Progressive Overload – Why and When It FAILS To Make YOU BIG (when adding weight becomes overrated and overpriced)

| by Truth Seeker |


At one point, progressive overload starts to look like this.

They say that progressive overload is the heart of every routine. I agree. It’s the equalizer. As a long as a program has a built-in progression mechanism, it will produce results in some form.

In theory, this gives us an opportunity to dream forever.

“Just add weight, bro. You will grow.”

Theory and practice always disagree. If the mission was so easy, every lifter would become extremely strong very quickly through a series of routines promising 20lbs in no time. Yet neither the pros nor the experienced scholars enjoy perpetual gains and paths free of fallen trees. Even with all that knowledge, they hit hardcore plateaus.

To a man with experience, this should not be a surprise. But those unacquainted with the irony of life will receive a reality shock.

Here’s the usual life cycle of a lifter.

Phase 1: The Beginning

When a beginner enters the barbell house, he is a dull knife. Almost anyone, even inexperienced craftsmen, can make him sharper. The quality of the sharpening stone (the routine) does not matter that much either. Everything works.

The lifter enjoys progress and wrongfully assumes that the ride will continue for a very long time. It’s summer, and the idea of winter is almost incomprehensible to the average noob. He can’t see that far.

During this stage, the lifter feels special. He believes that his destiny is above others’. He does his best to improve his form and simultaneously exploits the latest programs promoted on the Internet.

The novice lifter makes conclusions based on feelings, wishes and hope rather than experience and wisdom.

Phase 2: Intermediate

The beginner is starting to experience unknown troubles such as fatigue, strength fluctuations, joint pain, lower motivation, distraction…etc.

His faith starts shaking, but luckily, the sellers of dreams have prepared programming that can catapult anyone into glory.

The lifter buys the lie that the sky is the limit once more and deploys the special tactics. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but the overall graph is going up rather than down, and that’s all that matters.

Phase 3: Veterans

This segment includes intermediate lifters who for some reason have stuck with the iron madness despite the chaotic experience. Their faith is losing its firmness, but there’s still some hope left to start the turbine.

The veterans have no choice but to embrace extreme programs to make some progress. If the lifter is persistent and does not get demoralized or hurt in the process, there’s some advancement, but the extra gains quickly disappear like the top end sharpness of a knife.

Keeping The Dream Alive

The industry and its megaphones want you to believe that progress is a never-ending process. According to them, you can always find a way to trigger a reaction resulting in a heavier barbell.

The legends about natural 500lbs bench presses coupled with the amplified e-stats online keep the heroine of illusion circulating through the blood of the muscle apprentice. No one wants to admit the obvious – that there are hard limits at every bodyweight. They want you to think that progress is always possible. You just have to find the right program.

When Adding Weight Becomes Too Expensive

The officials won’t tell you that the wall is real. Watching you spin your wheels makes them happier.

If the following applies to you, you have arrived at the airport of diminishing returns:

At the end of every cycle, the weight feels just as heavy as before. Your joints hurt. You are tired and yet it is expected of you to keep lifting without complaints and progress forever like the rest of the Internet. Whenever you say something negative, you are hit by the line – “I was lifting that weight at 14 without even training.”

Beyond that point, extra biscuits on the bar accomplish significantly less than expected. They may even be harmful for the following reasons:

a. Adding weight is hard and requires a lot of energy that can go elsewhere.

b. You won’t gain much or any muscle mass since most of your hypertrophy gains have already manifested. The extra strength boost will be the result of improved joint and CNS resilience rather than what we all really want – hypertrophy.

c. You are exposing your body to unnecessary stress for a very little reward in exchange.

Why does progressive overload fail?

1. You are not a machine made of steel. You can only take so much before shifting towards self-destruction.

2. No routine is capable of pushing you beyond the hard limits of your natural potential. Those limits exist not because people are following the wrong routine or performing the wrong rep range. They are hardcore biological restraints.

3. Hypertrophy wise progressive overload stops working during the first few years of one’s lifting career. It can continue to produce strength gains afterward, but is this really needed and beneficial to the overall picture?

When does progressive overload fail?

Progressive overload works until you reach decent numbers for your bodyweight. After that, it’s only pain and tears for peanuts. No program will work unless you go up a weight class.

How far you will reach depends on your structure and the lift. If you are built to deadlift, you may hit 3 times your bodyweight, but if you aren’t, your final numbers will be lower. The same applies to all other movements.

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about the natty limits, check out the book Potential: How Big Can You Get Naturally It’s only USD 2.99 for a limited amount of time.

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  1. Oldboy

    I hit my plăteau 13 years ago. Since then i’m just maintainig what i have got. I look good undressed. But otherwise i look like i don’t even lift. I confirm your observations.

    1. Lee

      Same here. Our society tells us we must keep making gains indefinitely in muscles, career advancement, money, etc. The reality is there is nothing wrong with simply maintaining a good standard of living.

  2. Irongangsta

    When a natty lifter is dressed, he looks like a normal person.

    1. Simple Simon

      Most professional bodybuilders, in regular clothes, just look like regular people. It’s why they have to wear cut-off/tight clothing.

      Another of those Bodybuilding lies.

  3. Simple Simon

    What about the Weider Overload Principle? Wasn’t that Joe Weider’s most important principle?

  4. Joni

    In your opinion, what are some realistic strength goals for a lifter with average genetics?

    By that I don’t mean what is maximally possible, but rather the point at which pushing it any further will offer no real benefits anymore (in terms of hypertrophy and overall fitness).
    I understand that this will vary depending on body type etc, but still, having a reasonable goal in mind would be very helpful.

    1. Kisg

      1 RM:
      Bench 1,2xbw
      Squat 1,6xbw
      Deadlift 2xbw
      10-15 pull-up

      1. Jim

        Did you just make those numbers up? Or..???

    2. Fatman

      I’ve always liked the 3-4-5 plate bench-squat-deadlift standard. 315/405/495 in lbs., 140/180/220 in kgs. (i.e. lifting is easier in kilos). Sounds silly because it’s based only on manufacturers’ convention, but it works. A healthy male of average size and genetics should be able to work up to these weights.

  5. humancrane

    I dont want people to get this article wrong. Progressive overload IS the way to train, as its basically the best explanation for what causes growth. It has it limits, of course, but its not that progressive overload is bad. Also, you can try to overload in other ways than increasing weight – increase volume, intensity, decrease rest times, etc. To reach your natural potential (still smaller than what the magazine shows you) you need to progressively overload your bodies in few different ways imho.

    1. joe santus

      Agreed, “progressive overload for hypertrophy” is the way to train, but with the qualifier which is typically omitted when overload is taught: “progressive overload for hypertrophy UNTIL ACHIEVING GENETIC MASS LIMITS, WHICH USUALLY OCCURS NO LATER THAN THE FOURTH CONSECUTIVE YEAR, AND WITH GAINS DIMINISHING SUBSTANTIALLY DURING THE SECOND TO FOURTH YEAR.”

      The bodybuilding industry typically neglects to explain that each human body, even a drug-enhanced body, is limited by its genetics to how much muscle it can add, and that, once its limits are attained, progressive overload can’t cause it to add another sixteenth of an inch of muscle.

  6. Edward

    I am 12 years old and I can bench 1000 pounds! Buy my Program get Big as Fuck!
    You all wanna know what is sad about this? That even when I am obviously lying there are people that believe this words!

  7. joe santus

    Began at age sixteen in 1972…reached my genetic mass limits at age twenty, using progressive overload…added strength but zero mass with further progressive overload, despite trying relentlessly in the following two years…then have done maintenance bodybuilding ever since. I’ll be age 63 this year.
    Meaning, four years building to my maximum natural mass potential, then forty-two years maintaining it. And, if I’d known when I began what I learned subsequently, I would have reached my genetic mass limits in three years.

    1. JIM

      That should be the goal for every one. Get to your max. nat limit in say 3-5 years…then maintain it. You’ll still be ahead of the masses.

      The key is to be satisfied with your natural limit and be happy to be coasting on maintenance.

  8. matt

    I use progression overload to keep me in the mind of training which helps me remain consistent. I don’t chase the weights like I used because it is not worth it. If I miss a lift I drop 20% off the lift and try again the next session. I am ok with reducing the weight because it keeps me lifting long term without the 3 month low back, knees and elbow issues like before.

  9. Alexander_blank

    Amen, truth seeker.

    I used to be a dip fanatic who’d strap 165 lbs to his ass and move up and down and inch, thinking I was shooting up from the depths of hell into the fresh air of a sweet summer evening. Guess what? I was actually getting fat—200 lbs at 5’10”—and very nearly destroying my tendons. I’d top this off with 10 sets of difficult pressing exercises afterwards, too. Now I’m doing a 4 day a week full body routine and focusing on squeezing out whatever is left while I focus on good form, mindful of pain. I haven’t grown much, but I was able to can my ego and lose the magical fat that I had gained to convince myself I was getting bigger by lifting heavier. You’re only gonna get so goddamn big. Either find a way to enjoy the work for everything else it grants you—discipline, insight, a sense of humor, a critical eye for lies and shortcuts—or quit before you tear your body apart.

  10. jim

    Natties at best look very fit, lean. And yes it can look impressive even in clothes.
    You won’t be a Hulk or a freak (who wants that anyway) but you’ll be the envy of the masses. Especially as you age.

  11. Edoardo Quarta

    Progressive overload is imperative but if you fail for the retarded high calories approach. you will also put tons of FAT, and fat is not muscle. You will become a fatso before even realizing it.

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