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Understand Overload

Beware: It can have positive and negative effects

You may well know the story, but it's worth repeating: Once upon a time in ancient Greece there was a fellow named Milo who began carrying a calf on his shoulders. Each day the calf grew, increasing Milo's burden. The result was that Milo ended up developing such tremendous strength that, among other things, he became a six-time Olympic wrestling champion. Years later it would be recognized that Milo's training program embodied the principles of overload and progressive resistance that lie at the heart of systematic weight training for increased size and strength. In the early 21st century most people would say that overload has become a fact of life, even if you don't lift weights. Overload is a two-edged sword: It can cut you to ribbons, leaving you bloodied and beaten, just as easily as it can carve a path to your goals. That's why we need to come to grips with the overload principle, with the goal of learning how to manage it.

In its most basic form the overload principle means that to make progress, you have to do more than you're used to. That's a polite way of saying that gaining requires effort. Don't stop there, however, or you'll give up before you get started or just end up pounding your head against a wall. If you ask the average person if he likes to struggle and strain while lifting heavy weight, he'll look at you as if you're an idiot. \”What kind of fool do you take me for?\” he might ask. If you need further proof that most reasonable people actively avoid lifting heavy things, see how many takers you get the next time you ask for help moving your sofa bed from the downstairs living room to an upstairs den. On the other hand, people who lift weights actively seek out heavy objects–or at least they should. The bottom line is that unless you can actually enjoy your training at some level, you should consider spending your time elsewhere.

The second point is that just because something is harder doesn't automatically make it more productive. Plenty of things can make your training more painful but won't do much to encourage your progress. For example, I once heard of a guy who dipped his hands in oil before he deadlifted \”because it made it harder.\” Sure, but was it more productive? If you whacked yourself on the head with a ball-peen hammer a few times right before you trained, your workout would be harder and, in all likelihood, less productive. Learn to separate harder from better.

You also need to avoid the trap of feeling overwhelmed. For example, if you already lead a hectic life and are trying to add a demanding training program, the effort might seem more than you can handle. As a result you throw in the towel and don't train. That might be acceptable for some people, but it doesn't work for you because a little voice keeps whispering that you should be training, that it would be so nice to get bigger and stronger, etc. The result of wanting the benefits of training but not actually training is frustration. In that case you need to figure out how to make training a regular part of your life.

A proven strategy for getting into the gym is to choose a time that works best, acknowledging that it isn't perfect. That done, you always give training top priority in that time slot, to the point where you automatically say, \”Sorry, but I'm lifting weights then.\” As simple as the approach sounds, it's remarkably effective, and it has the added advantage of developing into a positive habit–the longer you do it, the easier it is to keep doing it.

\”Okay,\” you say, \”that's manageable, but how about this business of always doing more? I'm not trying to be a wimp, but you can't really expect me to just keep lifting more and more.\” That's a valid concern because the direction that you should do more than you're used to doesn't simply mean that you just keep slapping more plates on the bar and somehow grinding out the same number of reps you used to do with less weight. It will work some of the time, under certain conditions, but it's not a universal solution. In fact, one of the most common and misguided pieces of advice along those lines is the notion that if you make the plates small enough, you can keep making straight-line progress forever. If you believe that, I've got a great deal for you on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Fortunately, there are alternatives, such as increasing the volume or the velocity of your training, changing the exercises you do or their order. Variety not only keeps you fresh mentally, but it also poses new challenges physically. The best part is that novelty can trigger progress in ways that are a lot less painful than packing more weight on the bar, and it offers infinitely more options.

Overload doesn't have to be a dirty word, and it doesn't have to be something you try to avoid. Accept it as a key to making continued progress, learn to manage it, and you won't just make great gains–you'll have a good time doing it. IM

Editor's note: Randall Strossen, Ph.D., edits the quarterly magazine MILO. He's also the author of IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies; Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks and Paul Anderson: The Mightiest Minister. For more information call IronMind Enterprises Inc. at (530) 265-6725 or Home Gym Warehouse at (800) 447-0008, ext. 1. Visit the IronMind Web site at

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