When we talk about training alone, we freely say that there is a single factor, that is most responsible for gaining muscle – and that is progressive overload. Of course you cannot gain muscle without proper nutrition and rest which we’ll touch at the end of the article.
The human body evolved to be a perfect survival machine. This means the body doesn’t need big muscles, in fact it’s quite the opposite. The only thing the body is interested in, is to keep you alive and functioning as efficiently as possible. Big muscles waste a lot of energy just to maintain themselves.
If you want to build muscle, the trick is to somehow tell your body that it has to accumulate muscle mass in order to survive. If you create an environment where the body needs to build muscle in order to survive it WILL build muscle. This is where progressive overload comes into play.
What is progressive overload ?
Progressive overload refers to an ever increasing amount of work that you are making your body do, and it comes in the form of weight lifting. We keep increasing this amount of work by doing something harder than last time – more weight on the bar, more reps, shorter rest periods… anything that will increase the intensity.
For the sake of simplicity, lets say you squat 200lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps. Your leg muscles adapt over time and grow to some proportions so you can lift this load. If you continue doing 3x8x200lbs on squats week in week out, your legs will stop growing. Why will you stop progressing?
Simply because the body has adapted and built all the muscle needed to perform this task and does not need more muscle (more muscle means more food, oxygen etc. remember?).
But if you push your legs to work harder, the body will have to adapt to this new stress and build more muscle so your legs can lift this extra weight, extra reps etc.
How can you implement progressive overload ?
We’ll use the squats example:
Lets assume you can squat 200lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps:
set 1. 200 x 8 reps
set 2. 200 x 8 reps
set 3. 200 x 8 reps
The next workout you make a small increment of the weight:
set 1. 210 x 8 reps
set 2. 210 x 7 reps
set 3. 210 x 6 reps
You can’t complete all the repetition on set No.2 and No.3. Don’t worry, you didn’t fail. This is a perfectly normal response of your body.
The next workout you should use the same weight (210 lbs). This time the body began the adaptation and you can complete the set No.1 and No.2 but fail to complete the third set.
set 1. 210 x 8 reps
set 2. 210 x 8 reps
set 3. 210 x 7 reps
This means you will stay at this weight (210lbs) until you can complete all 3 sets of 8 reps. Once you are able to complete 3 sets x 8 reps with 210lbs you will make a small increment of the weight again and repeat the whole process.
Of course you can’t always increase the weight you lift, although weight progression is the most important factor for strength increase. Sometimes you will increase the reps or sets and that way you’ll increase the overall intensity.
The lack of progression is probably the number one reason (diet and rest aside) why so many trainees stay the same year after year and cannot build muscle. Instead of getting stronger, people waste their time worrying about what exercises and types of workouts to do, how much sets and reps, and what advanced technique to use to “burn” the muscles.
Just a short word on diet and rest as these two are not the subject of discussion in this text. Without an adequate diet there can simply be no growth. With every intense workout you are actually creating micro tears and damaging the muscle fibers.
Muscle building diet
In order for the worked muscle to repair itself it needs a certain amount of amino acids, or building blocks of protein, which you should provide with your diet. To make sure you have enough material for the muscles to grow and repair you need at least 1g of protein per 1 pound of your weight.
As an example, a 200lb athlete would need at least 200g of protein in order to grow. It’s best that you get your protein from sources like lean meats, fish and eggs as well as protein shakes.
You also need to consume carbohydrates as they are the source of energy for the body. If your goal is to grow you need about 2-3g of carbohydrates per 1 pound of your bodyweight.
This means that a 200lb bodybuilder should eat 400-600 grams of carbohydrates to grow. Good sources of carbohydrates include rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, oats, wholemeal pasta and bread and fruits.
These are vital to human health. They help the body produce hormones, regulate cholesterol levels and are vital for our cognitive functioning.Some sources of healthy fats include fish oil, olive oil, flax oil, canola oil, avocado oil, nut oils. A good part of these we are already consuming when we consume fish, nuts, and some vegetables and fruits. A 200 lb athlete needs about 0.5g of healthy fats per 1lb of bodyweight.