Monday, May 13, 2019

When in Doubt, Overload - Bill Starr (1996)

Taken from This Issue (Oct. 1996) 

Note: This is the 3rd installment of Bill Starr's Only the Strong Shall Survive series he wrote for IronMan magazine. The first two are here

Nice to also note that there's yet another generation out there learning from Bill's hard-won expertise. Timeless beauty, Baby! 

When in Doubt, Overload

The strength-training principle of overload has been around for a very long time. Historians credit Milo with bringing it to the civilized world, although I have a suspicion that a number of cavemen practiced the concept with various sized rocks. 

Milo began lifting a small calf every day, and as the calf grew into a stout young bull, Milo got progressively strong. He'd overloaded his muscles and attachments very systematically. 

The idea seemed reasonable enough and easy enough. At least that's what I though when I was 14. My father brought me a Holstein calf to raise for a 4-H project. I decided to emulate Milo, for I desperately wanted to add some muscle to my frame. For two weeks the plan worked rather nicely. At least it did for me. Elmer wasn't too keen on my experiment in strength development, but, fortunately for him, he grew much too rapidly and quickly outdistanced by strength gains, and I had to give up the project. 

Note: Calf birth bodyweight can vary by as much as 60 pounds in a typical Holstein herd with the average newborn heifer calf weighing 85 pounds. Heifers will weight at least 440 pounds at eight months of age. Mature Holstein cows typically weigh 1,500 pounds and stand just under six feet at the shoulders.    

The principle was still quite valid, but, as I later learned, you have to increase the rate more slowly than I expected. That's one of the great things about weights. You can add them in extremely small increments. 


The Overload Concept applies to all forms of strength training, as well as bodybuilding. It's often misunderstood, however, simply because there are so many ways in in which you can overload the body. Some forms of exercise do not apply. Only when you force your muscles, tendons and ligaments to work at a greater intensity than usual or to work for a longer period of time than normal will they gain added strength or endurance.

In a nutshell, the overload principle means that increased strength only occurs when you push your body beyond its normal limits, when you force it to work harder than it did before. Overloading requires that you place your muscles and attachments under increasingly more stress. You should apply the new stress systematically and steadily to allow your body time to adapt. Try to move too fast and overloading will become a detriment to progress rather than an asset.

This principle is based on the idea that the proper kind and amount of increased physical activity will bring about improvements in the range of joint motion, level of structural strength, tone, size and endurance of skeletal muscles. The same principle also applies to aerobic activities. Overloading for endurance brings about improvement in the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Runners practice the overload principle when they slowly increase their weekly and monthly distances. This enables them to run farther without fatigue. 

Since overloading requires pushing the body beyond its normal limits, athletes often intentionally go through a period of over-training (overreaching). It's a necessary part of getting stronger, but you can't remain in a state of over-training for very long. Prolonged over-training is a definite negative and is something to avoid, but you must be willing to face a brief period of being especially tired or sore in order to move to the next level of strength fitness. 

Overloading is often equated with the progressive-resistance system, another important principle of strength training. The two are closely linked, but they're not the same thing, nor are they dependent on one another. The term "progressive-resistance training" refers to the technique of starting each exercise with a light weight and steadily adding more poundage to the subsequent sets. 

This system is valuable because it lets the muscles and attachments become thoroughly warmed up before they encounter the heavier weights. It also lets you hone your technique on a particular exercise before trying your max. Even so, you can use the progressive-resistance system without overloading, and, conversely, you can overload without using the progressive-resistance system. 

I mentioned above that the overload principle is often misunderstood because there are several ways to incorporate it into the program. 

For example, one method of overloading is to handle more weight in a certain exercise than you used before. If you move your bench press from 300 to 305, you overload your pressing muscles and make them stronger. 

You can also overload isometrically by applying pressure to a stationary bar for a longer period of time.    

Another valid form of overloading is to increase the total amount of work you perform in a session, or even your total workload for a week or a month. You can do this by adding more exercises to your routine, or by increasing the number of sets or reps. 

One method of overloading that people generally don't think about is to increase your rate of work by training faster, with shorter rests, completing your routine in less time than usual. Since this forces your body to work beyond its normal limits of physical stress, it meets the requirements of overloading. 

Everyone who wants to get stronger has to do some form of overloading, but not everyone should use the same type. There should be a direct relationship between the technique you use and your level of development. In other words, beginners should overload much differently from advanced trainees. When a beginner, influenced by some article in a magazine, tries to copy one of his idol's programs, he usually comes up short because he just doesn't have the foundation to make such methods work.

There's plenty for the beginner to do, however. The first step is to slowly increase the total workload. "SLOWLY" is the key word here. Many zealous beginners add exercises to their programs too rapidly. This is certainly understandable. They want to move out of the beginner stage as quickly as possible, but doing too much too soon is as undesirable as doing too little.

Beginners can benefit from moving through their workouts more aggressively, taking less rest time between sets. This can establish a more solid fitness base and leads to a higher strength level. Beginners can also overload by handling slightly heavier poundages on heavy days, even if it's for fewer reps than usual.

An important point to keep in mind is that any form of overloading only brings positive results after you establish a firm foundation. In other words, it's only productive when your body is ready to handle more work.

The best way to establish a solid base is to increase your workload. This is most useful for beginners and intermediates. I compare it to building the foundation of a pyramid. Once you sufficiently widen that foundation, you can build the crown of the structure much higher. The same holds true in strength training. Being able to do more work in a week and recover from that work will enable you to handle higher top-end poundages.

You can increase your workload in several ways. You can do more warmup sets, more top-end sets, or more back-off (a.k.a. cool down) sets, or you can increase the number of reps in your normal sequence. For beginning and intermediate lifters I recommend more warmup and back-off sets. For the more advanced, more top-end and back-off sets fills the bill quite nicely.

The back-off set is a very productive way to add to your total workload. It's also an easy way of increasing the amount of work you do on any exercise. The back-off set should not be easy; it should only be relatively easy in comparison to your heaviest set on that exercise. 

Let's say you've been doing your squats for the conventional 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, ending with 350 for the required number of reps. To increase your workload, simply start doing a back-off set of 8 reps with 295. After you handle the 350 for 5, the 295 isn't going to feel all that heavy, but the one extra set will add over another ton to your workload (295 x 8 = 2360). 

Another painless way to slip in some extra work is to do 1 or 2 additional sets on the way up to the heaviest poundage. This works best on the light and medium days, as the extra sets can detract from your maximum attempts if you do them on your heavy day. As with the back-off set, when you add extra sets with 185 and 275 for 5 reps on the way to 350 for 5, the additional work isn't tiring, but it will increase your day's workload on the squat by over a ton (185 x 5, plus 275 x 5 = 2300). 

There are some exercises that you should do for relatively higher reps, and the best way to increase the total workload on these is to add extra reps slowly. Good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts are perfect examples. I recommend keeping the reps at 8 on those two lifts, but at some point you're not going to be able to get out that many reps with a new weight. To keep making progress, start doing only 5 reps when you go up in poundage and then add 1 rep per week until you can perform the necessary 8. When you move to the next poundage level, drop your reps back to 5 again and follow the same procedure. 

Also, I never advise doing back-off sets on those two movements. If you want to increase your workload, do more warmup sets, generally with a rather light weight.

Once you're satisfied that you have, indeed, built a sound foundation of strength, then you're ready to do other forms of overloading - primarily, to increase the intensity of each exercise. Since the basic sets and reps formula for strength is 5 sets of 5 reps, most trainees start out using that routine. Eventually, in order to involve the attachments more directly, you have to lower the reps and increase the poundage. 

Unless you put your tendons and ligaments under stress, they won't get any stronger, and the attachments are really the key to this. You can increase the size and shape of a certain muscle by using light-to-moderate weights, but in order for that muscle to become considerably stronger, you must overload the attachments. 

So, instead of doing an exercise for 5 reps, do it for 3, 2, or even 1, for this will force your tendons and ligaments to become involved to a much greater extent. I also find it extremely useful to change your sets and reps sequence for an individual exercise on your heavy day. 

For example, let's take everyone's favorite, the bench press. Say, Monday is your heavy day each week. One Monday do 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps as a warmup, then 2 heavier triples (3's) followed by one back-off set of 8. On the next Monday do 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps as warmups, then 3 heavier doubles followed by a back-off set of 8. For the third Monday switch to 3 progressively heavier sets of 5's followed by 2 or 3 singles (1-rep sets). When you do singles, ease up by performing back-off sets of 5 instead of 8. The constant change will keep your body from becoming complacent, and this is really one of the keys to getting stronger.

More advanced lifters can benefit from doing more sets at the top end on any of these sequences. So, instead of doing 2 or 3 sets of 2's or 3's, you do as many as 5 sets with your heaviest weight of the day. Since this is quite demanding, skip the back-off sets.

How much is too much? This is strictly an individual matter. Some people can almost immediately handle a much greater workload than their counterparts of the same bodyweight and lifting background. Recovery is a big factor here. If you are unusually tired and sore the next day after a hard workout, you shouldn't do any excessive overloading the next time you train. If you find that you're recovering, however, then by all means overload again.

One way to avoid doing too much is to incorporate the HEAVY, LIGHT, AND MEDIUM SYSTEM into your program. I'll explain this in depth in a future article, but the basic idea is to do a less strenuous workout after you've done a very hard one. If you try to link too many tough sessions back to back, you're asking for trouble, especially in the early and intermediate stages of development. A good rule to follow is to only overload a specific exercise once a week. Some folks find they're better off if they only overload a lift every two weeks.

Keep in mind that the total amount of work you perform in a workout is also a form of over-training. So, if you do additional sets of an exercise and also move up your top-end poundage, you actually do two types of overloading on that lift in one day - which would indicate that you should give yourself some time to recover before you attack it again.               

Here's a fine related article by Anthony Ditillo on The Single and Double Progression Method, something to look at later: 

Once you've been training long enough, you can benefit from advanced forms of overloading. One of the current favorites is forced reps, but I consider this technique to be THE BIGGEST JOKE IN STRENGTH TRAINING. I've never seen a serious strength athlete use forced reps. I can't even imagine an Olympic lifter asking for assistance on his heaviest Clean & Jerk or Snatch. 

The only person who gets any stronger doing forced reps is the spotter. Granted, they may help flush more blood to a muscle group, but for enhancing strength, forget them. 

The cries of "All you! All you!" I often hear in gyms are a total farce because the screaming spotter is the one who's actually pulling the bar through the sticking point for the straining lifter. This is the very part of the movement that needs the extra work. To gain strength in the troublesome area of the lift, the lifter should be working harder, but the assistance relieves him of the needed work. In addition, since the spotter assures the lifter that he only took 2.5 pounds off the bar after they hit the sticking point, the lifter gleefully counts all the reps as successes. It seems to me that this is the same as being carried across the finish line in a race. It would make much more sense for the lifter to do a few extra sets using a weight he can handle properly without assistance. Weight training is not a team sport. 

Negatives are a valid overloading technique, but they should be reserved for the very advanced lifters. Your form has to be hairline, or they won't be effective. They're also a great deal of trouble. You must stay inside a power rack, and you must have two very alert spotters. Power racks are easier to find then reliable spotters, however. 

Negatives take a bit of learning, for you are, in fact, trying to resist a descending bar rather than elevate it. It takes time to learn how to do them and a great deal of time to do them properly. The bar must be moved to to topmost position after each rep, and you must get time to rest. Then weight is added and you do the next rep. Since negative training involves relatively heavy weights, it's a very concentrated form of strength training. This is another topic I'll discuss in detail in the future.

The most effective form of overloading for intermediate and advanced strength athletes is a combination of isometrics and isotonics (sometimes referred to as isometronics . . . there's some articles and book segments on this blog about this method). 

You can only do these safely inside a power rack. You don't need spotters, however, so a person who trains alone can benefit from this technique. 

Isometric exercises are those in which the length of the muscle doesn't shorten during contraction. Pushing against a stationary object and holding the exertion is an isometric exercise. It develops strength because there's tension in the muscles and adjoining attachments. 

Isotonic exercises are those we use most often in training. In this case the muscles do shorten and contract while the work is being done. 

Both of these exercise forms help increase strength, but the combination of the two works best . . . 

Set the pins inside the power rack so that the bar can only move an inch or two. Move (pull of push) the weighted bar into the top pins and hold the contraction for 8 to 12 seconds. Moving the bar up to the pins is isotonic, and holding it against the pins is isometric. 

This method of overloading is extremely useful, since you can isolate weaker areas very specifically and make them stronger. My discussion of hos to use isometrics, "Isometric Incinerator," appeared in the June '96 issue of IronMan

That article is here: 

More from Bill Starr on isotonic/isometrics:

And here: 
Scroll down for part 1 - 

The original York/Hoffman Isometric Training Manual:

There's one final consideration when you embark on any form of overloading. Make sure you get sufficient rest after an overloading session, regardless of the method you use. Be sure to follow a difficult workout with a light one, and if you use any form of overloading in the power rack, give yourself two days rest afterward.

At some point everyone must overload in order to get stronger. You can select from a variety of programs, or you can go out and buy a calf.  


No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive