Training – Progressive Overload

People ask trainers lots of funny questions.

“If you could only do one exercise for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
“Can I build muscle and burn fat at the same time?”
“Will squats hurt my knees?”

As inclined as I am to answer “Turkish Getup,” “No,” and “Not if you do them right,” the answer that you should expect from any competent trainer to any of the above questions is “It depends.”

It depends on your goals, your physical history, mental history, work schedule, play schedule, attitude…I could go on. Figuring all this out is what trainers do—we sort through the details that we gather about you during intake/assessment and design a custom program that addresses the things on which the future of your fitness depends.

But there are some core truths in the world of fitness that don’t depend on anything. There are core concepts that don’t really change, for anyone. As much as I believe that the perfect training plan for any one person is totally unique, let’s zoom out for a moment and look for ideas that don’t “depend.”

PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD

Progressive Overload is the idea that we must consistently find ways to make our training plan “harder” over time, so that the body continues to adapt to the training stress. I’ve spent a lot of time in gyms, and all too often I’ve noticed that person who comes into the weight room and lifts the same weights, for the same sets and reps, week after week. They’re going nowhere. Progressive overload is the difference between “training” and just “working out.”

You might be familiar with the Greek myth of Milo and the calf. Essentially, a guy named Milo starts carrying a young calf around when it is small. As the calf grows larger, Milo continues to carry it around, until one day he is carrying around a full-grown bull. Predictably, Milo gets really strong. This is what progressive overload is all about.

Different fitness qualities respond to progressive overload in different ways. Below is a general outline of how to overload 3 broad fitness qualities: strength, power-endurance and endurance. Of course, there is much more nuance that we can apply to improving different qualities of fitness, but if you observe these principles in your training, you’ll be on the right track.

STRENGTH

The term “strength” refers to the body’s employment of the Phosphagen system to produce energy. The phosphagen system is used for high-intensity efforts that last between about 1-20 seconds. When we talk about strength, we are talking about the ability to exert a maximal force against resistance. Short, difficult boulder problems, hangboarding, and lifting weights for sets of 2-5 are all distinctly in the realm of strength.

Strength responds best to an increase in intensity. In sports science, intensity means increased resistance—heavier weight. Strength is a fairly simple fitness quality to improve. Over time, lift heavier weights than you used to lift. Add weight to yourself via a belt for your pull-ups and your hangboard sets. Switch from regular pushups to one-arm pushups. Simple.

POWER ENDURANCE

“Power Endurance” refers to Glycolysis. The glycolytic pathway revs up around the 20 second mark (right as the phosphagen system runs out of gas) and runs for 2-3 minutes. Power endurance provides us with the ability to perform several repeats of a fairly difficult movement. It is the “feel the burn” fitness quality. Long boulder problems, sport routes, and lifting weights for 8+ reps are all examples of power endurance in action.

Power Endurance responds very well to an increase in density. When you increase the density of a training session, you are doing more work in the same amount of time. There are several ways to go about this, but the simplest is to decrease the rest times between sets. Yes, that means you’ll need to use a timer (if you use the timer on your phone, make sure the phone is in airplane mode—no Instagram during training sessions!) A difference of a few seconds might not seem like much, but it matters. Gradually decrease the rest time between sets while keeping the workload about the same, and your power endurance will improve.

ENDURANCE

After about 3 minutes, energy supply comes mostly from the aerobic system, which is the system that fuels endurance events. Endurance is the ability to do sub-maximal activity for a long time—think big-wall climbing, triathlons and soccer. It is often difficult for athletes in training to go easy enough to keep themselves in the aerobic pathway. Nose breathing is an old-school way to make sure that your endurance training stays aerobic. If you can’t breathe through your nose while you’re doing it, then you run the risk of slipping into the glycolytic pathway and completely missing the mark.
Improving endurance is straightforward, and boring. Endurance responds best to increased duration. So yes, just do the same exercise at the same intensity, but do it longer than you did last time.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The above is a very crude outline of the body’s energy systems and how to improve them. The main theme here is that you’ve got to continue to find ways to best your previous performance.  In order to improve upon past sessions, you’re going to have to start writing down what you do when you’re at the gym. A training log is the only way to hold yourself accountable for continuous improvement. Next time you’re at LCC, take note of what the strongest people are doing during their rest periods. Most of them are writing in notebooks.  Of course, you can’t always beat your last training session. If that was possible, I’d have hit a 1,000 pound deadlift a long time ago. Be prepared to take 2 steps forward, 1 step back, and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And remember…

He not busy being born is busy dying.
–Bob Dylan

One thought on “Training – Progressive Overload

  1. Awesome post, thanks, Taylor! When I go bouldering, my forearms/grip tend to tire before anything else. This is probably fairly common. Seems like I need to increase power endurance across a variety of different grip/hand positions. Is there a way to train this with weights, or is it better simply to boulder more, and select problems that have the types of hold I find most challenging (i.e., increase density on that type of hold)?

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