7 Keys to Using the Principle of Overload for Powerlifters

7 Keys to Using the Principle of Overload for Powerlifters:

Do you even overload bro?  The principle of overload is of utmost importance to attain success in powerlifting as well as many other performance based sports.  To put the principle of overload into easy to understand terms; overload means creating a stimulus that is within the threshold of your adaptive system AND a stimulus that is greater on average than your last stimuli.  To break that down even further, overload means creating a stimulus that creates beneficial adaptations through the disruption of homeostasis.

  1. Principle of Overload for Powerlifters:

The principle of overload for powerlifters essentially means you are going to have to go heavy and hard, while regularly performing sets and reps, heavier weights, or both more than you have done prior.  This does not mean that every workout must be heavier than the last.  However, your general workout trend week to week, month to month, and year to year either needs to have the weights increasing over time, sets and reps increasing over time, or preferably a combination of both.  Or in other words, training must get harder over time.

As a powerlifter, that means that squatting 315lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps week in and week out month to month will almost certainly never result in you squatting 500lbs.  In fact, one of the most important factors in any well laid out training program is overload.  Overload is one of the most important factors in you getting stronger and without it, strength gains will come very slow.

  1. Recovery and overload:

Make sure you are training within the volume and weight that you can adequately recover from.  In the book, “Scientific Principles of Strength Training” the authors refer to this as maximal recoverable volume.  Or, “the maximal volume of training a lifter can perform, recover from, and benefit from.”  If you are training so #beastmode or #savage that you cannot recover from one training session to the next, you are not training within the limits of what your body can beneficially adapt to.

One way you can easily find what your recoverable volume is is to weekly add sets to your current workout routine.  For example, if you have been bench pressing 275lbs for 5×5 for several weeks or months.  Each microcycle or mesocycle add another set.  So, next week go to 6×5, then 7×5 and on until you cannot hit the full 5 reps.  If you fail to hit 5 reps on set 7 then you know 275lbs for 6×5 for bench press in the most you can adequately recover from week to week.

After tracking all of your lifts, sets and reps, and intensities you should start to get a picture of what training volumes and intensities you can recover from after a few months.  One key point to remember is that your recoverable volume may change in relation to factors in your life like stress, sleep, nutrition, use of PEDs, etc.  Also, keep in mind that it is easier to recover from higher volumes at lower percentages.  Therefore, when in a hypertrophy block or early stages of a strength block you should be able to do more volume than the late stages of a peaking block when you are near maximal lifts.

  1. Strength and overload:

The principle of overload, applied to strength training, puts an emphasis on increasing intensities over time.  Intensity refers to the weight moved.  For example, back squats at 95% for 3 sets of 1 has a higher intensity than 75% for 5 sets of 5.  It is worth noting that intensities at 75% of your one rep max and above are necessary for the most effective strength adaptation.  While you can gain size (hypertrophy) working under the 75% range, direct nervous systems adaptations for strength increase only occurs in the 75% range and above.  Because of this, increasing intensity should take a priority over increasing volumes for strengths athletes.  Therefore, when programming it is best to start your strength phase programming around 75% of your 1RM and slowly increasing your intensity to 85% and above in some cases.

  1. Peaking and overload:

The idea of peaking is to get you accustomed to lifting weights near your 1RM, while enhancing technique and stability needed under high intensity loads, and to reduce fatigue.  At the very end of a peaking phase, intensity and volume are less important than fatigue management.  However, up until this point, the heaviest loads of your training cycle need to occur during this phase.  These are loads in the 85%+ of your 1RM.  These intensities are needed to get accustomed to the heavy loads and the efficiency needed to move them.  Reps during the peaking phase should be kept in the 1-3 range.  When doing reps and sets in the 75%-85% range, there is some leeway in your movement efficiencies; however, when executing lifts near your 1RM, movement efficiency and technique need to be of upmost importance and thought.  A few lost percentage points of efficiency do not matter much when doing sets of 5; however, in a maximal attempt it can be the difference from a personal record or a failed lift.

  1. Confidence and overload:

One of the keys to lifting weights that you have never lifted before is confidence you will hit your programmed lifts.  It takes a high level of confidence to go stand under a bending bar with a weight that is more than you barely made last week.  And yet, this is exactly what you must do to get stronger over the long term.  Since most your PRs in a well-planned out training cycle will be rep PRs, it can be mentally difficult to then jump into heavy single or doubles.  You must accept the risk of failing, risk of injury, almost certain discomfort, and still have the confidence to stick to your program.  This is exactly how the strongest people in the world have got so strong-by continuously pushing their confidence by doing weights that are out of their comfort zone month after month, year after year.

  1. Accessories and overload:

The purpose of accessory work is to gain either size and/or strength.  This is a very straightforward idea; however, many people fail when doing accessory work.  If you are doing sets of 30 on wide-grip bench which is 40% of your 1RM you are not getting the maximal benefit for hypertrophy work and essentially no benefit to strength.  Just like in a strength phase or peaking phase, accessory work should also follow the principle of overload.  The principle of overload is also most effective when done with barbell or dumbbell work.  You are only going to gain less size and strength from peck deck machine than you would dumbbell flies because machine disrupt homeostasis much less than compound barbell and dumbbell movements.  Meaning you get less positive adaptive response from isolation machines than you do from compound free weight exercises.  Or to put it another way you should be doing high bar squats for quads instead of leg extension machines and SLDL/Romanian DL for hamstrings instead of seated hamstring curls.  With this in mind, your accessory work should also be getting heavier with more reps and/or sets overtime.  How many of you have been doing the same accessory work and same weights overtime without results? I know many people do not apply the principle to overload training to accessory work, and thus are not benefiting from the strength and/or size gains that accessory work is intended to accomplish.

  1. Common mistakes and overload:   

The most common mistake when applying the principle of overload is the idea that every consecutive workout must be harder and heavier than the last.  This can have negative consequences in your training including quickly overtraining and unnecessarily increasing your chances for injury.  Often times, when someone trains heavier and heavier in a linear method, their workouts quickly start to suffer because they are not adequately recovered and rested to perform their next workouts.  Thus, future workouts become harder and harder, form often starts to be compromised, and risk of injury increases.  Therefore, a well-designed program will not have consecutive over-reaching days, but instead, will have purposeful non-overloading days combined with deload weeks.  This can be achieved by reducing volume when you have a particularly heavy day and/or have non-overloading days such as technique days where weights are purposefully kept lower.  Remember, the principle of overload means intensity, volume, and or both need to increase over time-not all at once.  The general trend needs to be progressing heavier and heavier but this does not mean it needs to occur from training day to the next training day.


The principle of overload training when applied to powerlifting is straight forward; over time workouts needs to be getting heavier, with more volume added.  Individuals need to train with intensities and volume that they can adequately recover from.  Workouts do not need to consecutively get heavier and harder over time but the overall trend needs to progress in that manner.  Managing fatigue through planned deloads, reducing volume on days with high intensities, and/or having planned days with lower volume and intensities are all great ways to keep fatigue in check.  Programs should start around 75% of your 1RM during the strength phase and slowly increase intensity to around 85%.  During a peaking phase, workouts need to be 85% and above for proper neural adaptations to occur and for form to be dialed in when approaching near maximal weights.  Your accessory work should also follow the principle of overload-meaning your accessory work should also be getting heavier and/or more volume over time.  In conclusion, training must significantly stress and strain the body for positive adaptations to occur, this needs to occur over time and not from workout to workout, and you must be able to properly recover from week to week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *