Updated: Jan 26, 2021
What is progressive overload (PO)?
Progressive overload is one of the things you need to do in order to increase your muscle mass. But what exactly is it and how to I implement it in my training?
PO is the process of progressively overloading the muscles. This means that each time we perform a certain exercise/movement we are wanting to overload/increase our previous performance in some way. This can be split up in to two different options. The first option is by moving more overall weight than last time. This could mean something as small as 1kg extra that last week. This can be broken down further again:
1kg more Overall volume (weight x reps x sets)
1kg more per set
1kg more per each rep
Even though it is 1kg more, it is still overloading what your muscles did the previous week. It doesn’t have to be 10kg+ each and every time because that is just not sustainable. Trying to progress in that much weight each week will lead to a plateaus very quickly as well as increased risk of form breakdown which then leads to increased injury risk.
The second option for PO is more reps. Performing the same weight as last week but increasing the rep amount by even one rep is technically progressive overload. Again this could be broken down further like above with the overall volume or per set.
The principle behind why and how progressive overload works is this. By overloading the muscles each time your body is being forced to break down the muscle at a microscopic level and then rebuild it stronger. What you are doing is saying to your body that it needs to make itself stronger so we can do this next time. Your body doesn’t know that its weights and just thinks it needs to do this to survive.
This is also whys it’s a good idea to track ALL of your workouts so you know exactly what you have done and what you should be trying to do in the upcoming sessions
Rate of Perceived Exertion
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a term used to evaluate how hard a set was to complete. This is extremely useful when trying to establish if something is too easy, too hard or just right. It can also be an invaluable tool as a coach who may not be present for all your sessions to see how you handle the training.
It is measured on a scale of 1-10 but in reality you only use 5-10 on the scale. A score of 1 means could perform A LOT more reps and it was super easy, on the opposite end, a score of 10 means you couldn’t possibly perform one more rep no matter what. I personally break it down like this:
10 = No more reps
9 = 1 more rep
8 = 2 more reps
7 = 3 more reps
6 = 4 more reps
5 = 5 more reps
As you can see above it’s a really simple method of demonstrating how hard a working set was as opposed to “yeah it was pretty hard”. Just saying that gives me no real idea on how hard the set actually was.
So what is a good RPE to aim for when training? Well like almost everything in training it will come back to individual goals. If you are running a hypertrophy style program then 7-8 would be a good range to aim for. If your program is more strength based then you should definitely be 8-9. Now this won’t necessarily apply to EVERY exercise in your program, it will change depending on exercise selection and how the training split has been programmed.
Now contrary to popular belief intensity does not refer to how quick you can smash out a session or how sweaty you are from training. Intensity refers to how much effort you put into each and every set.
For example, someone running a strength/powerlifting based program, you will quite often see them sitting down and resting for extended periods of time (think 5mins+) between sets. But when they get up to do their next set, they look like they are putting almost everything into it. This is what we mean by intensity when in the training environment. Intensity could also be closely related to RPE.
This term gets thrown around A LOT! And it gets thrown around incorrectly.
Volume by definition is “Weight x Reps x Sets”. It is a total number which can be used to track overall output from a session. Progressive overload and volume kind of work together. We talked about how PO was aiming to increase each week, well volume is the calculation to help work that out. For example, if we are squatting 100 for 10 reps for 5 sets it would look like:
100(kg) x 10 x 5 = 5000kg Total volume
So to beat that we need to hit 5001kg in total volume next session.
Where this term gets used incorrectly is by people saying “Oh I am training high volume today”. Now they aren’t completely wrong as you can use volume in this context, however, as you can see in the above equation the figure for total volume is quite a large number. So in the context of high volume training it would make sense that this would mean quite a high number of something. So we can use high volume in the context of a high amount of reps and or sets. To a lot of people high volume means 2 or 3 sets of 15 reps, this is not even close to being classified as high volume. If you want to talk about high volume in this context then it would look something more like 5+ sets of 15+ reps. The best example of a high volume program is German Volume Training (GVT). This program has you doing 10 sets of 10 reps for a lot of exercises, with some variations taking it further and doing 10 sets of 20 reps.
Article written by Timothy Steward
· UFQ Strength & Conditioning Coach
· UFQ Sports Nutritionist