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What is progressive overload and why is it so important?

Firstly, when we talk about developing muscle, try not to allow your mind to drift off to Mr Olympia. Developing muscle may be as simple as keeping age related muscle atrophy to a minimum or creating a lean physique. From a health point of view, developing muscle is something that each and every one of us would benefit from.

Developing muscle works by putting stress on the muscles which in turn causes micro-tears in the muscle fibres. This damage must then be repaired, and in doing so your body effectively ‘adds a layer’ to strengthen and protect itself from further damage. Over a period of time this is what causes hypertrophy (increased muscle).

If next time we come to the gym, we do the exact same workout, with the exact same load and intensity, we’ll get little to no benefit as our muscles have adapted to protect themselves, thus, this workout no longer causes sufficient stress to elicit a change.

Clever body! But if you want to continue to grow, we have to cause some more damage by placing additional stress on the muscles. This is… progressive overload.

Now, for somebody totally new to exercise, reaching overload is very easy – simply moving the muscles may be enough. At the far end of the scale, for somebody who’s very advanced, such as an athlete, reaching overload can be a real challenge, taking careful planning and some grit and determination to get the desired effect.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely somewhere between those two points. You’re likely a JWC member who exercises whilst balancing a busy work/family life.

For you, ensuring overload is about making sure that each session includes a progressive element, the simplest of which includes adding a couple of additional repetitions, an additional set or gradually increasing load (put more weight on the bar!).

In our strength and conditioning sessions, we set ‘rep ranges’ to work towards, for example, we may ask for 8-12 reps. This is very important! If you have ever done a S&C session with me you will have heard me say, “if you can make 12, you need MORE WEIGHT. If you can’t make 8 you need LESS WEIGHT”. In other words, use that rep-range to determine the weight that you require. This may take a set or two of trial and error.

This principle ensures progressive overload. If you’re anything other than a complete beginner, and you’re finishing a set because you’ve hit a specific number or because it was a little bit challenging, the weight wasn’t heavy enough. We should finish every set because we can’t physically go on anymore.

When I take part in sessions people often mock me for grunting. This may be partially to help release some testosterone, but mainly, it’s because those last reps were genuinely bloody hard work!!

Come on, let’s hear more grunting, and I’m talking to the ladies too!


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