If you want to maximise the effectiveness of your training then the principle of overload is something you need to be familiar with. This article breaks down what overload is, why it’s important, what types of overload exist, how to make it progressive plus the potential drawbacks.
This piece is also part of Character Strength & Conditioning’s 6-Part Series on the Principles of Training, so whilst you can absolutely read this as a standalone, you’ll probably get a far better understanding if you read each of the 6 parts.
Now, with that said, onto the main article…
What is ‘Overload’
For any kind of training to be effective it needs to provide enough stimulus to force your body to adapt. Or to put it another way, adaptation can only occur when you ‘overload’ one of your body’s systems.
Why is the Principle of Overload Important?
Training programmes that don’t follow the principle of overload are ineffective at creating positive adaptation. To use a few examples…
If you can squat 200kg, then squatting 60kg for a single set of 5 will not provide anything like enough overload to make you stronger.
And if you can run a mile in under 5 minutes, then walking a mile in 20 minutes will also not provide enough overload to make you faster.
If you want to make progress, you have to train hard enough.
What Do We Mean By Progressive Overload?
if ‘overload’ is the amount of stimulus required to create adaptation, then progressive overload is simply an increase in the amount of overload provided over time.
To use a really simple example…
Let’s say that last week you deadlifted 120kg for 3 sets of 5, and it was a sufficient amount of stimulus to overload your body and cause you to adapt by growing stronger.
This week, because you’re now stronger, that same 120kg for 3 sets of 5 might not provide enough stimulus to overload your body anymore. Instead, you’ll need to increase, i.e. progress, the amount of stimulus, for example by deadlifting 122.5kg for 3 sets of 5.
And as you know, that’s just one example of a way to provide additional stimulus.
Within the context of strength training, you could also add more sets or more reps, or reduce rest times. You could also add more training sessions throughout the week to increase total training volume.
Within endurance training contexts you can still add more sets and reps (for example 3 x 1500m runs becomes 4 x 1500 runs) but you also have options like increasing session length and running pace.
Are There Any Drawbacks or Downsides to Progressive Overload?
Generally speaking, achieving progressive overload is always a kind of balancing act. We’re constantly trying to provide enough stimulus to create overload, but that stimulus also creates fatigue, and too much fatigue increases the likelihood of injury and burnout.
I tend to advise most athletes and weightlifters to err on the side of caution, and only increase the stimulus by a small amount each week (usually only a few %).
The best way to visualise this is to imagine your body as a recipe, and stimulus as an ingredient. You can always add more of an ingredient if needed, but if you’ve accidentally dumped way too much salt into your meal you can’t take it out again and you’re left with an inedible mess.
How Does Overload Relate to Other Principles of Training?
The most important principle that overload relates to is specificity. You want the overload you provide through training to be as specific to your intended outcomes as possible.
For example, overloading your body by performing 3 long-distance runs each week is great if you’re a long-distance runner, but pretty useless if you’re aiming to become a world champion powerlifter.
And overloading your body with 3 bench press sessions each week is great if you’re a powerlifter, but not that useful if you’re a runner.
You have to consider your goals and provide a type of overload that is specific to the goals you want to achieve.
That’s it for today, but make sure to check out the rest of the principles of training series here at Character Strength & Conditioning.
Part 1 – Specificity
Part 2 – Overload (You’re here)
Part 3 – Fatigue Management
Part 4 – Variation
Part 5 – Individualisation
Part 6 – Reversibility
And as always, if you want high-quality coaching and programming from a coach you can trust, you can book a call with me here to discuss your training in more detail.
‘Til Next Time
MSc Strength & Conditioning
BWL Level 2 Coach