The Overload Principle

If you’re are on any type of progressive resistance strength training program for sports, whether you know it or not you’re trying to employ a training principle called the “overload principle.”

Simply put, the Overload Principle dictates that exercise resistance should be gradually increased as the individuals capabilities improve throughout their training. Stated this way, it’s a pretty easy concept to understand. You train a little, rest and you train again. As your body adapts to the training, you then add more resistance to the training. The side effect of all this is that you get stronger and active more muscle tissue, in some cases increase in muscle size.

Unfortunately in actual applied terms found in weight training rooms and gyms throughout the country, the Overload Principle is a misunderstood concept which has become an abused term among training experts. The abuse of this term is found in the fact that experts knew an athlete should increase their training stress a  little at a time, but never actually defined what “a little” was.

As a principle built into a strength program, the Overload Principle is only beneficial as long as it challenges the body to adapt to the strength training you’re performing, but does not overstress it to the point that it can’t recover from the training. That “but does not overstress it” part of the previous sentence is an extremely important concept. If you work with a greater load then you did previously, your body will be challenged and, after a period of recovery, it will become stronger. If you do not recover, the Overload Principle’s positive effect will be lost.

To make the Overload Principle a bit more clear let’s take a look at what happens to your body during strength training. When you train with weights as part of a strength program, your body’s internal systems change as a direct result of experiencing stress. This is not the kind of stress you get from financial or family problems. The kind of stress being discussed is the training stress caused by lifting weights.

Generally speaking, stress may be regarded as any stimulus which creates an imbalance of the body’s internal environment. When you weight train for strength, you create an imbalance or disturbance in your body’s musculoskeletal system. In order to compensate for this imbalance, various systems (feeback) of your body try to get it back into balance called “homeostasis.”

Homeostasis is the normal biological state of balance between energy consumption in the form of waht you eat, and the normal energy output from your working day. It seems that the human body likes things as constant, comfortable, and normal as possible. Therefore your body constantly adjust to stay in homeostasis; it doesn’t like you going around making waves by training for sports and throwing everything out of balance. The idea of homeostasis is important.

The effects that these feedback systems have on the body are responsible for the various results which athletes are constantly seeking, (i.e. increased strength levels, increased power, increased muscle endurance, etc.). Since various kinds of training stress can create the environment for these different effects, it’s extremely important that the stress you use be for the correct period of time, be exactly planned out, and completely evaluated. I design programs to help people train correctly without causing an overtraining effect.

The next steps in better understanding the Overload Principle is understanding the variables of training stress. These variables are intensity, duration, and frequency. Intensity refers to how hard the training is with resistance being the key component. Duration implies how long the training session should be. The key factor in duration is the number of sets and repetitions of an exercise. The final variable is Frequency.

Over the years, since there wasn’t a method of training that explained how to incorporate the Overload Principle into a strength program, the majority of athletes misinterpreted this principle to mean that they should lift as much weight as possible all the time. Sometimes taking this to the point where weight loads should be increased on almost a daily basis. This has been ingrained in athletes as the “no pain no gain” syndrome.

An approach to training which goes along the lines of taking a training effort constantly to failure (meaning working to the point of complete exhaustion so that an exercise cannot be continued without assistance) has to be seriously examined, if not out of concern for the athlete, then at least out of scientific credibility. The ability of an athlete to stay with such an all-out program is highly suspect (unless performance enhancing drugs i.e, steroids are used).

Even though the idea of constant and unrestricted increases of training loads is a seductive one, the human body just does not have the recovery capacity to adapt to daily increases in weight loads or training intensity.

Training methods which completely exhaust the body for long periods of time often result in draining energy from an athlete. This results in training plateaus, injuries or actual loss in size and strength. Once this happens you’re led directly into the training phenomena every athlete understands as “overtraining.”

It’s also been shown that when a muscle is abused and overworked for a prolonged period, the body’s feedback system sends cortisone into the area to protect the muscle from this abuse.  This unique feedback effect limits physical progress and makes positive training gains even more difficult. When physical progress starts to decline, it’s a common occurrence that individuals start to doubt their ability to make new gains. All athletes know what happens next; motivation begins to deteriorate and the willingness to train seriously, vanishes.

In order to put the Overload Principle to work correctly, the use of increased stress has to be considered carefully. Current information shows that a single workout is not sufficient allow the body to properly adapt its internal systems before the load is increased. To accomplish a positive adaptation from the stress of the weight loads, it’s necessary to repeat the same weight loads for the duration of a whole week.  The first application of weight load stress shocks the body, the second application of weight load stress adapts the body.

The nervous system will activate more and different muscle cells than those currently fatigued. I always design programs based on an individuals physiological bio-individuality. Instead of simply lifting the same weight, you will lift slightly more weight the next set.  This will increase the challenge placed on the newly recruited muscle cells and cause more adaptation to take place. You can continue this approach three or four times before you exhaust the muscle. This training stimulus creates the proper internal environment for developing additional muscle size.

Your muscle grows as a means of defending itself. Your body mobilizes all of its resources to make available to you the ability to withstand difficult training challenges. Following the shock of the training challenge your body requires rest. You must rest adequately before you can shock the body again, and the rest, regeneration, and overcompensation basically cannot be rushed. If it is, overtraining may result.

Let’s further examine this using a standard arm curl exercise for example. The body tries to be efficient. When the body reads how much weight you have in your hands, it determines how many fibers should be involved and lets only that number of fibers work. As the reps begin and the weight is lifted, ATP supplies the energy. As the reps continue CP (creatine phosphate) then glycogen supply the fuel.  Muscle glycogen is used anaerobically producing lactic acid. Lactic acid now surrounds the muscle until the muscle reaches failure and is forced to stop working due to the lactic acid build up.

When you put the weight down, the blood is able to flow back into the area, replenishing the fuel, at the same time allowing the nervous system to rest. The perfect computer, your body, says that something is going on in the biceps muscle, I had better send more blood to the area to help out, now perhaps 10% more fibers an be used. Therefore, the next set would be easier if you stayed at the same amount of weight. The body is reacting to the weight you just used. It would be easier this time if you used the same weight, but here is where we reprogram the body’s computer. More weight is added, and the body again must go through the same pattern as before.

Along with more blood and fuel in the area the nervous system recruits more fiber, this time perhaps using 70 fibers, since you will lift more weight. This usually happens 3 or 4 times before the muscle exhausts itself. Now that you have tired out the muscle, the real work starts. Since the muscle has been tierd-out, the body must prepare for the next time this will happen. It calls on the replenishing systems to start working. If the proteins, vitamins, and hormones are available, the rebuilding or overcompensation now takes place. The muscle grows as its way of protecting itself from the next time you plan to put it under stress.

Intelligent strength training is a progression of continuously increasing training demands, within a training window of adaptability, punctuated by opportunities for recovery. This is simply the way human biological systems work.

The next step in understanding Overload is the Progressive Overload Principle. This principle builds upon the Overload Principle and states that, when challenges are made to the body, they must be linked in a progressive way. Linking successive practices or weeks of practices together should show a progressive increase in training load and progressive improvement in performance. Progressive Loading also states that following a significant challenge to the body, you must allow the body to rest.

The concept of the Overload Principle is so incredibly important that I base all of my training programs on this idea.  An understanding of the Overload Principle forms the foundation of how we calculate the weight loads, sets and reps used to get the desired results we seek in each program.

Over the years I have experimented with many different levels of intensity and have found that it is better to under-train slightly than to overtrain.

To accomplish proper adaptation, it is necessary to repeat similar loads several times, often for the duration of a whole week called a “progression-block”, or even longer in some cases. Increases in training load from week to week result in fatigue experienced in the first 1-3 days of the progression block. As the weeks progress, the person adapts to the new loads, and feels comfortable toward the end of the progression block. This progressive adaptation represents the foundation which will lead to increases of the weight load pattern in the progression blocks to come.

The person then will need a week to re-group. Linking the patterns of progression blocks together produces a super-progression block.

As mentioned before, increases in weight loads from one step to another must be performed carefully, and gradually. This pattern of increasing weight loads is called ” Step-Load Pattern”. Once the progression blocks and step-loading pattern have been set for the month training, these patterns can be linked together.

It is recommended that all individuals find their 1 RM per each exercise. The Repetition Maximum lifting 100% as much weight as possible for the given exercise. The planned regeneration block is completed in order to remove the fatigue from the body’s system, to restore energy, and to relax psychologically. In training, stress to the system has to be decreased in as exact a planned manner as it was increased.

Throughout the regeneration weeks, the person should not feel any discomfort in training. The athlete should feel that energy stores are being built up, getting ready to tackle the next three progression-blocks of increased weight loads.  At the end of one super-progression block or phase of training, the athlete usually tests for the 1 RM, because by now a 100% effort could mean greater weight.

Athletes who have trained using the correct interpretation of the Overload Principle and the correct step-load pattern for weight loads have had remarkable success.

Daryl Conant, M.Ed

tags: Daryl Conant, Vince Gironda, Ron Kosloff, Body building, Natural bodybuilding.