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Strategies for overload and progression.

In 1956, when Dr. Hans Selye published his classic text, The Strees of Life, he probably had no idea that strength and conditioning coaches would one day reference his proposed General Adaptation Syndrome (G.A.S.) with ubiquitous fervor.


Known to many of his peers as "The Einstein of Medicine," Selye wrote and lectured extensively on the influences of mental and physical stresses and our abilities to cope, recover, and adapt to them.

A simplified synopsis of the G.A.S as it applies to strength training goes as follows:

Stage I -- The physiological stress and demands placed on muscle tissue causes a certain degree of damage and microtrauma.

Stage II -- The body's internal regulatory systems respond in an attempt to defend themselves from the onslaught of stress-induced damage via compensatory adaptation (i.e., increased strength and genetically determined grades of hypertrophy). When attention is paid to proper recovery and appropriate nutritional recovery strategies, a gradual, progressive ascent can be achieved at a rate and to a level that are consistent with each individual's growth potential.

Stage III -- This is the danger zone. If the stress is prolonged at the exclusion of the needed recovery and growth window, a catabolic (i.e., system breakdown) effect sets in. One of the paramount objectives of a well-planned, properly organized and administered strength-training program is to avoid slipping into the abyss of this overtraining stage.

There are numerous blueprints available for steady, progressive overload. Our job as coaches is to examine these options, make any necessary adjustments, and incorporate those that best fit our specific needs and training framework.

Allow us to present a handful of these choices, along with some suggested applications for each.



One of the oldest and highly revered systems of progressive overload is to assign weight loads based upon percentages of repetition maxes (either true 1 RM's, or estimations extrapolated from the performance of multiple reps with a predetermined weight). These percentages are assigned to target reps and a set schematic.

Examples: 4 sets of 8 with 75% or an ascending percentage format such as 8 reps with 75%, 6 reps with 77%, 4 reps with 80%, and 2 reps with 87%.

Many practitioners predicate the entire training calendar on one or more versions of the percentage based structure. The percentages, reps, and sets fluctuate (i.e., the percentages increase, while the reps and total volume decrease) over segments of time known as periodization cycles, and a new max test will usually dovetail with the final training cycle. The strategy then comes full circle with a newly determined max plugged into the first cycle.

Suggested applications:

Periodization designs have proven to be very effective and manageable models in the sports of Power Lifting and Olympic Lifting. This is due, in large part, to the fact that these sports require high levels of skill and proficiency in a compartmentalized group of competitive lifts. When combined with these specific activities, periodization affords the competitor the opportunity to enhance the lifting skills with gradual weight increments that hopefully result in a new personal best in competition.

The classic periodization approach receives mixed reviews when you survey coaches of other sports. Some say it handcuffs their athletes to weight loads that are too light or heavy for too long, while others question the efficacy and safety of max testing as the sole source for determining weight assignments in the first place.

However, many coaches who center their strength training scripts on frequent max testing and/or preparation for lifting competitions swear by a periodization archetype as the linchpin for their programs.

Paring down reps with a concurrent increase in weight may have some neurological benefits for those who must periodically demonstrate prowess in a one-rep max. Simply put, adaptations manifest themselves along the congruent neural pathways that are specific to mastering a designated lift with a relatively heavy weight load.

Conversely, if your primary objectives are to increase overall strength with as much concomitant hypertrophy as genetically possible, then moderate (5-8) to high (8-12) reps will suffice for the most part.

You can still work a modified, or undulating, periodization plan into your program by simply changing rep assignments--from higher to lower--every 3-4 weeks.

Example: 10-12 reps for 3 weeks, 8-10 reps for 3 weeks, 5-8 reps for 3 weeks, then repeat the cycle.


Let's say that the percentage-based protocols do not fit into your system, or they are only compatible with a few of the lifts that you test (e.g., bench press, squat, etc.). What are your other options?

You might choose to implement one or more of the following progressive overload techniques that are based more upon "perceived effort" and gauged against previous attempts.

First off, let's look at a couple of applications that can serve as indicators for progression in each individual set:

Double Progression -- This very simple, yet extremely effective strategy is predicated upon a rudimentary element of progressive overload--add weight when higher reps can be achieved. A rep range (e.g., 6-8) is established, followed by experimenting until a weight is found that requires a great effort to achieve the low end of the range. When the high end of the range is reached, a moderate increment is made, and the process is repeated.

Triple Progression -- This scheme maintains the double progression design and adds the component of decreasing the time between sets. A very modest decrease in recovery time (e.g., 10-15 seconds) can result in a sharp increase in the difficulty and intensity of the succeeding set. This third variable can be used sparingly to jump start a period of stagnation, or to merely add variety to a workout script.

Here are a few overload techniques that can be incorporated within the execution of each individual set and/or set combinations.

Important Recommendations:

Due to the intensity of these strategies, we do not recommend that more than one of them be performed per training session, and that all of them be used sparingly as adjuncts to the basic training approach. It must be understood that--at least initially--these techniques might require more recovery time than usual. Also, we recommend judicious selection of the modes being used (free weights or machines) so that attention is paid to safe spotting procedures. Finally, with consideration to trainee experience, we suggest that athletes be at least freshmen in high school with a good six months of basic training behind them before being exposed to this level of intense training. (Check the April '05 issue for more safety and troubleshooting details.)

Extended sets -- The most common and effective way to extend a set is to decrease the weight slightly after reaching the high end of the rep range. On average, 1-3 additional reps should be achieved with each reduction, and 1-3 reductions are normally performed. While this technique can be utilized with just about any type of equipment, selectorized machines usually offer the best option due to the ease and speed with which the weight stack pins can be removed and replaced.

Eccentric accentuated sets -- This is a method used to emphasize the eccentric (lowering) phase of a repetition, and one way it is accomplished is through post-fatigue reps. In other words, once the lifter has reached the high end of the rep range, and assuming he has reached the point of momentary muscular fatigue (MMF), the spotter assists with the positive (raising) phase and the lifter lowers the load with control. Again, 1-3 reps are usually performed. If you prefer not to take sets to MMF, a variation is to simply lower the final 2-3 reps with a longer cadence (5-8 seconds). For safety reasons, obviously, you must be very selective on the exercises and equipment used for this procedure.

Increase the "time under load" -- Prolonging the rep duration--or time under load (TUL)--is another tactic for heightening the intensity of a set. For instance, if your normal rep duration is 1-3 seconds for the concentric phase and 2-4 seconds for the eccentric phase, a consideration would be to add 2-3 seconds to each phase. Or, if you normally pay little--if any--attention to rep cadence, you might consider upping the difficulty with a longer TUL rep duration. As a side note, this method is extremely effective in many rehabilitation circumstances, once medical clearance to do so is granted.

Manipulate exercise order -- Most workout scripts dictate the performance of multi-joint movements (those that require the use of more than one joint complex) early in the workout, and single-joint movements toward the end. On occasion, you might try either reversing this order, or alternating multi-joint and single-joint exercises. Pre-fatiguing specific target muscle groups with single-joint movements can elevate the difficulty of the succeeding multi-joint movements for a completely different stimulus. Be prepared, however, to lower the weights--especially on the multi-joint exercises--when employing this technique, as it will be prompted by the fatigue induced by the preceding single-joint movements.

Vary the bilateral and unilateral emphasis -- In the February, 06 issue, we discussed the unilateral benefits of dumbbells (DB's). Independent limb action can have a mitigating effect on strength and neuromuscular deficiencies, and DB's nicely fulfill this need. With the cascade of currently available equipment choices, it is not difficult to find free weight and machine modes that offer bilateral (both limbs sharing the load in unison) and unilateral (each limb bearing the brunt of the load independently) action to meet everyone's specific needs.


As important as progressive overload is to the success of the strength training program, it is vital that coaches do not become victims of "paralysis by analysis."

You've probably heard the ancient tale of Milo who, at a very early age, began lifting a bull calf everyday. As the calf grew, of course, Milo's strength increased exponentially, and he experienced one of the earliest recorded and truest forms of progressive overload.

Now, we're not recommending bull lifting (or bull tipping, for that matter) as the bulls might take exception to it. But somewhere up there, Milo must be looking down with a smile on his face as he observes all the squabbling over the best overload methods, the validity of "sport-specific" lifting movements, and the superiority debates surrounding free weights and machines.

The bottom line: There are a lot of really good strength training methods that are complemented with some outstanding pieces of equipment--and none of them are necessarily the king of the hill!


Managing stress can control your waistline -- Dr. Hans Selye defined stress as, "the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it." Stress is one of life's double-edged swords, as a stress-free life would incapacitate us when a response to a challenge is warranted, and yet an avalanche of unmanaged stress can be the precursor to a host of psychological, hormonal, and physical problems.

One potential problem with high stress levels is the additional release of cortisol, a hormone that is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands located on the top of each kidney. Cortisol is an important hormone in activating many of the body's vital internal functions, especially in the roles of fuel regulation and energy mobilization. However, if there is too much cortisol circulating in the system--which can happen in the case of unmanaged stress--it can result in increased abdominal obesity. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that deep abdominal fat has a greater blood flow and about four times more cortisol receptors as subcutaneous (immediately beneath the skin) fat. Increased cortisol production is associated with overeating, craving high caloric/fatty foods, and relocating fat from other circulation and storage sights to the deep abdominal fat depots.

The coaching profession is replete with plenty of stress as one of its unwelcome occupational hazards. To assist in detouring many of the harmful effects of unmanaged stress, including increased abdominal fat, coaches are encouraged to at least do the following:

* Eat a healthy diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, whole wheat fiber, lean protein sources, and plenty of water.

* Exercise regularly (at least 4-5 times per week) with guidance and clearance from your primary care physician.

* Get plenty of rest. If you're not getting enough sleep because you "can't get all of your work done" in less than 16 hours a day, this might be a good time to reevaluate your time management skills!

* Engage in as many stress-relief activities and hobbies as possible. (How about a little more quality time with your family, coach?)

Ken Mannie (

By Ken Mannie, Head Strength/Conditioning Coach Michigan State University
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Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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