Stewart Athletic Development

Young Asia lady exercise doing exercise-machine Cable Crossover fat burning.

What drives progression when exercising?

Some key terms for understanding the article.

Functional overreaching – Deliberately pushing the body toward an over-reaching state to allow for a supercompensation effect, where there is an improvement in physical fitness parameters thus performance

Non-functional overreaching – When the body is pushed into an overreaching state without a purpose and not for peak performance

Deload – A deliberate reduction in training volume and / or intensity to facilitate recovery

1rm – 1 repetition maximum i.e the heaviest weight you can lift for a single rep

Driving adaptation

In the previous article we covered the bodies energy systems, and how they fuel performance. If you missed it, the link can be found here ( This article will be related to the one you are about to read, so it is worth reading or even refreshing yourself on.

In this article, we will look at progressive overload, why this underpins S&C programme design and how progressive overload can be achieved by manipulation of the 3 main training variables. By understanding these factors, you will have a far better understanding of how progress occurs from systematic programming and not random  workouts.

Progressive overload

We will begin with the progressive overload principle. Once you have grasped this principle, programming and programme design will become easier to understand. Progressive overload is based up on a theory known as general adaptation syndrome discovered by Hans Seyle. This theory was initially discovered when researching stress from a psychological perspective.

Firstly we have Homeostasis, which is is simply put normal living. no real-life stressors etc. Arguably, homeostasis is what we should be in, however life is rarely completely balanced. Stress occurs pretty much everywhere unless you are lving a zen life in a bhuddhist temple, in which case youre unlikely to be reading the words of some doughball on training adaptation.

Along comes stress. Ahhh yes. Stress. who doesn’t love it? The onset of stress causes us mere mortals to enter  the alarm stage. This causes an emotional upheaval, causing us to panic, fluster and potentially even engage in the primal instinct known as “fight or flight” which in short is an upregulation of adrenaline / noradrenaline to allow us to either fight off the stress or run away from it. The onset of a stressor disrupts homeostasis from both a physiological and psychological perspective and is generally just not very fun.

Eventually, we calm down and realise the fact that Karen from HR not processing the paperwork for the new employees is probably not the end of the world. So we calm down, we adapt to the stress. This is known as resistance stage.. The individual begins to handle their situation, coming out a little better prepared to handle future stress than they were before, so next time Karen forgets something it will be less of an issue.

However, if Karen continually keeps forgetting things, the stress does begin to accumulate, and the individual begins to see a regression in their ability to handle stress again. This regression indicates the individual has entered the exhaustion stage. This is when the body cannot handle the sheer volume of stress and begins to shut down. Often associated with increased irritability / decreased mood, decreased appetite, decreased sex drive etc. This theory revolutionised sports science and programme design, because the same principle applies when applying training. Training of any description is a stressor. In an ironic twist of fate, exercise and training helps improve longevity and quality of life by subjecting you to stress.

The picture attached views the GAS theory from a training perspective and looks ever so slightly different. We apply a training stimulus, and the body enters alarm. There is usually a small decrease in fitness parameters at this stage as the body very much responds in a “what the fuck are you doing to me?!?!” manner. But it begins to adapt to the stimulus, becoming used to the training. This alarm stage can typically last for a block, or several linked blocks of training depending on your approach to programming.  

As stated, the body begins to adjust within the resistance phase. Adapting to the stimulus that is applied. Within the resistance phase there are 2 options from a training perspective. You can either take a deload (Which will be discussed in greater detail in a later article) or you can overload it slightly to achieve functional overreaching. Which option you choose will depend on a myriad of factors including the type of athlete you are, your stage of season, training status & the actual purpose of 1) the block of training you are currently on and 2) what the next block is.

If you continue to grind on with training in the resistance stage unchecked, you will enter the exhaustion stage where non-functional overreaching occurs, and if left unchecked will eventually lead to overtraining syndrome. As a visual help, non-functional over reaching is like a well-done steak, its not a good day at the office. Overtraining syndrome is not so much being overcooked, as totally fucking incinerated and can take months to recover from. If you end up in a state of over training, you are pretty fucked. So best to try and avoid that…

Ok, you have an understanding of what progressive overload is.. but how do you achieve it?

Progressive overload is achieved by a manipulation of 1 of 3 key training principles, which we will discuss here. I done a brief overview on Instagram a few weeks back (  but we will look at them in greater detail here.

The 3 key training variables are volume, intensity and frequency. How these training principles are manipulated, is dependent on:

  • The type of athlete you are i.e team sport athlete, individual athlete etc
  • Your training status in terms of S&C training
  • Your training out with S&C training i.e skills sessions, games etc
  • Stage of competitive season i.e in-season, off-season, pre-season
  • Proximity to big competition
  • Periodisation model utilised

And many other factors. The purpose of this article is not a review and comparison of periodisation models, but to highlight how the training can and are manipulated to achieve progressive overload.


We will start with looking at volume. Volume, sometimes referred to as volume load, is the total workload completed within a phase of training. Volume load is monitored during a mesocycle (large block of training, typically a competitive season), a macrocycle (A block of training which can last anywhere between 2-12+ weeks) and even microcycles (Day to day sessions). Volume is typically expressed in Kg when looking at resistance training, Contacts when looking at plyometrics, metres / kilometres run, cycled or swum etc. Basically however you track training, is the volume.

Looking at the table as an example of 2 sessions. Initially you may think 3×10 sounds like more volume than 6×5, however the total number of working repetitions is the same. However the working intensity is different, and is reflected in the overall volume load where there is a difference of 300kg.

This is not to say that session 1 is better than session 2, they both will be utilised to elicit different adaptations. Session 1 would be utilised to accumulate volume whilst still utilising a fair amount of force output, i.e more of a strength-based focus. Session 2 will have a greater time under tension (TUT) and more of a strength endurance focused. Both sessions have their purpose, depending on the aim of the block. Sadly, that is not an excuse to do 10’s.. sorry guys.

Volume is one of the training variables which is easiest to increase / decrease, however it is also easy to mismanage. Volume over time drives adaptation, you need to accumulate a certain amount of volume to drive adaptation. However, you cannot keep throwing volume at athlete’s and hope that it works. All training volume must be included, alongside game play and competition. Volume in season needs to be closely monitored, particularly with athlete’s that already have a high training load. Sharp increases in volume, or high-volume training loads alongside high intensity training increases the likelihood of a repetitive strain / overuse injury. When increasing volume, it needs to be a gradual process.


Intensity is in short, the amount of stress that is placed under the body, ranging from exercise specific up to the overview of the macrocycle. Plyometrics are a great way to view intensity, where bi-lateral pogo’s would be classed as low intensity, vs depth jumps or shock training which is viewed as high intensity.

Intensity can be tracked & implemented in several ways. Firstly, it can be viewed as the intensity of the session. Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) has been used for a number of ways to monitor training. RPE is a subjective measure, however there are now some quantifiable ways to use RPE as a numerical way of tracking. RPE training has been popularised in powerlifting crowds by Mike Tuchscherer, where the perceived RPE directly links to the repetitions in reserve (RIR) per set. RPE can also be applied to just the difficulty of the session, which highlights to the coach and athlete how difficult the session was. Often there will be a target RPE to ensure there is a desired outcome, upscaling and downscaling the RPE depending on the purpose of the session.

Intensity can also be based off specific metrics. These vary from target heart rates (HR) during cardiovascular sessions to ensure specific physiological adaptations occur, to working at a certain % of 1rm, % of maximal aerobic speed (MAS) runs etc. These metrics are again manipulated depending on the session outcome, stage of season, macrocycle focus etc.

Looking at something like plyometric training there is a little bit more of a subjective element in the higher intensity end of the scale. There are some recommendations such as not using high drop landings or shock training unless the athlete can manage a 2x bw back squat. The theory behind this is that the athlete will not be strong enough to handle the huge forces during high altitude landings, which there is some truth in. However it is a little more nuanced than that. The athlete’s landing mechanics, their plyometric training history and also their bodyweight all influences this.

Getting back to intensity, you can see how it may need to be manipulated depending on the outcome of the session / macrocycle. However, there is an inverse relationship regarding the amount of volume you will be able to achieve in one session. You cannot perform high repetitions of a high % of 1rm when doing exercise, and trying to overcook the amount of reps you can do at high %’s seriously increases your chance of injury. Generally, when looking at training as an overview, as training intensity really starts increasing, volume tends to decrease a bit!


Frequency is the amount of times per week you are training. This may look at overall training, specific strength training, specific sprint training etc. The frequency of the training you will do is dependent on

  • The training residual of the quality you are trying to train
  • The sport you compete in
  • The stage of season you are in
  • The type of training you are actually discussing

The trouble with frequency, is when people increase training frequency they often forget that unless they split the load up, it can cause a large spike in volume load as a by product of having extra training. It may seem like common sense, but you would be surprised how often it is overlooked!

For team sports in  season like Rugby, they are unlikely to have a high training frequency in terms of their strength & conditioning training, as they will have a large number of skills sessions. They will have enough training to keep things ticking over and making some improvements, but ultimately the main focus is going to be on their rugby because well… that’s what they play?. However in the off-season / pre-season, their S&C sessions are going to be higher to drive the physical parameters which underpin their sport. Usually involving some pretty spewey sessions!

Strength sports are perhaps the best to understand frequency. Sports like powerlifting and weightlifting are heavily impacted by frequency. Powerlifting training typically ranges from 3-5 sessions per week, and they will cycle the frequency in which they squat, bench press and deadlift. An example would be squatting 2x per week, deadlifting 2x per week and bench pressing 3x per week.

They choose the exercise frequency to ensure they are driving both the neural and the physiological / skeletomuscular adaptations. The frequency in how often they perform competition lifts (Or variants off) will determine what the volume & intensity would be. Try deadlifting 4x per week and let me know how long it takes to get snapped up..

Due to the heavy fatiguing effect of powerlifting training, it is typically on the lower end of frequency as recovery is important. Weightlifting programmes however have adopted higher frequencies of training ranging from 4-6 sessions per week, with some involving double sessions. Anyone who thinks they have done a high-volume lifting week should look at some of the Eastern bloc weightlifting regimes to see what some really high volume work is. The higher frequency allows for more repetitions of a specific skill, i.e for weightlifters performing the clean and jerk or snatch. If your sport is literally lifting weights, you will have a higher frequency of training to allow for skill acquisition. By practising something more often, you get better at it. Shocking right?.

By manipulating these variables, you will be able to achieve progressive overload, thus driving adaptation. It may appear complex, but over time it can be applied to your own training to ensure you are progressing. Or, you can hire a coach and let them do the hard work for you.

In the next article we will look at deloading. Specifically, what deloading is, when you should do it, why you should do it and how you do an effective deload.

Until next time, and as always stay safe, stay strong


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *