Progressive Overload: Avoiding the Dreaded Plateau
We’ve all been there: after months of diligent effort, sweat, and dedication we start to see our progress in the gym stagnate. Whether your strength gains have stalled or the physique changes you had been making have slowed to a crawl, the likely culprit is adaptation. Your body will adapt to meet to demands of any stress placed upon it, and in order to continue seeing results you need to utilize the principle of progressive overload. Simply put: you must continually increase the demands placed on your musculoskeletal system in order to progress. There are a multitude of ways to implement progressive overload, the simplest of which is to increase the resistance or load you are lifting. Of course, once you crossover from newbie to intermediate or advanced lifter, adding to the load every week becomes exponentially more difficult and may be downright impossible. So how else can you avoid stagnation?
- Increase the volume, either through an increase in sets, an increase in repetitions, or a combination of both. Try not to get too hung up on some magical set/rep scheme. If you can surpass your goal by at least 2 repetitions while maintaining proper form, it’s time to increase the load. If you’re already incorporating high volume training, try varying your training to include some heavier set/rep schemes, perhaps 5 sets of 5 or even some heavy triples. Oh, and P.S., ditch the standard three sets of 10 reps. That might work as a beginner (heck, doing anything will work for most beginners), but if you want to make gains in strength and/or size you need to start pushing your limits.
- Increase the frequency with which you train a given lift or lagging body part. Remember that some muscle groups respond better to higher frequency than others. Just be sure you listen to your body to ensure ample recovery time between training sessions to avoid over-training.
- Decrease your rest intervals. Try bringing an interval timer or stopwatch along to your next workout and timing the amount of rest you take in between sets. Decreasing this time will force your body to adapt, becoming faster and more efficient over time. Just a word of caution: bring a towel. Your fellow gym-goers will appreciate it.
- Increase or vary the exercises you perform for a given body part. Often times simply changing an exercise by varying foot placement, grip width, or grip pronation (pronated, supinated, or neutral) will enable you to target different aspects of a muscle group with multiple heads (think triceps, quadriceps, etc.). Of course, you want to use this method with moderation as adding too many exercises may lead to over-training and can actually hinder your progress.
- Increase the intensity of your sessions. Remain focused on the task at hand and push yourself harder on every set. If you’re lacking in the internal motivation department, utilizing a spotter or workout partner may enable you to use a heavier weight, help you eek out the last few reps, and keep you focused through a tough workout. Find a suitable partner who will be able to push you harder than you could push yourself, with goals and fitness levels that parallel your own.
[Note: These final two suggestions aren’t really approaches to progressive overload, but they’re important to keep in mind regardless.]
- Do not underestimate the importance of rest and recovery. Remember that your muscles do not grow in the gym, they grow while they recover. Fatigue will mask your true strength in the gym, so be sure to give your body ample time between workouts. More advanced lifters may even consider adding a structured de-load week into their program wherein they decrease resistance, decrease the number of sets and/or reps, decrease the number of exercises performed, or omit exercises that directly load the spine.
- Provide your body with the fuel it deserves for optimal performance. Assess your goals, whether they be performance or physique based, and determine whether your nutritional needs are being met. While you can get bigger/stronger/leaner/etc. on a diet consisting of utter crap (and there are plenty of powerlifters out there that will argue that you should), you can do so more effectively, not to mention look and feel better, if you optimize your nutrition. Remember: garbage in, garbage out.
Just a word of caution: try not to run to the gym, guns blazing, ready to implement all of these approaches at once. Take a step back and analyze your current program, abilities, and goals and determine which, if any, of these methods will help you progress. You may want to incorporate one at a time to assess how your body responds and what will work best for you. Listen to your body and don’t bite off more than you can chew.