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.
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