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Coaches Corner With Carl Hardwick: Beyond Progressive Overload

Coaches Corner With Carl Hardwick: Beyond Progressive Overload

Progressive overload isn’t the only way clients can experience progression. Let’s step back and take a more holistic look at progression

Progression is at the heart of any effective training program, but it’s crucial to understand that it goes beyond the simple idea of progressive overload.

In this article, I explore different facets of progression and offer a different approach to progression for our clients.

Progressive overload: building strength and muscle

Progressive overload is a fundamental principle in resistance training. It involves gradually increasing the training stimulus to disrupt the body’s adaptation process (giving something for your body to have to adapt to). As the stimulus becomes greater over time, our clients must “push” harder or create a new stimulus to continue progressing. Let’s take a closer look at how this applies to two key aspects of resistance training: hypertrophy and strength.

When it comes to hypertrophy, we see two main types: myofibrillar hypertrophy and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Myofibrillar hypertrophy refers to an increase in the number of myofibrils within the muscle fibers, while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy involves an increase in the non-contractile components of the muscle cell. The exact mechanisms of these adaptations, including hyperplasia, are still not fully understood.

On the other hand, strength gain is primarily influenced by two adaptations: hypertrophy and neural adaptation. Hypertrophy provides more muscle mass to produce force, while neural adaptation enhances the body’s ability to produce force based on factors like rate coding, motor unit recruitment, coordination and efficient technique. It’s important to note that neural adaptation is specific to the exercise we train, emphasizing the principle of specificity.

To achieve progressive overload in resistance training, we need to consider various factors, including exercise selection, rep ranges and loads, volume (sets per week) and rest. Exercise selection is relatively flexible for hypertrophy, as the goal is to stress the target muscle. However, for strength gain, exercise selection should align with the principle of specificity.

In terms of rep ranges and intensity (weight lifted), hypertrophy training involves training within the appropriate range and taking sets close to failure (2-3 reps in reserve). On the other hand, strength gain requires lifting heavy to maximize neural efficiency. Volume plays a crucial role in hypertrophy, with more volume resulting in a faster rate of growth while keeping in mind the principle of diminishing returns, the ability to recover and individual genetic and hormonal factors. 

credit: OPEX Fitness

Rest periods also differ between hypertrophy and strength gain. For hypertrophy, rest periods are not a significant variable. But for strength gain, longer rest is important to allow for neural recovery and full recovery between sets. 

While the concept of progressive overload is essential in resistance training, it’s vital to recognize that progression is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It goes beyond the physiological process and connects to individual goals and aspirations. For our general population clients, progression may have nothing to do with increasing muscle mass or improving one-rep maxes.

Let’s explore some alternative aspects of progression that can have a profound impact on our clients’ lives.

Progression beyond physiological metrics

As coaches and trainers, we can sometimes get so caught up in principles like progressive overload that we overlook the holistic nature of progression. It’s crucial to step back and understand what progression truly means to each individual. For many clients, progress may have nothing to do with physiological changes, but rather broader aspects of personal growth.

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For some, progression means becoming consistent with their training or developing a habit that becomes an integral part of their lifestyle. It may mean improving their overall health and well-being, both physically and mentally. Progression can also involve enhancing one’s self-worth and self-esteem, and building confidence and resilience through overcoming challenges.

To truly understand what progression means to each individual client, we need to dig deeper and tap into the power of consultation, building relationships, asking thoughtful questions and personalizing our coaching approach. Here are some practical steps to help uncover the true meaning of progress with your clients:

  1. Consultation and Assessment: Begin by conducting a thorough consultation and assessment with each client. Take the time to understand their background, history, current lifestyle and specific goals. This information will provide valuable insights into what they hope to achieve and what progress looks like to them.
  2. Active Listening: During consultations and subsequent interactions, practice active listening. Give your full attention to your clients and listen attentively to their thoughts, concerns and desires. By actively listening, you can gain a deeper understanding of their motivations, challenges and aspirations.
  3. Thoughtful Questioning: Ask thought-provoking questions that go beyond physical changes. Encourage clients to reflect on how they want to feel, what activities they want to be able to do, and how they envision their ideal version of themselves. Prompt them to explore the emotional, psychological and social aspects of their progress.
  4. Goal Setting: Collaboratively set meaningful and personalized goals with your clients. Ensure that these goals align with their definition of progress. Ask the question “What do you want your life to be like in your final decade, specifically?” A lot of realities come out when we have to consider this concept.
  5. Regular Check-ins: Schedule regular check-ins to assess progress, provide feedback and make adjustments as needed. Use these sessions as an opportunity to revisit and refine the client’s definition of progress. Continuously gather feedback on their satisfaction, progress and fulfillment in their journey.
  6. Build Relationships: Foster strong relationships with your clients. Create a supportive and challenging environment—progression occurs with a nice balance between the two. When clients trust and feel connected to their coach, they are more likely to communicate their definition of success and engage in the coaching process.
  7. Coach the Individual: Tailor your coaching approach to address all dimensions of progress: physical, mental, emotional and social. Integrate strategies that support clients’ overall health and fitness. Emphasize the importance of exercise, lifestyle, nutrition and alignment.

By expanding our perspective on progression, we can better serve our clients and guide them toward success. Progression is a personal journey, and as coaches, we have the privilege of walking alongside our clients every step of the way.

Progression is a multifaceted concept that goes beyond the traditional notion of progressive overload. While it remains an important principle in training, it’s crucial to recognize the diverse forms of progression that impact our clients’ lives. Let’s strive to understand their individual versions of success to deliver them to their ideal version of fitness.

See Carl’s previous column here.

Next week’s column: Simplifying Energy System Training

Carl Hardwick, CEO of OPEX Fitness & CoachRx, is a strong advocate for bringing honor to the coaching profession and raising the value of all fitness coaches. He lectures frequently about program design, business systems, and building a sustainable coaching career. Follow him on Instagram @hardwickcarl and OPEX Fitness on YouTube

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