The Training Principle Of Progressive Overload

When Milos was a young boy, he wanted to become the strongest ancient Olympian. To achieve that, he chose a very simple strategy. Every day, he lifted a calf. And over the course of time, this calf grew until Milos was, at some point able to lift a whole full-blown bull.

Milo Of Croton The Training Principle Of Progressive Overload

The story of Milo Of Croton, an ancient Olympian is one of the best examples of the application of the training principle of progressive overload

So, what does this have to do with the principle of progressive overload?

In my opinion, this is one of the best expressions of the principle of progressive overload. There are slight load increments, every day, he lifted the calf and the calf grew slightly bigger until he was able to lift a full-grown bull.

The Training Principle Of Progressive Overload, also known as The Overload Principle, and it is the most fundamental training principle.

Why is it the most fundamental training principle?

Simply for the reason that most people either don’t understand it or even if they understand it, they don’t know how to apply it.

In this article you’ll learn

Why it is the most fundamental training principle

In the previous lecture, I have outlined the simplified adaptive process, where the body is at baseline in homeostasis, where the inner milieu is in balance, then due to training the inner milieu is disturbed and out of balance, the so-called heterostasis where performance levels decrease, then there will be an adaptation, where a new baseline, with higher performance level is established.

The basic premise of the overload principle

Training must be progressive in order to continuously elicit adaptations. This is essentially what the adaptive process is about. In the previous principle of training, the principle of an optimal stimulus, you learned the concept of a graded response from Roux, which says only stimuli that are above a certain threshold will actually elicit an adaptation.

And you learned in the article ‘A different approach to training principles’ [link] that adaptation is the main law of training, exemplified by the story of Prometheus, who was chained to the cliff from Zeus, and the eagle came to pick out the liver at the end of the day, overnight, the body healed, the wound healed and the next day, the eagle came again, and picked out the liver.

This is an expression of the ability of the human body to adapt.

Therefore training must be progressive in order to continuously elicit adaptations.

Training must be progressive in order to continuously elicit adaptations.

Because in theory, a high stimulus will become a moderate stimulus, and a moderate stimulus will become a low stimulus over time if it’s not progressive.

The biological basis for the training principle of progressive overload

There is a so-called parabolic time course of adaptations.

What does that mean?

If you look at the adaptative process simplified, and at the graded response rule, you can see that different stimuli invoke different adaptations.

Graded Response Rule Of Training Adaptations

Graded Response Rule Of Training Adaptations (from Wilhelm Roux)

A moderate to high stimulus invokes adaptation, whilst a low stimulus has no adaption or de-adaptation and a too high stimulus has a negative adaptation.

And if training is not progressive, a high stimulus, will become a moderate stimulus and a low stimulus over time.

Parabolic Time Course of Adaptation Training Principles

The Parabolic Time Course of Adaptation describes how a stimulus can change over time if the training principle of progressive overload is neglected

And that’s exactly why the principle is called progressive overload, if the stimulus is not progressive, whatever was a high stimulus that invokes adaptation will become a moderate stimulus where there’s maintenance of adaptation. And if it’s not changed, there is no adaptation or de-adaptation.

Sign-up for the free Training Course Training Principles Made Simple and access 11 video lectures, presentation slides, transcripts and audios

(did I already mention it’s free 😉 )
Sign up now

How to practically apply the overload principle

If you look at the model of Bompa and Buzzichelli, by the way they aren’t the only ones using this model, there are 3 primary bio motor abilities,

  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Endurance

So, now the question stands out, how can we apply this principle of progressive overload to each primary bio-motor ability?

How to practically apply the training principle progressive overload for strength

Strength is the ability to exert force to overcome resistance. The physical formula for force is, force (F) is the product of mass (m) and acceleration (a), hence F = m * a.

Strength can be expressed as F = m * a.

So, how can we then influence force output?

There are 3 ways to increase force:

  • you can have a higher mass by an equal acceleration
  • you can have an equal acceleration by higher mass
  • or you can have a higher mass and a higher acceleration.

What does it mean?

If you think about very simply, mass is the load you have on a bar, then you have these different options to progressively overload.

Number one is what most people do, just putting more on the bar. Whilst, that is a very good way, there’s also the option of increasing acceleration. So, even though the mass stays constant, and you can apply progressively more and more acceleration to the bar, you will also have higher force outputs.

How to practically apply the training principle progressive overload for speed

How do you progressively overload speed?

The formula for speed is, speed (v) is distance (d) divided by time (t). Let’s not dissect the difference between speed and velocity, since one is a scalar quantity and the other not, so let’s just use these terms interchangeably, as this doesn’t make a big difference for the practical application. Hence the formula is V = d / t.

Speed can be expressed as V = d / t.

Therefore if you want to train speed, you have again 3 options

  • you can cover more distance in the same time
  • you can cover the same distance in less time
  • or you can cover more distance in less time

By the way, speed is not only running speed, the same applies to throwing speed, kicking speed, hitting speed, whatever it might be.

How to practically apply the training principle progressive overload for endurance

Let’s have a look at endurance. Whilst there are a couple of formulas that you can use for endurance.

For the reason of simplicity, I really like the quote from Leonardo da Vinci “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

For the simplicity of it, endurance can be expressed as power (P) equals work (W) divided by time (t). You can also the formula for horsepower, which then takes into equation the energy spent, force, distance and time.

Essentially, they all say the same thing, and simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, so we use the formula P = W / t.

Endurance can be expressed as P = W / t.

So, in order to train endurance, and progressively overload it, you again have 3 options

  • you can do more work in the same time
  • you can do the same work in less time
  • or you can do both, more work in less time

Rounding-up the Training Principle Of Progressive Overload

The training principle of progressive overload is the most fundamental training principle because training has to be progressive in order to elicit continuous adaptations.

The biological basis is the so-called parabolic time course of adaptation, which says if the stimulus doesn’t change, and you apply the same stimulus over and over again, the adaptive response will decrease.

Hence whatever invoked an adaptation in the first place, if you don’t change the stimulus, progressively, you won’t invoke further adaptations.

In order to practically apply the principle of progressive overload you need to understand the variables that influence the different bio-motor abilities strength, speed, and endurance.

Check out the next page for the last training principle of the group of training principles that elicit an adaptation, The Training Principle Of A Varied Stimulus