Progressive overload

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Progressive overload training:

  1. A planned, systematic, gradual increase in training stimuli that is required for improvements in strength, power, and endurance.
  2. The best way to program for your clients.

Progressive overload training provides a map of what your client is working toward. This map creates program buy-in for your clients. You can show them exactly how they will go from today to achieving their goal—gradually and systematically by changing the training stimulus.

As your client trains with you regularly, the first training stimulus will get easy for them. You, as their trainer, encourage your client to continue to work with you by challenging them week in and week out. Gradual progressions programmed within the initial 6 weeks of programming will continue to challenge your client.

Gradual progressions include:

  • Increasing volume
  • Increasing load
  • Increasing frequency
  • Decreasing rest time between sets

In practice, if your client’s goal is to do 1 pull up, programming could look like:

Week 1Seated Lat Pulldown machine3 sets8 reps45 lbs30s rest
Week 2Seated Lat Pulldown machine3 sets8 reps45 lbs20s rest
Week 3Seated Lat Pulldown machine3 sets8 reps55 lbs30s rest
Week 4Seated Lat Pulldown machine3 sets8 reps55 lbs20s rest
Week 5Seated Lat Pulldown machine3 sets12 reps55 lbs30s rest
Week 6Seated Lat Pulldown machine4 sets8 reps55 lbs30s rest

How do you know it’s time to progress?

There are three stages of learning: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. When your client starts with you, they will be in the cognitive (learning) phase. Their movements will be slow, taking much mental energy. As they move into the associative stage of learning they will become more efficient, more aware of their body. Entering the autonomous stage, you need to progress your client. Movement in the autonomous stage will be consistent and use little mental focus.

Your map should only be relevant for 4-6 weeks. After that, you’ll want to write a new map for your client. After the first map, your client has mastered the planned skills and the current training stimulus is too easy. To change the training stimulus, add complexity.

Complexity progressions include:

  • Changing a tool
  • Adding an auxiliary movement to a mastered skill
  • Changing the surface

In practice, this looks like:

Week 6Seated Lat Pulldown machine4 sets8 reps55 lbs30s rest
Week 7Assisted Pull-up with a 2-inch band3 sets4 reps30s rest

Using progressive overload training highlights your value as a trainer. Past maps specifically show your client’s progress from month to month. Progressive overload training makes your clients stronger and happier with you as their trainer.