Progressive Overload is Bull
Most lifters are familiar with the story of Milo, the father of progressive overload. If not, here's the elevator pitch: Milo was a wrestler wanna-be from some ancient Greek settlement in Southern Italy. He was on his way home one day when he walked by a newborn calf.
On a whim, he picks the thing up, hoists it on his shoulders, and walks around with it. The next day, he does the same thing. This goes on for four years.
Meanwhile, the calf has been putting on weight – maybe a pound or so every day. Pretty soon, Milo is hoisting and carrying around a full-grown bull, and Milo is one strong son of a gun, courtesy of progressive overload and a bemused bull.
It's kind of a cool story. A useful story. But it's ultimately poisoned the minds of millions of lifters in the millennia that have passed since Milo.
Luckily for Milo, the bull stopped growing because, as any lifter ultimately finds out, progressive overload is a finite thing. You're ultimately limited by your genetic potential, earth's gravity, the length of your lever arms, physics in general, and, in some cases, how comfortable you are with the feel of a massive bull penis rubbing against your back.
It's a fact of life; everybody tops out. But here's the irony: It's the obsessive pursuit of progressive overload that makes an untold number of lifters top out prematurely.
This is something that I was reminded of while executing some "fitness snacks." In case you're unfamiliar with the term, it relates to doing multiple, short bursts of exercise throughout the day that are separate from your main workout(s). In my case, I was doing things like push-ups, pull-ups, timed hangs, and timed planks.
Every day, or every subsequent time I did one of those movements, I'd try to add a rep or a few seconds, depending on the movement. You know, progression. But invariably, I'd start struggling with the added reps or seconds. Each progression became more difficult. I didn't look forward to doing them anymore.
Eventually, I'd crap out, do the last rep or additional seconds with terrible form, or expend such a great amount of energy and will doing the last, record-breaking rep that my fitness snack would end up with me coughing up a fitness hairball. I'd ultimately lose enthusiasm and stop doing them.
And that's when it dawned on me. I should have chosen a different type of progression; picked a manageable number of reps or number of seconds, and did them every day until I owned them – until they were so easy that adding a couple of reps or seconds would be easy.
And then I'd continue to do that new number until I owned them. That way, I could progress easily, almost effortlessly – at least to a point where I'd need to introduce some more creative methods.
It made me reappraise the way I was doing my regular workouts, too. I realized my never-ending chase for personal records – my obsession with a single form of progression – was also sabotaging my efforts there.
I'm certainly not the first to talk about this topic, but given that almost no one I see pays any attention to it, it's worth writing about again and again until it sinks in.
For example, Christian Thibaudeau wrote about "owning the weight" before moving on in certain total body movements, urging lifters to master a 135-pound lift before slapping on two more 25s or two more 45s. That's excellent advice, but it seemed daunting to me because those are huge mo-fo jumps. Me? I'm just a regular mortal, not one of those born of the unholy communion between a gorilla and a she-grizzly.
Likewise, Lee Boyce wrote about owning the weight too, and he gave several examples of techniques that allow us to reframe the concept of "progress," several of which follow.
An unhealthy obsession with progressive overload is the reason you can walk into nearly any gym and see someone doing cute little quarter-rep barbell squats that are as far away from full ROM squats as Toledo is from Tasmania.
You know the drill: Newbie ekes out 6 decent-form reps with 135 and decides next time to slap on two 10-pounders. Oh, newbie hits their 6 reps alright, but given they hadn't really mastered 135, they did 6 reps of their new weight by simply shortening the ROM.
And then newbie adds more weight on and again shortens the ROM. Pretty soon, they're "squatting" some at-first-glance-impressive weight for 8 reps, but it looks like they're practicing little curtsies before the Queen. They look like someone threw a ping-pong ball at their head and they ducked a couple of inches.
What newbie should have done instead was to simply increase the number of reps they do with 135 pounds – using the proper range of motion – to do 7, 8, or more reps instead of 6 or whatever rep range they were employing. That would constitute legitimate progress.
Once those new reps had been mastered – owned – they can legitimately add more weight.
So, you barely hit your 3 or 4 sets of 8 reps on some exercise, and you're all puffy chested in anticipation of adding another 5 or 10 pounds on your next workout. You barely got that last set of 8, having had to use about the same amount of momentum as a shot putter attempting to break a world record, but you got it, right? You deserve to slap that extra 5 or 10 pounds on the bar!
Nah. No, you don't. You're a kind but delusional being. Next time, rather than adding weight, why not just cut your rest periods down between sets? Instead of taking 60 seconds, take 45. Instead of resting 120 seconds, rest 90. This represents the same amount of work in a shorter time frame, which is legitimate progress.
It increases your work capacity and gives you another way to own the weight before honestly earning the right to increase the resistance.
You know all those wankers that excel at doing kipping pull-ups? They're all masters of momentum and transfer of forces – Jedi masters of bullshit exercises. But I shouldn't just pick on them. I can conservatively estimate that about 90% of the gym-goers in the country are working at becoming masters of momentum and transfer of forces.
I'll prove it: When was the last time you saw someone pause at the bottom of an eccentric rep? Take the bench press, for instance. When you lower the bar quickly to your chest and then rubber-band it up, you're allowing the plyometric stretch shortening cycle to assist your lift.
Let's not bore ourselves with the physics of the concept. Suffice it to say that it has to do with the elasticity and resilience of your muscle fibers helping you hoist the weight.
What we need to do, rather than smugly assert that we've mastered a 315-pound bench and are ready to throw some more weight on, is to truly own it by eliminating the plyometric stretch shortening cycle.
You can do this by pausing at the bottom of the movement. Several studies have shown that it takes up to a 4-second pause for all the assistive forces to dissipate, but that might be overkill. Pause at the bottom of an eccentric rep for a second. Do it on bench press and, in fact, most of your exercises. You may find that you're a long way off from having earned the right to go up in weight.
I've always maintained that a good lifter can make 10 pounds feel like 50. One of the ways this hypothetical lifter can do that is by slowing down the eccentric or negative portion of the lift. This is related to the previous recommendation (eliminating the stretch reflex), but instead of pausing at the bottom of a rep, we take a pre-determined amount of time – usually, 3, 4, 5... up to 8 seconds – to lower the weight before attempting to lift it.
If you're tempted – even if your performance was shaky – to use more weight on your next squat, bench, row, or even curl workout, try using your current resistance with a slowed-down tempo. And if you're totally comfortable learning just how weak you might be, combine slowing the eccentric with the previous method – taking a pause between the eccentric and concentric rep.
Do it a few times and you'll end up truly owning that weight and earn the right to move on.
Most might think that the methods described here would only apply to behemoths – people who've cocooned themselves in gyms for years and have reached the limits of human abilities, topping out at 500 pounds or more on bench press and eight or nine hundred pounds or more on squats, but that's not true.
Most ordinary lifters, in their haste to sit aside the behemoths, cut corners. They get hooked on progressive overload. They add and they add and they add until what they're doing is a mockery of lifting weights. They ultimately top out much too early, get frustrated, and take up other less complicated and less daunting activities, like, I don't know, windsurfing.
If only they'd been able to compartmentalize their lack of self-esteem and learned to own the weight before resorting to progressive overload. As Lee Boyce wrote in his attempt to indoctrinate the masses to these truths, "Once you're past a certain point, constantly seeking progressive overload is a bit overrated, and should probably be the 4th or 5th priority on your list, after methods like the ones listed here."