Increase your performance with progressive overload

By Thomas Jought

Picture this, two boxers are competing. Both are training with the same exercises at the same weight. The only difference is that the second boxer is incrementally increasing their workout intensity for each exercise, each week. Science tells us that after a month of training, the second boxer will be stronger than the first [1].

Why, you ask? It all has to do with how the body reacts and adapts to physical stress. Simply put, our bodies are good at recovering (reacting) and developing muscle (adapting), especially when a new or a greater type of physical stress is endured. However, when the body receives the same amount of physical stress day in day out, the body continues to react but adapts less and less each time. This is demonstrated by the first athlete in our scenario above and is a phenomenon known in sports science as the principle of diminishing returns [2]. It means that boxers whom consistently perform the same exercises, weight, and intensity, day in day out will maintain their strength rather than build it. This is where planning each workout according to the Progressive Overload methodology can really assist in avoiding strength plateaus and forcing the body into a state of reacting and adapting. It is how boxers can increase their performance and become better at the sport.

What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive Overload is the core methodology for improving the body’s strength and performance. It outlines an effective approach to designing an exercise routine that promotes growth through the incremented variance in an exercises; volume, intensity, frequency and time [3]. Basically, it works by selecting at least one component of your training program and progressively increasing that amount each week. By increasing the physical stress that the muscles endure each week, it effectively ‘overloads’ those muscles and stimulates the body to recover and develop new muscle. There are 4 components of a training program that can be overloaded to stimulate growth. Below, I have listed them along with their example uses.

Four Overload Components

1. Volume – the amount of repetitions, sets or time it takes to perform an exercise.
Use: Increase one of the volume attributes (repetitions, sets or time) each week. For example, each week a boxer would add 1 additional repetition to each set. So, for the first week there would be 5 repetitions / 5 sets for each exercise and in the second week, there would be an additional repetition, totalling at 6 repetitions / 5 sets and so forth for the following weeks in the training plan.

2. Intensity – the amount of weight lifted in an exercise.
Use: Consecutively increase the intensity or weight required to lift in an exercise. For example, a boxer could start with a weight of 100 lbs on bench press and each following week the intensity or weight could be increased by a further 5lbs.

3. Frequency – how often is each workout, muscle group or exercise performed.
Use: Each week, consecutively add either an additional full day workout or an individual exercise to other training days. For example, a boxer could target shoulders and add an extra shoulder exercise to a cardio day for week 2 and additionally add another on ab day for week 3 and so forth until the training plan ends (4-6 weeks). While this is a great way to shock your muscles and body into adapt mode, it can cause overtraining and injury. Pay close attention to the way your body responds to this level of frequency and if needed, take more time to rest or switch to increase another exercise component.

4. Time – the rest time between an exercise and the time it takes to execute an exercise.
Use: By decreasing the rest time between each set, it increases physical stress that the body endures as there is less time to recover in between sets. For example, reducing the rest time between sets by 5 seconds consecutively, each week.
Another way is to increase an exercises time to fully complete, it requires the individual to move slower or quicker through an exercise. Instead of the usual 1 second count muscle contract and 2 second count release, this may be increased to a 4 second count muscle contract and 4 second release.

Start By Increasing One Component

Start by selecting a particular component of your routine and then increase it by a certain factor, each following week. Components can be overloaded ideally for 4-6 weeks before switching to another to overload. A rest week or maintenance week is useful after a training period to reduce overtraining and allow the body to repair and finish growing. Rest periods can include a week off training or a deload week, whereas maintenance periods can contain a training week where both a workouts volume and intensity are lower, allowing the body to fully recovery before starting a new training program.

For most boxers new to this form of training, starting with one component is enough to stimulate growth while other boxers might find more potential in overloading more than one component. Once you find a challenging component, a high protein diet is one of the natural ways that can reduce muscle soreness and promote a quicker muscle recovery / development.

Final Word

Progressive Overload is easy to start using as it can enhance and build on existing training plans with simple and small edits. It is the basis of many training programs used by professional boxers and athletes for improving the body’s strength and performance. Understanding the methodology behind progressive load and utilising it to your advantage is the key to improving the results from your workouts and performance in the ring.

References

Baechle TR, Earle RW. (Eds.). (2000). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Chapter 16, Variable-Resistance Training Methods.
Zatsiorsky V and Kraemer W. Science and Practice of Strength Training (2nd ed). Human Kinetics. pp. 89–108.
Brooks, G.A.; Fahey, T.D. & White, T.P. (1996). Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications. Mayfield Publishing Co. ISBN 0-07-255642-0.

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