Overloading your muscles is amongst the most important things you can do when looking to improve your health and fitness.

Most overload is progressive – whereby you gradually increase the intensity of training by manipulating weight, frequency or volume in your routine.

This most commonly applies to weight lifting disciplines, though it is a concept common to all training regimes that aim towards a specific goal.

Man wincing while doing bicep curls

Put simply, overloading your muscles will challenge your body, causing it to adapt, strengthening the musculoskeletal system and eliciting hypertrophy – the growth of new muscle mass.

Essentially, all training should look to manipulate the FITT principle:

  • Frequency
  • Intensity
  • Time
  • Type

If you maintain these four facets forever, changing none of them, you will not grow fitter. You will not grow stronger, nor will you grow more muscle mass.

You may be able to maintain a lean physique, as calorie burn during training shouldn’t diminish too much, but that is it.

To develop in any way, you need to change one.

For frequency, you could add an extra session per week at the gym, go for an extra walk every day, or play football twice more.

For weight lifting, you could pick a body part to focus on. Let’s use legs as an example. Your current leg routine isn’t eliciting any kind of gains.

A good option to bring about overload would be to put in a second leg day, three or four days after your first one, thus increasing volume and causing your leg muscles to adapt to increased stimulus.

Man back squatting heavy weight

For intensity, you could run faster on your usual route, or lift heavier weights, or increase the volume of your lifts.

For instance, if you begin struggling to squat 50 kg, then find it easy to do after three weeks, try going up to 60 kg. Or, if you were squatting 50 kg for three reps, try aiming to do so for four reps.

For time, you will simply need to spend more time training. This could be adding an extra half mile to your run, or spending an extra ten minutes per swim doing lengths.

For type, you will need to add something different, or else entirely change up your training. For example, if your fitness has plateaued from cycling, you could take up boxing for a while.

If you aren’t gaining strength as a bodybuilder, you could try spending a few cycles Olympic lifting or trying something like CrossFit.

By doing this, you will be adding new stimulus to your muscles for them to adapt to. This is overload and it is the only way to progress from where you are right now.

Overdoing overload

It is, of course, possible to overdo it. In fact, it’s quite common. Though overtraining is rarer than many people popularly believe, overuse injuries occur pretty regularly.

Overuse injuries are caused by repeated action (as opposed to acute injuries, which occur instantaneously, like a broken bone or sprained wrist). Exercise is stress – which is OK, or rather good. Your body adapts to this stress by strengthening and thickening the various tissues involved (muscles, ligaments and so forth). This is adaptation – it’s what we’re going for when we train.

However, excessive overload can cause microscopic injuries. These can lead to inflammation, the body’s injury response, and to weakness and often pain.

Injuries like these can occur in the following:

  • Soft tissue compartments
  • Tendons and muscle-tendon structures
  • Periosteum cartilage
  • Bursa
  • Nerve tissue
  • Bone

Signs and symptoms of inflammation due to overload include:

  • Swelling
  • Excess heat in the affected area
  • Redness
  • Weakness or impaired mobility
  • Discomfort or pain

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is a sign that you are likely overdoing it in the gym, either in total or in a particular muscle group. The key is to pull back a bit from training and to make sure that your recovery is up to scratch. A good recovery routine will include plenty of sleep (7-9 hours per night), plenty of healthy fats and proteins, mobility work and stretching, as well as good-quality active recovery.