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May 18, 2015 • FootballStrength & Conditioning

Powerline: A Spartan approach to progressive overload

Progressive overload is more than just a catch phrase in strength training. It is a vital criterion that embodies the very essence of a strength training program and is the ultimate catalyst for the physical improvement that everyone expects to accrue.

ProgressiveOverloadThe human neuromuscular system requires a gradual, yet very consistent stimulus upgrade in order to meet a vast array of physical improvement objectives. This all-inclusive network of neural, hormonal and histological raw material working in concert is very efficient at adapting to external stresses — such as those imposed by strength training — and hence requires a greater stimulus over time in order to experience additional growth.

This stimulus can be initiated in a host of ways:

  • Perform additional reps with the same weight load.
  • Perform additional sets of the movement with the same weight load.
  • Perform the same number of sets, but add to the weight load of each set.
  • Increase the time under load (TUL) — i.e., the total time it takes to perform the set. This would involve a more controlled tempo of rep execution.
  • Manipulate the order of exercise so as to “piggyback” two or more exercises for the same target musculature in a short–rest between set fashion. For instance, performing a set of front squats, immediately followed by a set of leg extensions, followed immediately by a set of leg presses. Obviously, this is a change-up routine that is not performed on a regular basis, but one that undoubtedly provides a heightened stimulus.
  • Performing any combination of the above.

In addition to progressive physical improvements, a properly conceived and administered overload program is vital to have in place so that overtraining does not rear its ugly head. Overtraining, the dreaded antithesis of progressive overload, can set your athletes back instead of propelling them forward.

Let’s start our journey in progression from the very rudimentary and advance to the more complex and intensive in nature.

 The 5 percent progression model

The 5 percent rule works well with any training modality, though it is especially effective with machine use, as one rep max’s (one-RM) or estimated one rep max’s (E-RM) are not commonly in effect, thus negating basing reps and sets on percentages of the established max.

Basically, a rep range (e.g., six-to-eight reps) is set and used as a parameter for progression.

Once the top end of the range is reached for two to three consecutive workouts, there is a 5 percent increase in weight for the next workout. The trainee stays with that load until the top end is once again reached for two to three consecutive workouts, and another 5 percent increase goes into effect.

You will find that athletes respond to this double progression overload system (i.e., increasing reps first followed by weight increments) at different rates and to varying levels. Some will make more efficient and expedient progress with lower-end ranges (e.g., six to eight), while others respond more favorably to higher-end ranges (e.g., eight to 10 or 10 to 12).

Some of this differentiation is due to fiber type composition (fast versus slow twitch), and a cadre of morphological, histological and neurological implications. Only time, effort, documentation and progress evaluation helps you pinpoint what works best for each athlete. Just be aware that it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition — there is some trial-and-error infused into the process.

The periodization model

Periodization blocks work very well with free-weight category movements. Most prominently, the power lifts (bench press, back squat and dead lift) and the Olympic-style Lifts (power clean/pull variations, clean and jerk combinations, and all of their attached analogues).

While there are numerous periodization models, both linear and undulating, the vast majority of them are built around a template of percentage-based sets, which are derived from the most recent one-RM or E-RM.

The following represents one example of how a periodization plan would be put into effect over a 10-week cycle. It would be applied to the majority of the movements to be performed in a three- or four-day-a-week lifting schedule, and it would be in effect for both total body or upper body/lower body split formats.

  • Weeks one to three: Perform five work sets of eight-to-10 reps with 65 percent of newly registered max.
  • Weeks four to six: Perform four work sets of six-to-eight reps with 75 percent of newly registered max.
  • Weeks seven to nine: Perform three work sets of three-to-five reps with 80 to 85 percent of newly registered max.

At this juncture, a new max test is administered, followed by a short “down-time” period for rest and recovery. A new cycle would then commence using values and percentages from the newly registered max.

Competitive lifters would manipulate the final few weeks of the cycle in order to account for the timing of their competition, the ability to insert heavier doubles and singles into their set/rep regimen, as well as to prepare their neuromuscular systems for stress to be encountered during that peak period.

Even though the presented periodization sample is simplistic in design, it can be very effective in terms of the results it can produce. This is especially true if you are working with competitive lifters. Granted, there may be some nuances or deviations from this format, as many periodization plans have carefully inserted micro and macro segments to accommodate specific training calendars. But, as a whole, these systems are relatively easy to implement and they provide an easily followed, consistent template.

One criticism of stringently devised periodization models is the lack of attention paid to individual differences. You will undoubtedly be confronted with athletes who find that the dictated rep/set/percentage script for any particular cycle is either much too easy or far too difficult. And, if adjustments are not made, you will have as many athletes going stagnant and falling off in progress as you have that make meaningful progress.

A personal recommendation to avoid this pitfall is to always be aware of your athletes’ individual differences and the peripheral stresses they face (i.e., other conditioning activities, school work, jobs, family issues, nutritional deficiencies, etc.) that are not always issues with the competitive lifters and their coaches who architected these approaches.

You should be prepared to adjust in an undulating fashion to account for any sticking points that arise (e.g., making a temporary change-up in sets, reps, percentages, order of exercise, etc.). There are situations where variety can be your friend, so remain open-minded.

The triple-progression model

This approach can be inserted as an addendum to just about any singular overload plan and used in conjunction with free weights, machines, body weight exercises and functional training pieces.

With the sets, reps and loads already firmly in place, the next avenue for increasing intensity and providing an additional stimulus is to decrease the amount of time between sets. If you closely monitor between-set respites (e.g., two to two-and-a-half minutes) you will find that even a modest reduction in this recovery time (even 10 to 15 seconds) increases the difficulty and intensity of the workout.

I recommend that you use this technique sparingly, with strict attention to detail on the allotted recovery time. While effective and productive, it requires a longer post-workout recovery and may involve lighter overall loads than the athletes normally use as the workout progresses. This is due to the higher metabolic demands of the method, which has its positives, but might also deflate some egos if this possible occurrence is not explained up front.

Consider ending the workweek with this technique every so often, which will ensure you of a full weekend for recovery.

The extended-set model

This is best utilized with plate-loaded and selectorized machines, as this technique involves an immediate decrement in weight once the top end of a rep range is reached (e.g., at the eight-rep point).

The only rest for the lifter is the amount of time it takes the spotter to make the weight reduction. The set is then continued to point of momentary muscular fatigue, or near that point, and another reduction is made.

Normally, the decrements are such that the lifter can produce two to four more reps on the next phase. Three total reductions make for a very productive, extremely challenging exercise bout.

This overload model — as with the triple progression model — should be used sparingly and with modalities that offer safety and ease of administration. For these reasons, the aforementioned machines make for ideal tools when using this method. Also, due to the fact that this model involves performing more work within each set, the total number of sets per movement can be cut down to one or two. Too much overall volume with this system is unnecessary, and could be counterproductive.

Time under load (TUL) model

TUL refers to the total amount of time that the target musculature is placed under the tension of the workload. For this reason, you may also see the model expressed as time under tension (TUT).

While it can be utilized with just about any traditional or non-traditional modality, machines, body weight exercises (e.g., chin-ups, dips, push-ups, planks, TRX straps and a wealth of “core” movements) provide the trainee with an expansive menu of safe, highly productive choices.

We normally build-up from 30-second TUL scripts to 45 seconds, and ultimately to 60 seconds — as adaptation and familiarity with this model take place. Reps are performed under a cadence on the eccentric (lowering) phase of three to four seconds with a slight one-second pause at the mid-range position when possible.

Gradual progression to the longer times is paramount with the TUL model. I would suggest that you devise a list of the movements you would like to place in this category for occasional use and rotate them as “finishers” in your workouts. This heightens their overall effects and does so without detracting from the main body of day’s workout script. Track their implementation and gradually increase the TUL through the rotation cycle.


Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine. 


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