T Nation

Progressive Overload?


So I am trying to wrap my mind around progressive overload. I know what progressive overload is but it just doesn’t make sense to me. I have only been in this game a little over 2 years and am still trying to learn so bare with me. Let’s say that I Squat 275 for 4 sets of 6 and am therefore ready to increase my weight to say 285. When I do this all I can get is 2 sets of 5, 1 set of 4 and 1 of 3. So at 275 I had a total volume that workout of 6,600 lbs but the next workout increasing to 285 I only had a total volume of 4,845 lbs so did I really improve? There will more than likely be several weeks that I am lifting less volume before I get up to 4 sets of 6 reps at 285 and lift a greater total volume than I was weeks earlier. This may be a dumb question but it just doesn’t make sense to me and when I am tracking my progress and see total volume lower in my workout it’s a bit demotivating. I know I have to increase weight to improve and get bigger and stronger and that is part of what makes progressive overload, but are my muscles growing/responding in the above example because I increased the load on them even though the total volume that they moved that workout was lowered? Sorry for my ignorance here but really wanting to learn so I can improve. I think my lack of knowledge on this and my mind trying to make sense of it is hurting my progress. Thanks for any help


Just remember volume is part of the equation, and INTENSITY is the other, while you lowered volume, you have raised intensity. Over time as you acclimate to the raised intensity and get stronger you will begin to add reps or sets with that weight as well and volume wise eventually be beyond where you were with the previous weights


If tonnage (total weight lifted) was all that mattered when doing 1 sets of 100 reps with 50lbs (5000lbs) would be just as effective as doing 4 sets of 5 with 250lbs (5000lbs) and it isn’t.

The load used plays a big role in muscle fiber activation, intramuscular tension and the amount of muscle damage created. So even if you tonnage is lower it doesn’t than the workout was less effective.

And it’s not all that matters…

If you take a set to failure it will be “harder” than if you stop 3 reps short even if in the later you reached a higher tonnage.

The thing that matters is how hard you train… how hard you feel your muscles working and how hard you push you set. If 285 for 5, 5, 4, 3 feels harder than 275 for 4 sets of 6 then chances are that I stimulated more progress, You can’t look at only one variable and thing that it is the sole way to evaluate how effective a session was


Thanks, that makes sense to me. I am figuring out this is as much a mind game as it is a muscle game. I get in my head too much and it hurts my progress.


I wonder if not tracking my progress so diligently would help me, because I see previous umbers and it automatically sets my mind up to a number instead of max intensity.


Some people are prone to paralysis by overanalysis and that can actually kill your gains both by affecting your motivation to train and by creating an undesired spike in cortisol.


It is likely nice to know what you did before but if it occupy too much place in your mind it can actually hurt you. Especially if you have different workouts or if some variables go up while others go down.

Let me give you an example.

SESSION A you did…
Bench press 275 x 4 sets of 6
Incline bench press 225 x 3 sets of 8
Cable cross over 65lbs x3 sets of 10

SESSION B you did …
Bench press 295 x 4 sets 6, 5, 5, 5
Incline bench press 225 x 3 sets of 7,6,6
Cable cross over 65lbs x 3 sets of 12

How do you interpret that? Will you be pissed that your incline press went down? Of did you consider that the fact that you lifted a lot more weight on the bench created more fatigue, decreasing performance on the incline press?

Not to mention that on any given day you might progress, regress or stay the same. I have been saying for years that under the best circumstances, out of 10 workouts you will…

Progress in some way in 6
Stay at a similar level in 2
Regress in 2

Now if you overanalyse everything and stress about little details you might make that ratio a helluva lot worse


Thank you so much coach for breaking this down for me it helps a lot and your point is well taken.