It doesn’t matter what type of athlete you are, your goal is always to improve performance. Whether you’re weight training, running, swimming, or doing an ironman competition, you want to increase your strength, speed, and endurance. Sadly, many people struggle to find the results they’re looking for. Sometimes, it’s a lack of dedication, consistency, and hard work. More often, however, people simply don’t know how to achieve continuous progress with strength and conditioning. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem and it’s called the overload principle. The overload principle, sometimes called progression overload, is an evidence-based training program that nearly always guarantees results. But what is it and how can you use it to improve your sports performance? Keep reading for everything you need to know.
What is the Overload Principle?
No one can go from squatting 100lbs to 500lbs overnight. It takes months, and sometimes years to make that kind of progress. However, without using progressive overload, you may never see those types of numbers. The overload principle is the staple of improved performance in strength and conditioning. It is the science of making incremental improvements over time for massive overall results. Above all, it requires patience, consistency, and the discipline to work harder every time you train. However, the brilliance of the overload principle is in its subtlety. You’re not trying to outperform what you did the week before in vast quantities. You wouldn’t be able to, and if you could, it wouldn’t be sustainable. Instead, progression overload focuses on small, manageable increases in speed, endurance, or strength that your body can handle and adapt to. When done properly, people hardly notice the change in weight, pace, or distance.
The Farmer and the Calf
Perhaps one of the best representations of the overload principle is the proverbial story of the farmer and his baby cow. The baby cow was born without the ability to walk. Unfortunately, the calf’s food and water were on top of a nearby hill. To ensure the calf’s survival, the farmer (who was of no notable build) carried the small animal up the hill every day for food and water. Over time, the baby calf grew, gaining weight every week. Yet, the farmer was steadfast in his efforts to help the calf. Every day, he continued to carry the calf uphill, and every week, the calf grew. However, as the calf grew, so did the farmer. His body naturally adjusted to the ever-increasing demand for strength and endurance. Fast forward a few years and we have the image of an incredibly strong and muscular man carrying a full-sized cow up a hill.
Overload Principle for Strength and Muscle Growth
Now that you understand what the overload principle is, you’re probably wondering how you can implement it into weight training or resistance training. This training program works whether you’re using weight training equipment or are performing only bodyweight exercises. It is also effective regardless of if you’re a natural bodybuilder
or an enhanced lifter.
In strength training programs that use weights, you have a variety of ways in which you can implement the overload principle. You can increase the weight you use for each exercise, the number of reps you perform, or how many sets you do. You can also do a combination of the three. The goal is to increase the overall volume of weight you’re lifting. This is the foundation of German Volume Training
. Here’s a simple example, using barbell squats as the exercise. Let’s say you squat 150lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps your first week. To increase your performance using progressive overload, you can do one of the following:
- 3 sets of 11-12 at the same weight (150lbs)
- 4 sets of 10 at the same weight (150lbs)
- 3 sets of 6-8 at an increased weight (160lbs or more)
As you can see, there are multiple ways to design your overload principle program. The key is being consistent. Use the same tactic for several weeks at a time. You’ll notice in the third example that when you attempt more weight, you may not be able to do the same amount of reps. And that’s okay. In this scenario, you attempt the higher weight until you can complete three full sets. Once you can do 3 sets of 8 at 160lbs, add weight again.
Bodyweight Resistance Training
If you prefer bodyweight resistance training workouts rather than weight training exercises, your options for the overload principle become somewhat limited. However, there is still infinite room for growth in strength and conditioning. We’ll use pushups as our sample exercise. Let’s say you do 5 sets of 15 pushups the first week, totaling 75 pushups. To improve your strength, you can do:
- 5 sets of 16-20 pushups
- 6 sets of 15 pushups
- More than 75 pushups in any combination of sets and reps
In bodyweight training, you can’t necessarily add resistance, so it’s ultimately a numbers game.
As a final note on strength training, it’s important to prioritize your health and safety above all else. When attempting higher weights and/or trying to outperform what you did the week before, remember to do so with proper form and practicality. Sacrificing form is never an appropriate step for adding more weight or doing more reps. On big lifts like deadlifts
, squats, and bench press, allowing your form to deteriorate could lead to common and serious injuries
. If you add the extra weight on the bar and your know you’re not ready, don’t be a hero. It’s called ego-lifting and it’s rarely worth the consequences. You may not be progressing as fast as you’d like, but if you injure yourself, you’ll be set back weeks, if not months. If you are new to weightlifting, we recommend looking into personal trainers or strength and conditioning coaches. They can teach you how to lift properly so you can avoid injuries.
Overload Principle for Endurance Athletes
As an endurance athlete, you may not understand how the overload principle can be applied to your athletic performance. If you’re a serious athlete, you understand the importance of strength training, but that’s not where the emphasis lies in your training. However, the basic principle of progressive overload remains the same. Your goal is to out-perform yourself each week to the best of your abilities. Let’s use long-distance running as an example. Let’s say you ran three times a week. To keep things simple, we’ll keep the distance and intensity for all three runs the same. The first week, you run 3 miles at a moderate pace for a total of 24 minutes (an 8-minute mile time). Next week, you can:
- Run 3.25 miles at the same pace
- Run 3 miles at a slightly faster pace
- Run 3.5-4 miles at a slightly slower pace
Once again, the idea is to make small improvements your body can handle and adjust to for massive progress over time. If you can sustainably add a quarter mile to your run each week, you’ll be covering marathon distances
in no time.
Overload Principle for Speed
In a sport or competition that calls for speed, strength and conditioning are major training components. You need strength and power to be more explosive, and endurance to maintain the activity. Therefore, you should implement the strength and endurance training methods listed above. However, most skills are best learned by doing. For example, while lifting weights and doing long runs will improve your ability as a sprinter, you must put the emphasis of your training on explosiveness. Short, powerful bursts of energy are your bread and butter. To use the overload principle for increasing your speed, let’s use running on a treadmill as an example. Let’s say you run 8 quarter-mile sprints at a 7.0 speed on the treadmill. To increase your performance:
- Run 8 .25-mile sprints at a 7.2 speed (or faster)
- Run 8 .35-mile sprints at a 7.0 speed
- Run 8 .15 mile sprints at an 8.0 speed (or faster)
There are varying ways to accomplish this. In the third example, you can run a .15-mile sprint at the 8.0 speed until you can maintain it for the full quarter-mile. To increase training intensity for better conditioning, you can also reduce your recovery time between sprints. For example, if you’re resting for 120 seconds in the first week, cut it down to 110 seconds in week-two.
What to Avoid with the Overload Principle
We already talked about safety when lifting weights. However, though the overload principle is the practice of forcing growth, we must be cautious not to overtrain or try to force too much growth at one time. Remember, the overload theory is about making marginal
changes over a long period of time. Trying to make vast changes in short spaces of time is a good way to become injured, or over-trained. When you’re over-training
, your body struggles to recover. As a result, you become weaker, slower, and less conditioned. As noted at the beginning of this article, the overload principle requires patience, as well as hard work.
Want to Increase the Results of Your Strength and Conditioning Program?
No matter what sport or type of athletic performance you’re looking to improve, the overload principle is certain to get you the results you want. It is absolutely essential in strength and conditioning programs. Remember, there is more than one way to increase your progress. Proper nutrition is essential for growth and recovery. Before you go, check out some of our performance supplements
to get the extra edge in your training. And if you’re looking for more training advice, look through some of our other articles.