instead, success often demands inactivity and automation to focus on studies, work, and life in general. So, what are we bringing to the table when we train? If most of our waking hours are spent adapting to inactive postures and positions, which restrict range of motion and stability, how can we expect performance in training? This is where progressive movement training goes hand-in-hand with progressive overload. Exercise selection should first honor an individual’s functional capacity (range of motion/stability under stress) and then work to enhance it.


“If training and exercise do not have practical carryover to things other than exercise, why do it? Think about it for a minute—the average person does not exercise today in order to just exercise tomorrow. They assume that other aspects of their physical lives will be enhanced as well.” (Gray Cook).  This is the foundation of functional training – manipulating the neuromuscular system to enhance fitness and function. Enhancing function gives us the power to overcome an environment that no longer reinforces it. More importantly, it’s the prerequisite for every other variable in progressive overload.


Here are two considerations to overcome environmental factors and create readiness for progressive overload:


-        First, check functional readiness for a lift, instead of assuming readiness.

  • Can you touch your toes before you attempt a deadlift?

  • Can you air squat to 90 degrees, before you squat with a barbell

  • Is core stability maintained in a plank before you max out on push-ups?

overload training


-       Second, challenge your threshold of movement with these functional capacity variables, before increasing strength, speed/power, or endurance.

  • Bands

  • Unstable loads or training surfaces

  • Alternate planes of movement (side lunge vs. front lunge)

  • Unilateral instead of bilateral exercise variations (single leg squat vs. double leg squat)


These variations challenge our bodies in a way our environment no longer offers and create resilience for more traditional strength training, not to mention daily movement. Use these tips to get the best results from your workouts!



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