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The Principle of Progressive Overload

Last Updated on April 24, 2017 by Jeff

You’ve heard of progressive overload right?

The principle that you must do incrementally more every session to continue making progress. A little more weight, an extra rep, extra metres, or time. To continually progress, you must be giving your body a new stimulus. Something a little more challenging that it has had before.

This principle is not just how you progress in the gym. It is the basis of successful change in any area of your life. The gym is a great metaphor for achieving things in all other areas of your life too.

People that succeed in the gym are the ones who are committed to working out for the long term. They’re not jumping on fad diets and magic abs blasting machines for 2 weeks, and then going right back to eating takeout on the sofa.

They’re turning up day in and day out; working out, eating right and living a healthy lifestyle as a matter of habit.

Coincidentally, this applies to any area of your life where you want to achieve more.

The Gym Is Your Teacher

The skills, behaviors, beliefs and habits you build in fitness will carry over to every part of your life. Learning the discipline and hard work of following your training plan and eating right will make it easier to put the work into your business or career.

Working for delayed gratification by avoiding unhealthy foods you might be craving, and going to the gym instead of staying in bed; is the same process as saving money for retirement or getting out of debt.

The process of setting goals and working towards them in your body will mirror that in other parts of your life where you would like to make changes and achieve more.

You Build More Than Just A Body Through Fitness

Fitness is more than just building a body. You’re also building your mind. The beliefs and mindset you develop with training is going to lead to more confidence and belief elsewhere.

When you prove to yourself that you can set goals, implement the program and achieve results; you start to feel more confident and in control of your outcomes. What else could you achieve?

If you believe you can achieve something, and refuse to quit, then you will ultimately achieve it. Doing this in fitness is a great place to start, because you can make big changes in a relatively short time span. In 6 months you can look and feel 100% different to how you do right now.

Using Progressive Overload in Everything

One of the reasons people commonly fail in their fitness, and in other goals, are unrealistic expectations. Both in the speed or size of the results, and in the expectations of themselves. How significantly they can change their habits and routines in one go. How much they can change right away or how much impact a change is going to have on outcomes.

Setting expectations too high, where they are impossible to meet, is a recipe for failure, getting disheartened, losing confidence, and giving up. Every time this happens it gets a little bit harder the next time you try.

You now have more negative reference points, less belief, and more fear that you cannot do this. This is what kills people’s dreams. You’re essentially conditioning yourself to expect failure. Not a good thing!

To avoid this, you must apply the principle of progressive overload. You have look at where you are right now, where you are starting from. Look at where you ultimately want to be – your goal – as the opposite ends of a continuum.

Where people go wrong, is they do not fill all the steps in along the way. They want to jump straight from A to Z, and that is realistically never going to happen. You must fill all the steps in along the way. You have to ask yourself what is the next step forwards?

The one thing that is going to take me closer to my goals?

Using Pareto’s Principle

You want to apply the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule. Ask yourself which is the single step that is going to give me the biggest returns? What is the simplest, easiest thing I can do that will bring a big change for the least amount of effort?

The less intrusive it is, the less it takes away from your normal habits and routines; the easier it will be to follow through and stick with it. Sometimes the thing that will bring the biggest results is not the thing you should be implementing.

If it’s too advanced for you, too difficult, too far away from where you are now; it is likely to do more harm than good. Sometimes you have to move slowly to get there quicker. Being the tortoise, rather than the hare.

For progressive overload to work, you just need to do a little bit more than you have done before. It is incremental improvement. The process of Kaizen as the Japanese call it.

Trying to take giant leaps forwards and make huge changes all in one go rarely works. You might see some results initially, but after a couple of weeks it becomes unsustainable. You’ve changed too many things, too significantly. You’re always going to subconsciously pull back to your comfort zone.

If you’re using progressive overload, the changes are minimal and you do not suffer that pull back. Only when you’re doing too much does the comfort zone get the better of you.

Look at any goal as a series of steps, rather than just a final destination. Going from A to B, and then B to C is a lot less daunting, much easier to achieve and will quickly build positive momentum. The more momentum you have, the more belief you have.

With momentum and belief at your back, now you can start making bigger changes that make a bigger impact. Now you are in the position to start accelerating towards your goals, because you have built up to it slowly.