The Power of Progressive Overload
Updated: Mar 11
By David Drinks
Perhaps you have heard of the power of compound interest?
Compound interest in the finance world refers to the fact that you can grow your savings and investments at an accelerated rate over time because the interest that you earn on your initial investment then earns interest on itself. Consequently, the amount is compounded over time with the result that it grows exponentially.
Albert Einstein is reputed to have described compound interest as the “eighth wonder of the world.”
While compound interest is certainly remarkable, I’m not here to speak to you about finance and investing today.
Instead, I thought of the topic of compound interest because there is a parallel that can be drawn between the power of compound interest and the power of progressive overload.
However, before we get to drawing a parallel between the two, I’m sure you’re wondering what the heck progressive overload is in the first place!
Progressive overload is a principle of exercise progression. It simply means that to progressively challenge the systems in your body (e.g., the muscular system, cardiovascular system, skeletal system, etc.), we need to progressively overload the stress that is placed on those systems.
This planned progression within an exercise program is the key to maximizing the effectiveness of your exercise routine.
Your body responds to physical stress that is placed on it by adapting to overcome that stress and get stronger (as long as the amount of stress is appropriate, and your body can adapt to it positively).
However, if you don’t overload your body by asking it to do more than you asked it to do last time, you won’t progress toward your goal. You won’t gain strength, increase cardiovascular fitness, or improve any other quality of physical fitness.
If you’re OK with just maintaining the status quo, that might be alright. However, keep in mind that at some point, your body peaks and begins a gradual decline in just about every physical capability. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just give in and maintain a declining status quo of physical fitness as I age!
Instead, continuously trying to challenge the body will allow you to make progress toward your goals and stave off physical decline for as long as possible.
So, if you want to gain strength, improve functional fitness, or at the very least hold off physical decline for as long as possible, then you need progressive overload in your exercise routine.
The key is that you must plan this progressive overload systematically so that you don’t overdo it all at once. Rather than overloading the system all at once – possibly resulting in injury or sickness – the goal is to overload your body systematically and progressively for a long time.
And this is where the parallel between progressive overload and compound interest comes into play.
You see, in the world of saving and investing, it’s almost always the tortoise that wins, not the hare. While many people are excited about “get rich quick.” Compound interest works its magic over the course of a long period of time – I’m talking 20-30+ years!
So, to take advantage of the power of compound interest, you need to do a couple of key things… and you need to do them consistently for a long time!
1.) Save money consistently – month after month.
2.) Not stop or go backward (by taking money out of your retirement account too early, for example).
The best thing about this approach is that it allows you to win with money, while also experiencing the least amount of pain! You don’t have to sell your car to save $20,000 this month. You just have to save a couple of hundred dollars every month.
That small amount saved regularly, combined with the interest that it earns compounding over 30+ years, equals a lot of money!
But if you stop saving, or even worse, withdraw money too early, you lose out on all of the compound interest that that money could have earned.
Now, I did say that I’m not here to talk to you about personal finance. But analogies do help drive the point home.
Here’s the point: progressive overload in your exercise routine will allow you to accomplish your fitness goals, just like compound interest will allow you to accomplish your financial goals.
Unfortunately, you can’t multiply your strength or cardiovascular fitness exponentially over time by earning interest on the work you put in during your workouts. That would be cool!
However, the way you save for retirement and the way you build strength (or any other physical quality) are the same. Do it consistently for a long time, without stopping and taking steps backward.
Here’s a quick example to give you an idea of the power of progressive overload in your workouts:
Let’s say you’re doing squats to build leg strength. You start with 45lbs of resistance (the weight of a normal barbell). If you squat consistently, every single week, your body will quickly adapt to the stress you’re putting on it and your legs will get stronger.
For people just beginning an exercise routine, with no injury or health problems, your body can adapt and gain strength remarkably quickly. It’s not unheard of to add 5-10lbs per week to your squat, every single week for quite some time.
In fact, when I was first starting serious strength training in college, I did exactly that. I started low with the amount of weight, but I squatted consistently, and I gained about 10lbs on my squat weight every single week for several months!
Of course, your rate of progression will slow down as you continue to move the weight up. However, most people can at the very least continue adding 10lbs of weight to their squat each month for a long time.
So, let’s run some of these numbers out to see how much strength you can gain by applying the principle of progressive overload:
New Strength Trainee:
Beginning weight 45lbs.
Squatting consistently, you add 10lbs each week for the first three months. The weight you can squat is now 165lbs! Congratulations, you are now about 266% stronger after just three months!
After the initial gains, you slow down to gaining 10lbs per month on your squat. At the end of your first year of strength training, you can now squat 255lbs. You’re now about 466% stronger than you were one year ago!
For a relatively young, novice strength trainee, that is not an unrealistic expectation at all.
Of course, if you are older and passed the time of life where you have peak muscular strength, you won’t make that dramatic of an increase. Or, if you have an injury or health condition you’re recovering from or dealing with, that may slow you down a bit.
However, no matter what point in life you’re at, your body will still adapt. You can still gain strength!
Being super-conservative, let’s say you could only increase your squat an average of 5lbs per month. After one year, you would have still added 60lbs to the weight that you can squat. That’s not insignificant!
This same principle applies to improve any quality of fitness too, not just muscular strength. The slow and steady application of the right amount of stress will yield progress.
But here’s where most people go wrong:
They aren’t consistent. They workout one week and take the next off. They do great for one month and then have one sloppy month.
They workout consistently, but they never challenge their body by adding more resistance. We all know the person who goes to the gym and does the exact same thing time after time with no change. Sure, they’re beating the person who is just sitting on their couch, but they’re leaving so much potential progress on the table. Believe me, when you start to lose strength as you age, you’ll wish you had gained a lot more when you could have!
They workout consistently and they do challenge themselves. However, they hop from one exercise to another so that they don’t get bored. Meanwhile, they never work at the same exercise long enough to gain meaningful strength.
As with our financial example, progressive overload done consistently for a long time will yield significant – perhaps even unbelievable – results.
Your job then is to take the tortoise mindset to exercise. Slow and steady wins the race. Don’t get frustrated when you don’t see all of the progress happen within the first couple of weeks. Focus on maintaining your consistency and steadily progressing each and every week.
Focus on not missing workouts. Skipping a workout – like withdrawing money early from your retirement account – will not only halt your progress but will also force you to take steps backward so you can build back up.
If you can simply maintain your workout consistency, add a little bit each week, and not stop, you’ll win with fitness. You’ll look back after a year or two and realize just how far you’ve come.
That’s the power of progressive overload, and it’s driven by consistency!
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