Personal Progressive Overload
“Make the most of yourself….for that is all there is of you.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Pick up a dumbbell, lift the weight up, repeat until muscle tires, take a rest for a minute, then repeat a handful of times. Wait a few days, pick up the dumbbell again, and repeat the above process, trying to squeeze out a few more reps before the muscle tires. Repeat a few days later again and again!
Bobs-your-uncle you have just undertaken some nice training improvements. You’re likely to experience some handy increases in function, that could be useful for avoiding falls, picking up large pieces of furniture, shoving people out of the way at the train station or just feeling a little firmer! You’ve just undertaken a process called progressive overload.
The principle rose to particular prominence (though many suggest and claim different geneses) through the work of Thomas Delorme as he set about finding a systematic way to rehabilitate injured service men from World War II. Mythology will tell us that wrestler Milo won his many Olympic laurels from training with cattle. He would take a new born calf and carry it around Croton. Day-after day, week after week as the calf grew (in size as well as slightly confused about being carried on a human’s shoulders each day), so did Milo’s strength. (I wonder if he used some young male cows as – Dumb-bulls! Apologies!)
Progressive overload is one of the core tenets of physical training. In order to benefit, you need the will to lift, the will the exert yourself to your limit and the will to repeat regularly – otherwise our tissues will return to a less able (but not so expensive to maintain), pre-training state.
Why is it that we’re not as deliberate about applying progressive overload to our own personal skill performance?
We naturally acquire new skills as we go through life – walking, talking; as well as formal education; and in work – taking on new roles and promotions through our career. But at various different stages of progress we inherently look for competence, capability and mastery as we;
A) want to be good at what we do
B) don’t want to mess up for others we work with
C) like to feel in control
Our body’s natural conservatism is there to protect our resources – don’t build up something you don’t really need, but won’t improve without the investment and will to train. Our own personal performance has the same dichotomous pull.
In a recent study, 500 people were pinged throughout the day, asked to record their thoughts and moods. Tradition would tell us that people are likely to be ruminating about past events, but the results of the study showed they were three times more likely to be thinking about the future than the past, and even then the past considerations were often reflected upon to help adapt to future, anticipated events.
We are inherently looking forward as a species, and yet are we as deliberate about investing time and development into our personal skills as we are when we train our muscles? In physical training we have to be comfortable with reaching failure in order to overload our muscles. The same is true of our own personal skill – but when it comes to the performances of our capabilities we are inherently more cautious of failing because we instinctively desire A to C above, so that we also;
D) avoid demonstrating inability
E) avoid embarrassment
F) don’t cause others to doubt us
So there is at least a self and social aspect to avoiding failure. However, to look to the future we anticipate situations and ourselves in them, so we must also develop preparedness, through practice and that means readying ourselves that we will inevitably fail at some point.
We must embrace this if we have hope of being better equipped for the future. Instead of the dumbbell stimulus that you create by pushing through the discomfort and finding the point that your muscle fatigues; we must overload our normal routine to provide a novel pattern of experiences and activities, whether it motor, speech, inter-personal interaction, an existential philosophy or otherwise acts as the stimulus whereby new neural patterns and interconnections establish a new pathway and eventually a routine that allows more advanced skill delivery.
Sounds easy when you put it like that doesn’t it? Well, we’re fundamentally much more emotional beings than a mirror-signal-manoeuvre plan of moving forward. Our emotional brains will kick-in, sense threat and prompt resistance. So, how can you out think your own limitations?
Personal Progressive Overload
Here are some guiding thoughts about working intentionally and constructively on our own performance to progressive failure;
  • If you find yourself taking on too much at one time – it is tantamount to loading the muscles too much – which might cause the muscle tear. Solution – progress with small, sensible steps
  • If you find yourself full of self-doubt – this is tantamount to solitary training all the time. Solution – consider sharing what you are working on, with a trusted person.
  • If you find yourself so afraid of failing that you don’t try – this is tantamount to never picking up the dumbbell. Solution – write down what would be the minimal success you’d be content with. At the same time write down what you’d be disappointed with. This normally gives you a range of expectations, which can help clarify the threat/benefit of potential outcomes. It should also give you focus on what to specifically practice.
These tactics can help us move from the metaphorical ‘comfort zone’ to progress, inch-by-inch, taking intentional, active steps forward toward the new level of desired skill, so that we are better placed to take on the challenges we anticipate!
George Bernard Shaw prompts us to think,
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
With that in mind and the fact that I am working hard to be less instinctive, so that the projects I am working on are as diligently thought through as possible – I am off to find myself some project management software and a young calf to bench press!

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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