Overload – The Principle Of Growth
Probably we all made great gains when we first started lifting weights, but then over time the gains slowed and eventually stopped all together. One of the reasons is that we fail to apply progressive overload. Essentially we all become so dramatically overtrained that we cannot overload a muscle and we actually start to produce negative results rather than moving forward with our results. Out of all of the principles involved in the process of building bigger and stronger muscles, this is the one that is almost universally accepted as the most critical.
Progressive overload is a vital factor in building muscle or increasing strength. Whilst no single factor has been established by science as the true cause of muscle growth, the overload principle defines a clear route for triggering muscle growth. We often refer to the process as switching a muscles programming to the grow mode as the growth stimulus, trigger or other such thing. In essence they are all the same thing.
So what is the overload principle? Well, simply put, when you exercise a muscle with a certain weight, that muscle will adapt to handle that demand. Once the adaptation has occurred no further changes need take place until you change the demand placed on the muscle. If you increase the demand, the muscle will again adapt. This is the overload principle in its most simple form. First of all grasp this most basic and fundamental concept before you even try to understand anything else to do with building muscles.
As you will have no doubt read, and will continue to read, nobody truly knows, exactly what causes muscles to grow bigger and stronger. There are, however, many good theories (such as the NMA Protocol Training Theory that produces muscular gains in every test subject who has committed to using the program) that do produce results in the real world. And those are the methods presented to you constantly through various means. Theoretically speaking, the human body is an survival organism. It is pre-genetically coded to have inbuilt survival goals. Reproduce, and be attractive to the opposite sex. And attract the opposite sex with the strongest characteristics. The strongest, leanest, healthiest, and surprisingly – one with polar opposite immunity (to build offspring with even greater immune systems to rival both parents.) So it is an inherent gift that your body has the ability to build bigger and stronger muscles. There are, however too many theories that make it out of the theoretical laboratories that don’t make it work in the real world. And there are far too many athletes using drugs to build muscle that taint real world science. What you will read in this series are the theories applied by natural athletes,as well as those enhancing with sports supplements and pharmaceuticals – in the real world, for plausable, actual attainable results. Remember at all times that the application of drugs will skew every and all results like you wouldn’t believe. So we aim to sift through both sides of the story.
For an athlete who trains religiously and perfectly. An athlete who diets without cheating. An athlete who achieves two naps a day and sleeps a quality eight hours at night. This athlete will be far surpassed by the man who sits at home all day eating meat pie and chips who takes the correct ratio of possibly harmful anabolic concoctions. Never compare any results to those of the pharmaceutical aided. They are a different world. This is not to promote any of my personal views on the use of anabolic steroids in sport, only to open peoples eyes to the vast difference between those of the enhanced and the natural trainer.
So we know we all have potential to build bigger and stronger physiques. We also know that we all have a predetermined genetic limit. The point at which, naturally, your body and frame, most likely, cannot build, or should we say, support any further muscular growth. It has been estimated that if a trainee was to train perfectly for their body type and metabolism, consistently without fail or any problems or injury, they could reach their pre-determined genetic limit within three to five years. Life is not a laboratory and neither is it fool proof. Even with the best plan, training is not everything in life, even for the most dedicated enthusiast, so you are probably looking more at five to eight years to hit this genetic peak.
Now as you and I know, you are born with some skeletal muscles of course so that you limbs can move. This is obvious. Then when you reach puberty, you layer down some more skeletal muscle tissue, because the cocktail of anabolic reactions taking place. Now, this muscle and these muscle cells, are pretty much yours for life. You tend not to be able to grow more muscle cells than this, although there is currently some interesting new research, so we wouldn’t like to write that all off just yet. When we talk about building muscles, in effect, what you are actually doing, is training your existing muscle fibre’s that are already there. Muscles that grow are actually the meaty muscle strands getting thicker and bigger in response to your training stimulus.
So we know you have muscle potential from birth and from puberty. And it goes without saying that we all know that this muscle will not grow without it being trained appropriately. Much to some people’s disappointment, you cannot just ‘will’ muscle tissue to grow by sheer thought power alone. You must place the muscle under some form of stress that it is not use to. This goes without saying. Your body adapts in response to stress placed upon it.
Many of you will have heard the ancient tale of the peasant who was forced to carry a mule on his back from one village to another. He started off weak and frail and as he carried this load over progressively harder and longer terrain and duration, his body grew in response, bigger, stronger and more muscled.
Progressive overload is just as it says. Exposing your existing musculature to a stimulus and stress that it has not been able to cope with ever before. Once your body has been exposed to a stress it previously hasn’t handled, it will recruit as much available energy and fuel to repair itself first and foremost. Recovery takes priority over anything. Recovery precedes growth. Once this process has occurred the body will then put to a growth phase, where the muscle will be taken beyond repair and built stronger and bigger than before in order to handle that stress again.
What you have done with your training is overloaded your body. A load it cannot cope with. The key is in the progression. If you were to repeat the same workout over and over and over again would this build muscle? It did the first time. But of course it will only work the one time. It will not work the second time or the third or the fourth. Why? Simple. Your body has now adapted to this stress you have placed upon it. Your body can now cope and so the stimulus you are providing is actually, no longer a stress to respond to. You must consistently and regularly expose your body to greater and greater stresses in order to force it to adapt (i.e. build bigger and stronger muscles.)
I am a huge fan of the work of Pete Sisco and John Little. I believe Pete Sisco has managed to sum up some of the adaptive response in a very logical manner. I credit these two great authors for their inspiration and thought on this subject no end. In order to understand the theory of overload it may be helpful to imagine that your muscle size and strength could be measured on a scale of 1 to 100. 1 is the starting point, your genetic deal of the cards so to speak. What you have before you even begin training. 100 represents the absolute maximal genetic limit of how strong and big you can get if everything possible was done perfectly to build up your physique.
Now, imagine that you have been involved in training for a year and you are training in the gym. Using our arbitrary scale, imagine that your workout on that particular day you reach a muscular output of 25. Nobody actually knows how close to your absolute maximum strength you must train to stimulate new strength and size gains, but for the sake of argument let us suppose that if you work your muscles to within 5 points of your maximum you will generate 2 points worth of new lean, hard muscle. So when your workout hits 25 today and you have enough time away from the gym to recovery, and you supply your body with the fuel and nutrients it requires to grow, then your next workout you will have to push past an intensity of 27. Once you push that intensity barrier and your body builds another 2 points of muscle and gains more strength, your next workout you will have to train with a muscular overload of 29 and so on and so on.
Many people, nearly every one involved in weight training, try to increase the weight used at each workout, and maybe even do a few more sets. Surely now you are placing a new and fresh muscular stimulus on your body and forcing it to adapt. Is this progressive overload? Technically, in some form, yes, but in reality it is a sure fire route to failure and so we cannot class it as progressive overload. In order to be truly progressive a workout intensity must be measurable. And the answer to that lies in controlling the other loading parameters.
In other words, successful, productive, strength and muscle building workouts are not random activities. They are measurable through these loading parameters. Some workout strategies are easier to chart and monitor progress than others. Some are relatively easy (Static Contraction Training). This is a HIT method we are going to be looking at in the series of muscle building articles to create positive muscle building results.
When we talk about loading parameters, we are essentially talking about placing different measurable stresses upon your muscular system. Some examples of loading paramters are easier to understand than others. In terms of productive exercise these advanced techniques are not important to most people until you have your workouts effective from the very core principles. Well, if you increase the intensity, but take a longer rest interval, or maybe decrease the eccentric (lowering the weight under control) tempo (speed), you may actually decrease the training effect. To overcome this you need to record these parameters during every workout and ensure that the overall work load is increasing, ie you are placing an increasing demand on the muscle. Of course the easiest method to do this is to only change one loading variable at any time. If you keep the weight and sets and reps the same, you may decrease rest taken between the sets to increase workout intensity for example. If you keep the Reps and Sets the same and the same time between the sets, increasing the weight on the bar is a method to increase workout intensity.
Consequently, you need to use the overload principle (progressively overloading your muscles with greater stimulus) in conjunction with recording and monitoring your exercise loading parameters. In other words it is no good getting more weight on the bar, if each week you are lifting it faster and faster and faster. This does not produce an increase in intensity or even a progression. Remember that above all else.
If you want to learn how to harness and optimise the scientific variables of progressive overload for dramatic muscle gain we urge you to read the section on NMA Protocol training.