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Progressive Overload-5 Principles of Muscle Building

Scottsdale Personal Trainer

Progressive Overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during strength training which results in muscular hypertrophy. In order to continue making progress in a strength program it is essential that you constantly stimulate a muscle with a new challenge. The new stress leads to micro-trauma or injury of the cellular proteins in muscle. This prompts cell-signaling messages to activate satellite cells to begin a series of events leading to muscle repair and growth. The following variables to training are ways to increase overload.

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1. Time under tension (TUT) is a way of calculating the total amount of work you place on a muscle. It refers to the total time a muscle resists weight during each set.

It is often recommended that heavier training intensities (∼70%-80% of maximal strength) be lifted to maximize muscle growth. However, Burd NA et. al reported that intensities as low as 30% of maximum strength, when lifted to complete fatigue, are equally effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis rates during resistance exercise recovery and result in comparable or greater muscle growth.

*Fitness Tips-Manipulating the speed of your reps and increasing the time under tension is a great way to stimulate metabolic stress and new muscle growth.

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2. Volume refers to the number of sets reps and weight used in a workout. There is scientific evidence displaying that a higher volume training protocol will induce greater muscular hypertrophy. Sooneste H et. al reported that when using three sets per muscle group vs one set at the same intensity, the subjects who trained with the higher volume elicited greater strength and cross-sectional muscle area then did the group that trained with one set. Utilizing higher volume workouts will elicit the greatest amount of muscular hypertrophy, but it should be noted that volume must be advanced progressively, because taking on an extremely high volume program right out of the gate can lead to overtraining and inhibiting delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

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3. Muscle Action refers to the movement phase of an exercise being eccentric, concentric, or isometric. Shortening active muscles are called concentric muscle actions, lengthening active muscles are called eccentric muscle actions, and when active muscles remain the same length, these are called isometric muscle actions. Studies have shown that an increase in mechanical tension and micro-trauma occur to a muscle group when a focus is placed on eccentric contractions of a muscle group.

*Fitness Tips- Performing slow negative repetitions of an exercise with a weight that is heavier than your one-rep max may be a good way to increase muscle hypertrophy.

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  • Intensity most typically refers to the amount of resistance used in correlation to an individual’s one-rep max or the maximal weight able to lift for an exercise. Intensity has been shown to have a significant impact on muscle hypertrophy and is arguably the most important exercise variable for stimulating muscle growth. Repetitions are classified as low (1-5), moderate (6-12) and high (15+). Low and moderate repetitions tax the neuromuscular system in different ways and result in differing hypertrophic response yet both have a significant impact on muscle growth.

*Fitness Tips- Intensity should be progressively increased by adding resistance to exercises while maintaining a goal repetition range as an individual makes improvements in their strength training program.

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  • Periodization is the methodical manipulation of training variables over a period of time from days to years. The idea of periodization is to break down training cycles into different time intervals (Microcycle, Mesocycle, Macrocycle) to expose the body to a particular training style that induces a benefit reaping stimulus but does not allow the body to become adapted to the stimulus. This method allows individuals to maximize training adaptations while also avoiding injury and overtraining which promotes recovery.

Justin Smith


Burd NA1, West DW, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, Moore DR, Holwerda AM, Parise G, Rennie MJ, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Exercise Metabolism Research Group, Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men.

Sooneste, H, Tanimoto, M, Kakigi, R, Saga, N, and Katamoto, S. Effects of training volume on strength and hypertrophy in young men. J Strength Cond Res 27(1): 8-13, 2013- . Available from:

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