Overload in Strength Training - Get Stronger by Overloading

Young woman lifting weight
Young woman lifting weight. T.T./Getty Images

If you lift weights, you probably follow some kind of strategy for working all of your muscle groups. Certain exercises done for a certain number of reps and sets and with a certain weight. But where do these strategies come from?

They come from the basic principles of strength training which teach us exactly how to lift weights for the best results.

One of the most important principles of strength training is overload.

The Basics of Overload

Overload may sound like a bad thing like you're overdoing it. But, what it means is that the intensity of the exercise must be high enough above normal for physiological adaptation to occur.

In other words, if you want to see results when lifting weights, you have to lift more than your muscles can handle.

The only way your body changes is if the muscles are taxed to the point where it must grow stronger to lift that weight. That overload will cause the muscle fibers to grow stronger and, sometimes, bigger in order to handle the extra load.

How to Overload Your Muscles

Overloading really has to do with how much weight you lift when you're strength training. If you're a beginner or you haven't lifted weights in a long time, then anything you lift is overload. In fact, you may not need any weight for some exercises to get that training effect.

Essentially, that means it almost doesn't matter how much weight you lift because anything is more than what you were doing.

Once you're consistent with your workouts, overloading gets a little more specific and you have to continue to work harder from workout to workout to get that same training effect. Below are the elements you can manipulate to keep progressing and avoid hitting a plateau.

  • Choose your reps: The numbers of reps you do depends on your goals.  Let's say you're going for general fitness and weight loss.  In that case, you'll go for about 8-12 reps.  Let's pick 12.
  • Choose your sets: If we're still going on the premise that we're going for general fitness and weight loss, let's say we're going to do 2 sets of each exercise, resting about 30-60 seconds in between.
  • Choose your weight: Now that you know your reps and sets, you can pick your weights.  How? If you're sort of an experienced exerciser, you probably know a general weight to choose for each exercise. Start there and do your 12 reps. If you get to 12 and you could keep going, you need to increase your weight for the next set. The idea is that the last rep should be difficult, but not impossible and you should be able to do it with good form. If your form slips, stop early or try a lighter weight next time around.
  • Keep track:  Keeping a strength training log can really help with your weight workouts. That way you can track from week to week how much weight you're lifting and if you're seeing progress or you need to change things up a bit.

Progressing

Part of overload is progressing over time.

Too often, we do the same workouts again and again, but in order to keep overloading the body, you have to keep progressing. That means you need to take your exercises to the next level.​

That might mean going from knee pushups to toe pushups, for example, or progressing from a chair squat to a dumbbell squat.

As soon as something starts to feel easy, it's time to up the ante so you're always overloading your muscles and adapting to get strong and fit. Just take care not to always work at high intensities, which could lead to overtraining.

Sometimes progressing is as simple as changing the exercise you're doing to something different or even changing the order of your exercises. Almost any change will make a difference in your workout.

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