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Team Sports Strategies - Powerline - Scripting Strategies For Progressive Overload


Ken Mannie

Scripting Strategies For Progressive Overload

Don't cross the line between overload and overtraining

By Ken Mannie, Head Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich. ( 

In last month’s Powerline, I wrote that one of the most blatant errors made in many strength-and-conditioning programs — especially those designed for adolescents — is an unrealistic progression rate. Now, here are some suggestions and troubleshooting directives for incorporating workable and appropriate progression models.

Progressive overload is one of the key constituents in successful strength training. Make no mistake; without it, your athletes will invariably hit one of those dreaded “training plateaus.” However, there is a fine line between overload and overtraining, and it is important not to cross it.

Understanding & Dealing With Physical Stress

As coaches, we can become so enthralled with evaluating our player’s work habits that it is easy to forget the importance of rest and recovery in overall growth and development. Our college football athletes will soon be headed out on a much needed, nine-day Spring Break. After seven weeks of intensive lifting, and five weeks of in our 4th Quarter Winter Conditioning Program, they are more than due for a little rest and relaxation.

When they return, they are thrown right back into the fire with a few more lifting and running sessions prior to the start of spring football practice in late March and continuing through most of April. This period encompasses a total of 15 non-consecutive practice days, interspersed with two to three non-consecutive lifting days per week.

As May approaches, built-in NCAA discretionary weeks dictate another respite prior to the start of our Bottom-Line Summer-Conditioning Program, which begins in June. Our normal procedure here is to train for four consecutive weeks, followed by a 10-day break, then return for three more consecutive weeks of training. Another eight- to 10-day break is then provided prior to the start of summer football camp. These training reprieves are inserted for the very definitive purposes of rest, recovery and growth.

Powerline overload1Dr. Hans Selye, in his classic 1956 text, “The Stress of Life,” proposed the General Adaptation Syndrome (G.A.S.), which is still referenced by exercise physiologists and strength-and-conditioning coaches 54 years later. Basically, G.A.S. identifies three levels of stress and the precautions that must be taken to avoid subjecting the body’s systems to an over-trained, catabolic (i.e., system breakdown) state. In simplified language, and relative to strength training, it looks like this:

Stage I: In the initial stage of stress, the physiological demands placed on muscle tissue via strength training causes a certain degree of damage and microtrauma. Keep in mind that this is a natural occurrence and it is actually a precursor to growth over time.

Stage II: In response to these stressors, the body’s internal regulatory systems defend themselves from the onslaught via compensatory adaptation in the form of increased strength and genetically determined grades of hypertrophy. If attention is paid to proper nutritional recovery strategies, a gradual, progressive ascent can be achieved at a rate and to a level that are consistent with each individual’s growth potential.

Stage III: You’ve now entered the danger zone. Prolonged stress in the absence of a needed recovery and growth window results in not only diminishing returns, but eventually to a reversal and loss of the gains made to that point. All training programs must be underpinned with a multi-pronged strategy that acts as a safety net for abating this stage. This strategy includes a minimum of the following components:

• Consume a healthy diet that is high in lean protein sources, fruits and vegetables, whole wheat fiber and plenty of water.

• Get plenty of rest, which would mean seven to nine hours of quality sleep on a consistent basis.

• Temper the workout plan with properly placed respites to allow for a growth period.

• Make sure that work progression and the degree of difficulty — whether it is in the form of increased weight, reps, sets or any combination — are implemented judiciously and with respect to individual differences.

The next section deals with some personal evaluations, suggestions and troubleshooting insights for the latter.

Periodization Models

A very popular and easily administrated protocol is some form of periodization or cycling. A highly revered system with competitive lifters, most periodization schemes are dictated by changes in set, rep and volume assignments based upon the working phase (hypertrophy, strength, power, etc.) of the cycle and the most recent rep max achieved on the lifts to be used.  Usually, only a few targeted lifting movements that are considered essential to the program are attached to a periodization format (e.g., supine/incline bench press, squats, push presses, dead lifts, clean variations, etc.).

Powerline overload2An example of this approach is an initial three-week cycle consisting of five sets of eight reps with 65 percent of the newly registered max (which was derived from either a single attempt or extrapolated from multiple reps with a predetermined weight). This cycle might be followed with four sets of six reps with 75 percent for another three-week stretch. To end the period, a final three-week cycle of three sets of three to five reps with 80 to 85 percent might be inserted. A new max test then is administered in the 10th week of the process, followed by reverting to the top of the order and starting a new cycle with higher weight values.

Competitive lifters would probably manipulate the total sets to fit their needs and eventually pare the reps down to doubles and singles to prepare the neuromuscular system for the specifics of competition day.
Most coaches use some analogue of a periodization plan, though they may formulate a host of different “micro” and “macro” cycles to accommodate their training calendars. These systems are easy to implement and they provide a degree of consistency, as there is little deviation once they are in progress.

A potential problem with a stringently dictated periodization paradigm is that individual differences can skew weight and rep assignments. For instance, a script calling for five reps with 85 percent of max might prove to be far too easy for some, and far too difficult for others. Hence, adaptations vary, with some gaining ground, others leveling off and maybe even a few dropping off. 

The addition of weight with the concurrent reduction in sets or reps over segmented time periods may very well be a successful strategy for those who must periodically demonstrate prowess in a one-rep max. We know that adaptations manifest themselves for specific events such as lifting competitions via the congruent neural pathways. In other words, you must “train as you fight.”

However, the classic periodization model draws mixed reviews when you survey coaches of other sports.  Some say that it handcuffs their athletes to either unmanageable weight loads or, conversely, to loads that are too light for advancement.

Another consideration for conventional sports is that a competitive lifter’s training calendar is architected for “peaking” at a handful of lifting meets during the year. The same periodization model might not match up well with sports that compete once or twice per week in-season.

A recommendation here is to be flexible within any type of periodization format and allow for these very real, individual nuances, as well as to be cognizant that the wear and tear of extraneous conditioning activities (e.g., running agility and speed training programs) can have a prohibitive effect on progress. A modified, or undulating, cycling plan that can be adjusted weekly, if necessary, from higher to lower set, reps and loads often works better for athletes outside of the competitive-lifting arena.

Alternative Overload Models

As mentioned, the classic periodization formats were developed primarily for what some refer to as their “core” or “big” lifts — basically, the standard multi-joint, free-weight movements.

Whether you choose to use such a model for those lifts, are interested in exploring something off the beaten path for other movements or are looking for more overall variety and flexibility in your entire program, here are some other progressive overload options (Coaching Point: Some of the following overload techniques exceed commonly executed effort and intensity output, and should therefore be used sparingly with an extended post-workout recovery period. As with any other training protocols, documentation of the results is crucial for reliable progress).

• Double Progression: This protocol works well in all situations and is a viable option for those movements that are unattached to percentages of one-rep max. A rep range (e.g., six to eight) is established, followed by experimenting until a weight is found that requires a great effort to achieve the low end of the range. Eventually, when the high end of the range is met and sustained for a couple of weeks, a moderate increment is made that allows for the successful completion of the low end. The process is then repeated.

• Triple Progression: While maintaining the double-progression theme, this method adds the third component of decreasing the time between sets. Even a modest decrease in recovery time (e.g., 15 to 20 seconds) can result in a noticeable increase in difficulty and intensity. We use this option as a great variety tool and to occasionally jump-start a period of stagnation.

• Eccentric Accentuated Sets: The eccentric phase of a rep is when the load is lowered. With this concept — one that is used with great care and spotting expertise — the lifter is coached to continue with a few post-fatigue reps after reaching the point of momentary muscular fatigue (MMF). In other words, the spotter assists with the concentric (raising) phase and the lifter lowers the load with control (usually on a three- to four-second cadence). One to three additional reps are performed in this fashion, based upon the lifter’s ability to handle the extra work.  If you prefer not to take the sets to fatigue, another variation is to merely lower the last two to three reps with a longer cadence (four to six seconds).

• Extended Sets: These involve an immediate decrease in weight once the high end of a range is reached. The only rest for the lifter is the amount of time it takes for the spotter(s) to make the reduction. On average, one to three reductions are made with one to three additional reps performed with each reduction. (Coaching Point: Plate-loaded and selectorized machines work best with this overload technique, due to the ease and tempo of the reductions. Also, this is a technique better suited for older, more-experienced trainees)

• Vary the Bilateral and Unilateral Emphasis: Independent limb action (unilateral) can possibly have a mitigating effect on strength and neuromuscular deficiencies. Therefore, it is wise occasionally to incorporate either free-weight (i.e., dumbbells or kettlebells) or unilateral machines that train each limb independently.

• Manipulate Exercise Order: A quick review of most workout scripts reveals the early deployment of multi-joint movements, with any included single-joint exercises tacked onto the back end. One variation to implement to heighten the intensity of the script and introduce a new overload technique is to pre-fatigue a targeted area with an single-joint movement, followed expediently with a multi-joint movement.

An example of this includes having the shoulders pre-fatigued by performing a set of dumbbell lateral raises and following it immediately with a set of military-push presses. For the upper back, have athletes perform a set of pullovers, followed immediately with a set of chin-ups. A set of dumbbell chest flyes followed by an incline-supine bench press targets the chest and anterior shoulder region.

Final Rep
Somewhere in your strength-training readings, you will come across the term “supercompensation,” which refers to the period when the muscle tissue has been afforded the opportunity — through sensibly applied overload, rest and good nutrition — to recover, grow, and assume readiness for another workout.

The time frame for this process to undergo a successful workout-to-workout transition is predicated on the intensity, volume and frequency of the performed scripts. With this in mind, it is up to each coach to temper a training period with strategically placed respites. A conspicuous red flag to look for is a lack of progress over an extended period of time. 

And, the problem isn’t always that you are not doing enough; you might be doing too much — with too little rest.

Training hard can be accomplished concurrently with training smart. Variety, documentation, communication and common sense are valuable components to achieving that end.


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