On Progressive Overload & Ancient Greek Wrestlers

Spend enough time in a gym and you’ll eventually hear the legend of Milo of Croton.

Milo of Croton

Milo, who was my great grandfather, was an ancient Greek wrestler (circa 530 BC) with super-human strength (kidding…he wasn’t my GG.) But his strength was not given, it was earned. As the legend goes, one day a calf was born near Milo’s home. Young Milo decided to pick up this calf baby and carry it on his shoulders. This became his routine. Everyday Milo would return to the calf baby and carry it around. But here’s the thing about calf babies – they grow. Each day the calf baby got a little bigger and each day as Milo returned to carry it around, he got a little stronger. Weeks turned to years and eventually Milo was carrying a bull.

True story.

It’s a legend often told by strength coaches for the obvious moral significance: humble beginnings + small, incremental progress = legendary results.

Stress the body too little and it will wither. Stress the body too much and it will break. But stress the body just right and it will adapt. We are adaptation machines – simply add the right amount of stress. We call this The Law of Progress Overload and like all laws, there are rules.

The 5 Rules of Progressive Overload

1. Progressive overload starts, ends, and is always comprised of correct form.

I define technique as the safest and strongest strategy to accomplish a specific task. This inherently makes it an insurance policy against injury. As the task becomes more difficult, technique becomes more important. But we can’t wait until we’re carrying a bull to care about technique. Proper technique is a practice which makes every training session an opportunity to reinforce good form.

2. Progressive overload comes in many shapes and sizes.

The Law of Progressive Overload isn’t just about how much weight we lift (what we commonly refer to as intensity). It can also be about range of motion, volume, distance, speed, work, density, effort, relative load, or frequency. “There are many ways to skin a cat,” as they say. (Please don’t skin cats.)

Here is an incomplete list of how you might incorporate progressive overload into your routine:

  • If you can’t get into a deep squat, range of motion would be a logical progression to explore. (Most of us want to be strong throughout our full range of motion.)
  • If you’re interested in running a marathon, progressive distance training is a must.
  • If you’re interested in gaining muscle mass, progressive volume training will be helpful (adding more quality sets per week.)
  • If you’re taking group fitness classes, progressive frequency training would be a smart option. For example, if you usually do 2 classes per week, gradually work your way to 3 or 4. 
  • And yes, if you’re interested in getting strong, progressive intensity training (adding more weight) is smart.

3. Progressive overload gets harder and harder to accomplish (see also: the law of diminishing returns).

The closer we get to our genetic potential, the harder it is to make progress. That’s why newbies can make more progress in the gym than anybody else (those lucky ducks.) The more progress we make, the more variables we must manipulate in order to continue to develop. This is the science and art of program design – adjusting acute training variables in order to keep getting better, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

4. Progressive overload will never happen in a linear fashion.

While perfectly linear progress reports would be nice, this is not how the human body adapts. The body is a fluid ecosystem with countless inputs. This is why we should be more concerned with trend lines than single data points.

That said, there are some helpful guidelines to establish expectations week after week. For example, if you’re on a training program, you can expect to add 2.5% to upper body lifts and 5% to lower body lifts per week. But again, these are only guidelines. Ultimately our weights are determined by what you are capable of that day. It’s also why I never recommend runners add more than 10% to their weekly mileage. Too much, too soon = too many problems.

5. Progressive overload requires a plan.

Milo’s plan was simple: find calf baby, pick up calf baby, carry calf baby, return tomorrow. Since 530 BC we’ve come a long way in our understanding of human physiological, so program design is a bit more nuanced. Take the time to figure out a training calendar to give your week structure or check out the programs in the Bandana Training Club if you want a turn-key option. Get started with humility and meet your body where it’s at, not where you think it should be. And no matter how impressive someone’s physique is on the internet or in the fables of history, it’s helpful to keep in mind…

We are weak before we are strong.

We are slow before we are fast.

We are fragile before we are tough.

Me. You. Everyone.

Have patience. We’re all on our own journey. 

Now grab your calf baby and get to work.

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If you liked this blog post, you’ll love the sequel.