Progressive Loading or Execution - Which Is More Important?
Updated: Jan 16, 2019
When I browse through social media, I am beginning to see an increasingly clear divide between the 'progressive overload' camp and the 'perfect execution' camp. On one hand, we have the lifters who have a tunnel vision for chasing progressions in their reps, sets and weights lifted, although sometimes at the detriment of perfect execution. On the other hand, we have the 'stretch and squeeze' lifters who approach their sessions with clinical precision and scientific methodologies, however sometimes at the expense of being able to increase the total load lifted.
So which camp should you be leaning towards if hypertrophy is your goal?
The answer is that you should aim to apply elements of both! Progressive overload and perfect execution should exist on a continuum in order to yield the greatest physical adaptations. For me personally, learning perfect execution should always be your first port of call, however the hard work and heavy loading does have to follow if you're serious about your results.
The Progressive Camp
When focusing too heavily on progressive overload, you can get caught up in simply moving a weight from A to B. As much as this strategy will likely generate some increases in strength (to a point), you have to question the extent to which you're stimulating your target muscle. Attempting to move a load which is beyond the capabilities of your target muscle will lead to supporting muscle groups being called upon for assistance, resulting in a reduced tension and stimulus being placed upon said target muscle. Less stimulus, less hypertrophy.
From experience, the guy in the gym bicep curling (swinging) the largest load is often not the guy with the biggest biceps. In this case, progressively overloading the bar and hoping bigger arms would be an inferior approach to reducing the load and reevaluating exercise execution.
The Execution Camp
At the other end of the spectrum, whilst perfect execution will create the necessary stimuli for muscular hypertrophy, we will eventually reach a sticking point whereby the load we're using needs to be progressed in order to force further adaptations. A muscle will only grow when adequate stress is placed upon it, hence why executing your movements correctly to allow for this stress to be appropriately directed is so vital. Perfectly executing a bicep curl with 5kg dumbbells however will, for obvious reasons, only create adequate stress for a very short period of time before progressive overload needs to be applied.
I am a huge advocate for execution and it's importance within the realms of physique development, and I appreciate all of the resources online and the intelligent guys and girls sharing their knowledge for free on social media. I do however believe that it's getting easy to get a little too caught up in worrying about 'lines of force' and 'resistance profiles' before it's necessary, whilst forgetting the importance of effort, intensity and plain hard work.
Both camps can learn a lot from each other. The aim of this article was to show not only the benefits of both approaches, but also their flaws when used exclusively. Be intelligent with your approach but also be willing to work f***ing hard! Progressively overload with perfect execution and that's when the magic will start to happen.