There's no doubt that progressive overload has merit. Becoming proficient in the big lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, and usually overhead press) with big weights has tremendous value across the board: bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, sports, etc. Everyone who enters the gym and intends to make it a fixture in their life should spend a significant amount of time focusing on the big basic lifts, and adding more reps or weight to the bar.
But the basics and progressive overload can be vastly overrated in terms of productiveness. And some people see it as the ONLY solution to training plateaus. Any training problem or plateau, according to them, can all be solved by adding more weight to the bar.
In fact, if you listen closely enough, any problem in life can be solved through progressive overload according to this camp. Just do more of what you were doing and a solution will present itself.
- Lifter 1: "I need bigger legs."
- Lifter 2: "Progressive overload on squats."
- Lifter 1: "I need bigger legs AND butt."
- Lifter 2: "Progressive overload on squats AND deadlifts."
- Lifter 1: "I need more money in the bank."
- Lifter 2: "Progressive overload at work. Work more hours or get a second job."
- Lifter 1: "I haven't been laid in a year."
- Lifter 2: "Progressive overload on dating. Someone will have sex with you eventually."
If you're a novice and haven't built the foundation, then it's probably your most viable training modality. The first three to five years, progressive overload has the greatest degree of payoff. You're nowhere near close to your overall strength potential and the amount of strength gained will usually be congruent with the amount of muscle that can be accumulated from fulfilling that potential.
The Point of Diminishing Returns
Like most things, however, there's a point of diminishing returns, especially if adding more muscle mass is your primary goal. And being so obsessed with nothing but adding weight on the basic lifts is an indication that your training toolbox is tiny and you're scared to broaden your horizons.
But if you look at the science and examine your own results, you'll know that just adding more weight to the barbell on three lifts isn't the final answer when it comes to pushing past growth plateaus, especially for those who've already gotten past the noob stage.
This is an area where men might benefit from learning from the ladies who've built impressive backsides. For them, developing a better mind-muscle connection was the thing that really got their trunk packed with junk. Not heavier squats and deadlifts.
And research has shown that training with different loading protocols produces similar results when volume is accounted for. So if you're looking to pack on size and are a "progressive overload, heavy weights on the basics!" dude, then you're short-changing your efforts in the gym and have become your own worst enemy through this faux-macho dogma.
Think about it: How many competitive bodybuilders only squat, deadlift and bench press for low reps? Yeah, none of them. If that's what worked best for muscle growth, then that's what they'd do.
Yes, progressive overload is a good way to build mass for a while, but not forever. You may need to approach progressive overload from an entirely different angle. Here's some different approaches:
- The guy that needs bigger legs, who can already squat 5-hundo for five, should try squatting 315 for multiple sets of 20.
- The dude with a melting grandpa ass ought to try some isometric work and develop a better mind-muscle connection, or adopt some of those "girl exercises" like hip thrusts. You know, those girls who have a bigger, stronger ass than he does.
- The guy that has the bank account problem may just need to spend less.
- The person that can't get laid may just need to take a shower.