The key to gaining muscle mass naturally - Progressive overload

Hypertrophy 101 | Science broken down

Hypertrophy comes down to many things: Sufficient volume, adequate calorie & protein consumption, plenty of rest etc.

It’s a topic that is, for obvious reasons, a huge part of The Muscle Principle.

However, there’s one key principle behind achieving prolonged muscle growth, and that is progressive overload.

Jargon Buster

Hypertrophy: Muscular hypertrophy is essentially the more technical way to describe an increase in muscle size. The number of myofibrils within a given muscle fibre increase, causing the fibres to grow in size (note: the number of fibres in the muscle remains the same however) resulting in the overall “hypertrophy” of the given muscle.

The actual skeletal process of hypertrophy is an incredibly complex one, with a vast amount of research conducted on the subject area. We’re going to leave it here as it’s not useful for your gains.

A wonderfully simple concept.

Thankfully, progressive overload is a concept that is quite self-explanatory really.

Essentially, over a given period of time, you need to be “progressively” providing your body with a greater stimulus in order to encourage an adaptive response within the muscle tissue.

A very simple (and effective) example of this is: Increasing the amount of weight you’re using on a particular exercise, over time. Basically, if you’re not “overloading” your body, there will be no continued growth, as your body will reflect the demands placed upon it.

This concept originated in the early 1940’s from US Army Physician Thomas Delorne who employed this principle to rehabilitate soldiers after they were injured in battle [1].

Let’s think about this intuitively for a second. Your body is, to a large extent, programmed for survival – it loves being at a point of homeostasis where minimal change is required of it.

Therefore, building a ton of muscle or getting down to a single digit bodyfat percentage is not something that your body fancies doing without some degree of resistance (i.e. essentially the body will fight you from achieving such extreme goals).

Therefore, increases in muscle mass will only occur if there is sufficient external stress placed on the body such that the body feels it has no choice other than to allow growth in order to help future survival.

This is why progressive overload is key to continually building muscle, else you will simply remain the same, or even regress (should the stimulus decrease significantly).

The same principle applies to losing fat, in that it must be progressive, but you can learn more about that in my article outlining how to definitively lose bodyfat.

So how do you employ progressive overload?

Well as already mentioned, simply increasing the amount of weight you are lifting is a very common (and effective) way of doing so, however, it may not always be practical/feasible (plus an inevitable increased risk of injury down the line if you attempt to linearly get stronger for a prolonged period).

If an increase in weight lifted is not possible, a simple increase in repetitions, or an increase in sets (aka total volume) can also be an effective way of inducing progressive overload – as long as we take in to account the law of diminishing returns. I.e. going from 2 sets of 8 to 3 sets of 8 may be effective, but going from 3 sets of 8 to 10 sets of 8 is probably overkill. Similarly, going from 8 reps to 12 reps may be useful, but going from 12 reps to 30 reps is likely excessive.

Other forms of progressive overload include increasing the lever length, decreasing the rest period, increased acceleration of the concentric portion of the lift and so on – anything which increases the difficulty/work done over a given period.

“Great, so in order to get bigger/stronger, I just need to continually do more in the gym, correct?”

Well yes, this is the crux of the issue, but in reality it isn’t going to be this simple. If it was, we’d all just continue to grow linearly whilst never getting injured, and in a few months’ time our workouts would be hours long after we added set after set, and deadlifted over 1000lbs.

This is where the importance of proper programming comes in to play, and more importantly, the concept of periodization.

The newer you are to resistance training, the easier it is to progressively overload.

A beginner may be able to add 5-10lbs to a given lift every single week, whereas someone more advanced may struggle to add that over a 6 month period for example.

This is simply due to their body being completely new to the training stimulus, and therefore simply doing any kind of resistance training is a significant “overload” for the body.

It is in these first few months where it is extremely easy to progressively overload at a linear rate (i.e. adding weight to the bar every week), without too much concern of injury – subject to a safe technique practice.

Knowing this, the way in which an effective training plan is programmed (in terms of frequency, volume and periodisation) is dependent on the individual and their level of training experience.

Implementation: Let’s make some gains.

You need to get stronger over time to build muscle.

Don’t get me wrong, you can get stronger without building muscle (neural adaptations etc), however you’re not going to see appreciable gains in muscular size without some kind of strength gain – this is progressive overload.

So we need to be able to programme in a way that allows us to achieve this maximum state of overload before diminshed returns and/or injury. As previously mentioned, this is typically referred to as peridozation.

It essentially refers to the way in which a programme manipulates volume & intensity in order to allow for effective progression over a longer given period.

Let’s talk through an example:

Progressive overload for a beginner:

A beginner may want to start out with a simple array of exercises, as more complexed protocols are not necessary for hypertrophy at this point (we should always want to maximise our output for a given level of input, and therefore if we can achieve sufficient hypertrophy using very simple training methods – it makes no sense to do more complex work for no incremental reward).

On these exercises, the beginner could start for example using weights they can comfortably execute for 3 sets of 5 repetitions, subject to safe technique – focusing on compound movements (exercises that work multiple muscles over multiple joints). Assuming they train 3x per week (same exercises, full-body workouts), they may increase gradually this to 3 sets of 8 by the third session, and then increase the weight by 5-10% (or more/less depending on how the individual feels).

After this increase in weight, they would repeat the process each week, and this could continue for the first few months where linear progression* is feasible and therefore should be highly strived for.

Alternatively, they may simply increase the weight every session (starting light on day 1): If an individual can squat 60kg for 3 sets of 5 reps, they may begin squatting 40kg for 3 sets of 5, and increase by 2.5kg every session (still doing 3 sets of 5) until they reach a stalling point (on all compound exercises).

This is very common practice in many beginner full-body routines, and is an approach I definitely recommend. With a system such as this, it is important to select exercises effectively and usually an approach of 3 sets of 8-12 (instead of 5 reps) is prescribed on isolation exercises.

Exercise rotation may occur at different points to maintain enjoyment/adherence and also to ensure muscular balance and structural integrity, however it is not “necessary” for achieving hypertrophy.

If some of this confused you slightly – don’t worry. I’m just trying to illustrate the importance of progressive overload and not how to write an effective training programme, else we’d be here all day. If you are a beginner and are interested in starting a programme that will help you, click here.

*Linear progression simply means that you can add weight/volume every session linearly without having to employ more complex protocols to do so. More advanced lifters (for example, somebody who can squat 200kg) can not simply add weight/reps every session, it becomes much more complicated. Take advantage of this ability to progress so quickly in your newb days.

What about if I’m not a beginner, what changes?

The very short answer is: Nothing changes.

The principle of progressive overload in order to stimulate hypertrophy remains constant over all groups of individuals – it’s the application that changes.

As a more advanced athlete, you can no longer progress at a linear rate. Trying to continually add weight to the bar every workout will result in a complete stand-still (and likely a regression), as well as an inevitable injury. The way in which your programme is periodized becomes a little bit more complicated.

A quick example:

I want this article to be about progressive overload, not periodization/effective programming, however here’s a quick example of how one might employ overload as a more advanced lifter:

Take an individual who can bench press 100kg for a 1 rep max. They may use 90% of this (90kg) and now consider this a training max (common practice amongst powerlifting programmes). From this 90kg, they can perform their calculations of what they want to lift. One week may be performing 8-10 reps at 75-80% (of their training max), the following week 6 reps at ~85%, the next week 3-5 reps at ~90%. After this 3 week “cycle”, they may now increase their training max by 2-5%, and repeat the process. Jim Wendler’s 531 follows a similar method to this and has proven (empirically) to be very effective.

Over a longer period of time (6-12months), the individual should see gradual, sustained increases in strength and size. Obviously this example is ingoring all other auxiliary (secondary) exercises that may also accompany the bench press, as well as total training volume, workout frequency etc. But the idea of progressive overload being a mandatory component of continued hypertrophy still stands.

The take-home points:

Seems pretty simple right? Continually provide the body with a greater stimulus than it has previously sustained, and further increases in muscle mass will occur.

As already mentioned, the problem lies in the obvious limits to the extent in which we can overload our bodies.

Therefore, progressive overload is something that should be employed within the boundaries of an individual’s capacity to recover from training sessions, otherwise injury may occur and/or a general reduced rate of hypertrophy due to the balance between training stress and recovery being unfavourable (over-training).

-Building muscle is an adaptive process. The body adapts to the external stress placed on it, and therefore the amount of muscle we have on our bodies is an almost direct result of the degree of stimulus placed on the body.

-Over time, in order to see continuous gains in muscle mass, the training stimulus must increase in some capacity – Progressive Overload.

-It is important to manage the workload in order to avoid injury (i.e. one cannot continuously do more and more sets whilst still recovering adequately).

-An effective training programme will employ some type of periodization which accommodates the necessary progressive overload, based on the individual’s requirements.

-Building a maximum amount of muscle mass is (obviously) also dependent upon caloric intake, protein intake, total volume, training frequency etc.

“Adaptation is the whole purpose of exercise training. Adaptation requires a systematic application of exercise stress. The stress should be sufficient to stimulate an adaptation, but not so severe that breakdown and injury occur.”[2] 

  References/acknowledgements:

  • [1] Todd JS, Shurley JP, Todd TC. Thomas L. DeLorme and the science of progressive resistance exercise. J Strength Cond Res, 2012 Nov.
  • [2] Fahey, T.D. (1998). Adaptation to exercise: progressive resistance exercise. In: Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science, T.D.Fahey (Editor). Internet Society for Sport Science: http://sportsci.org. 7 March 1998.
    Recommended reading ^.

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