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Progressive overload ~ Squat till you puke?

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

How much do I need to push it?

Should I go to failure?

What is the appropriate amount of intensity?

These are questions I wrestle with often.

One of the principles of exercise science is progressive overload. Basically put, you have to progressively overload the body to continue to get results. Makes sense right? If you want to get stronger today than you were yesterday you have to lift a heavier weight. If you want to be able to run longer than you did yesterday you have to run longer.

The problem is how much more load do you introduce? Should you or your client be puking in the corner? Is that what’s going to help someone get stronger?

This is one of the ideas in the personal training and fitness world that gets a little confusing. On one end of the spectrum you have purist who believe that everything should be so perfect that there is no deviation from form. Any challenge to someone's integrity is putting them at risk for injury. On the other end of the spectrum you have trainers and coaches who will allow deviation from “good form” to get the reps in. “Just pick the damn thing up and put it back down!”

How do you determine what is appropriate? To me it goes back to your definition of strength, your goals, and your lifting experience.

Are you able to maintain integrity of the form with the resistance being used? As soon as compensation begins, other muscles begin to move or support the weight. The question is whether these are the muscles and possibly connective tissues we want running the show? What is the risk vs benefit and is this in line with the individual’s goal?

I lean toward the purist side. Probably because I’ve suffered from overuse injuries as a result of pushing too hard with poor form and from overloading certain patterns and underloading others.

The more we deviate from that ideal form or position the more the load is shifting into different areas of the body. That means we’re shifting the focus and therefore potentially putting the body at greater risk.

Not that training to and beyond failure isn’t beneficial. It can be beneficial to incorporate things like doing negatives or using a spotter after you’ve burnt out . I just think the form / body position is always the telltale factor.

This takes keen body awareness on the part of the trainee and a good eye from the trainer or coach--both of which require time, experience and attention.

Nothing beats proper instruction and critique from an experienced coach, but there are a few check points you can assess on your own. What is going on at the spine? Are the feet and knees collapsing in? Are the shoulders elevating up towards the ears or staying packed, back, down and in (with the exception of overhead presses)?

I’ll just discuss neutral spine in this post.

Like many trainers and coaches far more experienced and knowledgeable than me, I let the spine be the guide. The more the spine deviates from a neutral position and good posture, the greater the potential risk.

If you’re not sure what a neutral spine looks and feels like, lie down on a foam roller. Make sure the foam roller is touching the tailbone, upper back and the back of the skull. If you have a forward head carriage (your head juts forward) you may need to place a towel under your head to find a neutral, comfortable position for your head and neck. To make sure you have a neutral pelvis, tuck the tailbone, arch the back and find the midpoint.

Lock this position into your kinesthetic or body awareness. Stand up and hold a dowel rod on your back in the same way. Try hip hinging and squatting with the dowel rod on your back while maintaining contact with the sacrum, upper back, and back of the skull. This may be too difficult if you have a forward head carriage. If so, don’t stress over it, just keep the dowel rod connected to the upper back and tailbone.

Here is an old :-) video tutorial of this:

Is this in line with the goal?..

A 75 year old lady cranking out low bar back squat with a weight that’s causing her knees to buckle and back to arch is probably not in line with her goals and the risk more than likely is going to outweigh the benefit. However, for a high school athlete attempting to build strength and size preparing for senior year and final season, pushing the limits may have some benefit.

Training age…

The other factor to take into consideration is training age. If you’re brand new to lifting it’s probably best to avoid deadlifting with a rounded back. But if you’re an elite powerlifter a rounded back may actually help you hit that PR.

How far do you push it? How do you determine when enough is enough or when to push through? Do you lean more towards the idea of “just lift the $h!t off the floor” or “stop when you begin to strain”?

In another post I’ll dive into how I determine when to increase weight, sets and reps. Thanks for reading!

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