How to Design a Workout Program that Works for You: Progressive Overload

How to Design a Workout Program that Works for You: Progressive Overload

Tya Waterman |

With Guest Blogger, Chris Schnare

The process of designing a workout program can be overwhelming and it can seem like the possibilities are endless.  For a new trainer or coach, sitting and starring at a blank excel spreadsheet with the goal of designing an effective training plan can be paralyzing.  Likewise, for the non-fitness professional trying to decide your own best route, can be equally confusing and overwhelming.

Do you try to mimic the program of someone you admire, join a fitness class, or create a program that you hope will bring about your desired outcomes based on information you’ve found online? The best answer I can give is that it differs for each individual and is dependent on your level of experience.

As you move through the ranks from beginner to elite athlete, the design of your workout program becomes more and more relevant.  When first starting on a fitness journey, you are likely to see improvements from a basic program that includes occasional cardio and strength training. However, as you progress, the structure of your training program becomes more important.

To help you find your way and design a training program that will help you achieve your goals, we are going to discuss four primary principles to consider when designing or selecting a training program. In this article, we will focus on progressive overload.

Principle 1: Progressive Overload (necessary increase in stimulus applied over time)

With any training program, as you get stronger and more experienced, the sets, reps, and exercises that you are performing will get easier. In order to improve, an appropriate stimulus must be applied and this stimulus must consistently increase over time if you are to continue eliciting a positive response. In other words, you must continually challenge your body if you want to continue to see results.

If your goal is to see an increase in strength or physical ability, such as going from a 150lb back squat for 5 reps to a 175lb back squat for 5 reps, you must use training loads that have a magnitude greater than what your body is already used to. These same principles also apply if your goal is to continue to see improvements in your body composition.

There are a few ways to approach this example to bring about a positive change and get the desired result:

  1. Maintain weight, decrease sets, and increase reps

Let’s stick with the example from above. You are currently able to perform 150 lb back squats for 3 sets of 5 reps and you would like to move up to being able to do 175 lb back squats for 3 sets of 5 reps.

In order to put this method into practice, you would want to start training with 150 lbs for 1 set of 8 reps. Each week begin adding 1 additional set until you reach a point that this is not possible. This will progressively increase your strength and the amount of weight that you are able to squat.

  1. Maintain weight and sets and increase reps

With this second method, instead of decreasing your sets, you will want to stick to 3 sets. However, each week you will want to increase your reps by 1. For example, during the first week, you will perform 3 sets of 6 reps, the following week you will perform 3 sets of 7 reps. This will again increase the total training volume and will promote positive changes over time.

  1. Increase weight and incrementally increase sets and reps

With this last method, it is the weight that you begin to increase. For example, increase your weight to 160lbs. On the first week, complete 3 sets of 5 reps.  Add 1 set each week for 3 weeks. Once you have successfully added an additional 3 sets (total of 6 sets), start again with 3 sets and add 1 rep to each set every week.  Again, this will increase the total training volume and the stress applied to your system over time.

This example gives us a look at the basic premise of progressive overload and the high importance that comes with it.

In summary, here are some key things to keep in mind in regards to progressive overload:

  • We must stress the system with a greater magnitude over time, otherwise the system will get used to it and will have no need to adapt and improve.
  • Our bodies get used to the same stress over time. This means that if we continue to use the same stimulus over and over with no increase in total magnitude, the body will respond less and less.
  • Workouts needs to be progressive; without it, the various structures involved in training will fail to respond and training results will be sub-par and, even worse, could regress over time.

Keep the principle of progressive overload in mind when designing your workout program in order to see optimal results.

Stay tuned for the next principle to consider when designing your training program – up on the blog next week.