How do you know you’ve hit a plateau?
Have you trained for countless hours with sparse results? Strict dieting with little to show for it? Strength training without the ability to increase weight? When was the last time you hit a PR, anyway?
Plateauing happens to athletes at all levels. It’s good for training regimens to become a way of life, but doing those sessions over and over again can become like mindlessly checking a box. Inputs remain the same–which can be detrimental to increasing performance outputs.
Typically used by weightlifters and those participating in team sport, the overload training principle (also called progressive overload principle) forces athletes out of their comfort zones to gradually increase training difficulty to see measured results.
Incorporating overload principle into training may be one of the steps you need to get off that plateau.
Building Muscle–How it Actually Works
Overload principle states that in order for muscle to increase in size, strength and endurance, it must be regularly challenged to produce an output that is as near as possible to maximum capacity. The technique pushes the body past its limits, further breaking it down to force adaptations that lead to performance gains.
Skeletal muscle is composed of fibers that contract when our muscles are put to work. During high intensity, challenging exercise, muscle fibers are broken down. These small breakdowns are called “microtrauma,” and cause the muscle to rebuild stronger, overcompensating to protect itself from other breakdowns with new muscle-building protein.
The rebuilt fibers increase in thickness and number, resulting in muscle growth. To support this, we need enough dietary protein to ensure the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown; this is how our muscles grow.
The same process happens in all of the muscles of our body. The heart muscle also gets bigger with training, enabling more oxygen to be used by other muscles. An exercise-induced release of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) stimulates the formation of blood vessels, leading to the capillarization of the muscle, allowing increased blood flow, oxygen, and nutrient delivery (which is a critical factor in muscle growth).1 More enzymes are also produced that are utilized in energy production.
Interestingly, when it comes to muscular hypertrophy (the building of muscle), the exact mechanisms aren’t totally understood; there are likely many factors at play. Current hypotheses include some combination of mechanical tension, metabolic fatigue and muscular damage.
But with training adaptations like overload principle, there can be results like slower utilization of muscle glycogen, greater reliance on fat oxidation, less lactate production during exercise, and adaptations to skeletal muscle.2 To produce muscle growth, athletes must apply a load of stress greater than what those muscles have previously adapted to.3
The idea of overload principle is rooted in how muscles grow–and it begins immediately after exercise, but can take weeks or months to actually manifest.
Practice Before Overloading
Before introducing heavier weight or adding more miles to an exercise program, it’s essential to have the correct technique for those exercises cemented. Muscle memory and the repetition of techniques with proper form are crucial for executing an exercise flawlessly.
Normally, these skills are best learned when fatigue doesn’t impact an athlete’s ability to perform the movements correctly.
But once introduced on top of a good skill base, overload principle can be a powerful tool to reducing the overall risk of injury (as it did with this study on junior elite soccer players).4
Implementing Overload Principle
Without overload principle, fitness level is less likely to increase; training programs might not yield strength gains because the body adapts to static repetition.
There are two basic components of overload principle: the overloading, and the progression. Overloading is what we’ve discussed above, the adding of stress, weight, etc. to achieve greater fitness.
Progression is the way in which the overloading should be added to training. This can be achieved through an increase in frequency, intensity, time of exercise, or a combination of these.
Are You FITT?
The FITT principle is a way to approach overload training strategically and safely, by overloading these different aspects of exercise.
Frequency: How often physical activity is performed, which is normally about three to five times per week.
Intensity: How hard a person exercises during physical activity, which can be measured in different ways and is different for everyone. Heart rate is one way to monitor intensity during endurance, while weight can illustrate intensity of strength training; however, neither of these measures something like flexibility.
Time: The length of physical activity. Again, time varies depending on the person and fitness goal. Stretch-training for flexibility may take 15 minutes, but the minimum for aerobic activity is about 20 minutes of continuous exercise.
Type: The specific physical exercise one is training to improve. Someone trying to improve strength might overload weight and reps; a runner looking to improve endurance might overload distance and time.
By using the FITT principle to understand overloading, this may also help with burnout. Often, we seek performance gains, increasing intensity wildly in the hopes of achieving our goals. This can lead to overly-fatigued muscle and even injury.
Compartmentalizing overload training, and already knowing the movements on which you’ll overload, can help reduce some of the dangers of pushing your body past its limits.
How to Overload
You probably already have a training plan. It has days with long runs and short runs, rest days and strength training days.
But do those workouts all look the same, week after week? If so, you may be treading in workout water. It’s time to budget overload training into your workout plan.
A note: if you’re serious, it may be worth getting help from a coach. You can’t keep overloading the same thing over and over–that defeats the purpose of overload training in the first place. Always increasing the same element, like volume, may lead to another plateau. It’s important to mix it up, looking at your training plan like a journey: there will be peaks and troughs to keep the body guessing.
Running with overload principle in mind applies the same techniques as strength and resistance training: increase difficulty (in some way) systematically.
Adding intensity to your workouts is a good place to start. Speed workouts and hill training can help improve muscle strength, overall speed and eventually, race day performance. These intense workouts should come twice per week, incorporating things like interval training, tempo runs, hill workouts or lactate threshold training (which could serve a dual purpose as being both a difficult workout and help you improve your lactate threshold).
Adding duration to runs is also an essential way to overload. One long run per week should be added to a training plan. Many runners prefer to conduct these long runs on weekends (specifically Sunday), because Monday is a popular rest day. You can even add mileage to this run over the course of several weeks.
There are also tools that can help overload training. A weight vest can be added while running or walking to increase lower-body strength and endurance. And running with a training mask on can make your respiratory muscles work harder, which increases respiratory compensation threshold (RCT) and can improve endurance performance.5
Ample recovery time is also important; muscles need time to recover. Work in a rest day after a day of overload training. Since you’ve just pushed yourself further than you’re used to going, recovery will help encourage those gains. If resting isn’t an option, try alternating hard training days with easy training days.
When Weight Training
You probably already strength train or cross-train between regular workouts–these strengthen muscles and joints, decreasing the risk of injury.
The type of strength training varies by athlete depending on their goals. Many employ circuit training, weightlifting or plyometrics training. In general, overloading would include increasing the number of sets or increasing weight used in this training.
The safest way to overload is first to increase reps or sets, getting as comfortable as possible with the exercise, then increase weight.
For example: let’s say you’re doing three sets of eight reps of bicep curls with 10lb dumbbells. When overloading the following week, jumping to 15lb dumbbells would be a 50% jump in weight–which is too much to overload. Instead, overload by increasing the number of reps or sets. Try for three sets of ten reps or four sets of eight reps before increasing weight.
On the flip side, someone pushing 100lbs on a bench press would likely be able to increase weight to 105lbs–that’s only a 5% jump in weight. For exercises with larger muscles, the overload increment can also be larger. Still, it’s best to focus on increased reps or sets before jumping up in weight.
To approach overloading systematically, make sure you keep a training log to track each increase in weight for all your exercises.
Overloading Outside of Exercise
Even though overloading happens in the gym, building muscle happens outside of it. All that overloading might be for naught if you don’t recover properly.
We’ve outlined the best supplements for runners to take, but here’s a high-level look at what can help increase muscle and improve recovery.
BCAAs: These branched-chain amino acids provide the body with building blocks to maintain lean muscle mass.6 The body breaks down protein into these amino acids, which then are sent throughout the body to be used again in protein building–and thus, muscle building. One study even showcased they alleviated skeletal muscle damage.7
HVMN Ketone: Can be used before, during and after workouts. HVMN Ketone has been shown to increase the efficiency of working muscle by 28%,8 and in testing, athletes went ~2% further in a 30-minute time trial.9 For recovery, HVMN Ketone decreases the breakdown of intramuscular glycogen and protein when compared to carbs alone,9 while also expediting the resynthesis of glycogen by 60% and protein by 2x.10,11
Protein: Whey, casein and soy protein are the most popular choices here, and all should be taken post-workout. Whey is a great source of BCAA, and is absorbed the fastest by the body. It’s largely considered the most effective protein for building muscle.12 Casein protein is slower to absorb, so it can be taken before bed. One study showcased consuming it before bed led to a 34% reduction in whole body protein breakdown.13
Overloading to Measurable Gains
Overloading may be the best way to break the body out of its routine and spur the growth you’ve been looking for. By pushing the body past its limits, even for a set or an extra mile, your body will adapt to be able to handle that stress during the next training session.
It’s important not to over-overload. This can lead to injury and be detrimental for your overall training goals by putting you on the sidelines for a few weeks. Measured overloading is the best approach, tracking the increases to understand how they’re helping work toward your goals.
Take it one step at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be off that plateau and on your way to climbing a whole new mountain.