How To Apply The Principle Of Progressive Overload To Bodyweight Exercises

Milo of Croton was a wrestler who lived in the 6th century BC. Famous for his physical prowess he was the athletic poster-boy of his time and earned an impressive 6 victories at the ancient Olympic games. Genetically gifted? Probably. However, according to legend Milo also took advantage of another potent phenomenon to forge his great strength… progressive overload.

As a young boy growing up in southern Italy, Milo was tasked by his father with carrying a young calf around the family field. Each day he repeated the feat and over time the calf gradually grew in size and bulk making the challenge progressively more demanding. After years of repeated efforts and small triumphs this unorthodox system of training would allow Milo to dazzle the crowds at Olympia by entering the packed stadium with a fully grown Ox on his shoulders.

Whilst this tale has surely been blown out of proportion by 2000 years of Chinese whispers the underlying message holds an important lesson for anyone looking to improve their strength and fitness.

Consistent Effort + Small Improvements = Fitness Success

In the fitness world this is known as progressive overload and is a vital concept to practice if you want to make any significant changes to your body, strength and fitness.

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" 

- Albert Einstein

With a barbell, progressive overload is easy. With the same weight try to increase the duration of an exercise. As you get stronger add small amounts of weight to the bar and repeat the process.

The same principle applies to bodyweight exercise but the implementation is not always as smooth and straightforward. Here are your three main options:

1. Increase the duration of an exercise

Just like the barbell example above. For example if you can perform pull ups for 60 seconds one week try to perform pull ups for 61+ seconds the next week. Simple and easy.

2. USE an adjustable weighted vest

I like this option because it requires no change to the biomechanics of the move and is just like adding weight to a bar. As you get stronger keeping adding small amounts of weight to the vest.

3. Choose a harder exercise

By manipulating the biomechanics and leverage of a movement you can increase the difficulty of certain bodyweight exercises. For example incline, regular and decline push ups.

Incline Push Ups

Incline Push Ups

Regular Push Ups

Regular Push Ups

Decline Push Ups

Decline Push Ups

By changing the angle of your body you shift more weight onto your working muscles. It works but micro-managing the progressions is not an exact science. Sometimes the jump from one exercise to the next is just a little bit too far. Furthermore not all bodyweight exercises lend themselves to this type of shift in leverage. I did say it wasn’t perfect right?

Nonetheless small, steady improvements hold the key to getting in great shape! It might sometimes be trickier implementing the principle of progressive overload with bodyweight exercises but that does not make it any less important.

Choose any combination of the above.

Stay consistent.

Enjoy fitness success with bodyweight training.