“System Overload” is a Good Thing

I will never forget one elementary school field trip in particular.

For the trip we went to Playland, Vancouver’s favourite amusement park. Before me loomed the iconic wooden roller coaster, its rickety rails trembling beneath a flying capsule of screaming fanatics. Upon initial observation, the terror appeared to outweigh the fun.

My friend Jacob saw things differently. I got into the lineup, my mind swirling with fear, anxiety, and doubt. 

Scared of heights, I strapped in for the ride, my eyes shut the entire time, knuckles white on the bar at my sternum. It was a nerve-wracking experience… the first time.

Knowing I could do it once, I knew I could do it again.

Each time I returned, my eyes stayed open longer; my hands gripped the bar less tightly; the butterflies in my stomach transformed from ones of terror to ones of excitement and joy. 

Years later that coaster became almost boring. I took to even higher forms of thrill-seeking such as bungee jumping in Whistler and skydiving in Pemberton. A kid who had convinced himself he was scared of heights was, in fact, an adrenaline junkie.

In a previous column we discussed one of four principles of sports training: Specificity. Now let’s discuss an equally important one—Overload.

Overload is Progress

The Principle of Overload states that, in order to become stronger and more efficient at movement, we must expose our systems to stresses above what they normally experience. This allows for specific adaptations, such as improved strength on a lift or improved endurance on a paced run.

Nobody ups and completes marathon without any training, right? We build ourselves up to such milestones, and we do so through overloading our system—not dramatically or all at once, but consistently over time.

You first jog a couple of kilometres. Each jog is either a little longer or a little faster than the last, and thus a new stress for the system to adapt to. If you only ever jog two kilometres at the same pace, finishing a marathon stretching 42 kilometres in length will likely remain out of reach, regardless of other factors.

How about squatting 200 pounds? Again, you’ll start by squatting nearly zero. And yet by adding a rep here, a set there, and 5-10 pounds now and again—your goal can be reached.

Should you squat 200 pounds just once, squatting 100 pounds for several reps will by comparison feel incredibly easy. And yet you will never squat 200 now matter how many thousands of reps at 100 you perform. Overloading matters.

As fitness consultant Chris Goulet wrote for Bodybuilding.com:

The main reason you may be failing is most likely because you’re no longer challenging yourself. If you don’t progressively overload the muscles by forcing them to do more than they’re accustomed to, they have no reason to make further adaptations.

Because Overload is relative to one’s own strength and abilities, this principle is works for everyone, and gives athletes a valuable sense of personal progress.

Intensity VS Volume

The two typical ways to implement overload is through intensity and volume. Intensity-based overload tends to build strength, while Volume-based overloading works toward endurance adaptions. Both methods can contribute to size gains, depending on implementation.

In the gym, intensity means consistently adding weight to the bar while maintaining low reps and sets, while volume translates to extra res and sets at the same weight. On the track, intensity is faster speed at distances completed; volume is adding mileage at a familiar pace.

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Note that your system can only handle loads slightly above its current maximum. Excess is adding more to risk of injury than potential gains. Add weight is small increments.

Overloading demands generous recovery, too—aptly labelled Deloading, but that is a story for another day.

In a nutshell, operating outside of your comfort zone is integral to developing as an athlete, no matter the goal. Your system must be pushed to its literal limit in order to adapt and overcome.

Applied methodically, the overload principle will send you soaring to new heights—even if you have to close your eyes the first time.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Progress.