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The Foundation to Building Muscle

June 07, 2023

Most important muscle building principle

Many of you may have heard about Milo of Croton. He was a legendary 6th-century wrestler winning trophy after trophy. The story how he achieved his strength is an interesting one and it is a classic example of what progressive overload is.

When he was a young boy a baby calf was born in his house. What he decided to do was carrying that baby calf on his shoulders. With time the calf grew bigger and heavier, so did Milo.

The bigger the calf grew, the stronger Milo got.

The story of Milo captures the very basics of gaining muscle, strength and improving performance - the progressive overload.

Regardless if you wish to gain muscle mass, lose fat, get lean, get stronger or perform better as an athlete you need to be aware of this principle. And more importantly: apply it to your training.


Progressive Overload - The Foundation To Building Muscle

In the fitness industry today it is very easy to get sidetracked. There are so many conflicting theories, methods and practices. But if there is one rule that you cannot ignore it is this one - master the basics.

There are different aspects to any training routine. 

The progressive overload is the foundation upon which everything else lies. 

Ignore the foundation and you get a wonky building that won't be able to support itself or even worse it may collapse.

Without the foundation, you are risking of having minimal or no results at all in the long run.

Building blocks of muscle gain


Adaptation and Muscle Building

Adaptation is one of the main features of any living organism. Adaptation is what actually happened to Milo. Let me explain.

In broad terms, adaptation means adjustment of the organism to its environment. If the environment is changed the organism will seek ways to cope with the changes and adapt so it can have better chances of survival.

Here's the thing.

When working out we can have different goals in mind like gaining muscle mass, losing fat and etc.

Through following a training routine that is built around our particular goal in mind we change the environment of our body.

In other words, in order to have the body change in the desired way we need to change its environment.

This change happens through a process of adaptation because of the newly created stimuli.

Working out is one of the most powerful ways to make the body change.

Although after just one training session we will not get the desired results this can happen after multiple training sessions. The reason is that our body will start adapting because the demand has been presented for a longer period of time.


So What Exactly Is Progressive Overload?

This is a way of training where we try to continuously increase the stress and demand on our body. That way we can have a consistent improvement of our strength, muscle mass size and performance.

Essentially if we want to get big we need to increase the stimulus on our muscles.

What that means is that our muscles will have to adapt to lifting heavier weights than what they have previously got used to.

This adaptation happens through building more muscle size which will lead to higher strength.

So how does that happen?

The body is capable of adapting and changing with the sole purpose of surviving. There are so many instances of different species changing through the course of thousands of years just so they can have better chances of survival.

Your body is no different.

But don't worry it will not take you thousands of years to get more buff. Just understanding the concept is what's important here.

This can be considered a law in biology.

This means a couple of things:

  • If you want your body to change (say gaining muscle) you need to place it in the right environment that demands that very change.
  • This adaptation can go both directions. So the context and the details are important.
  • If there is insufficient demand for a change your body will not change.

But There Is One Flaw

Eventually, we will hit a plateau.

Almost anyone that has been training for long enough knows that it happens.

In the very beginning, we tend to gain a lot of muscle size as the body is adapting to the newly created stimuli. But with time those "newbie" gains start to slow down. This is where the law of diminishing return is most evident.

We have to put in more work for less returns.

Eventually, we hit a plateau where nothing happens anymore.

If we are squatting doing 4 sets of 8 reps. In the beginning, our legs will grow because this is something new for them.

But if we continue doing only those 4 sets of 8 with the same weights every single workout, eventually, our legs will stop growing. Why? Because they have nothing new to adapt to anymore.

It's then time to increase the weight, increase the reps, increase the sets - or change an element of our workout to provide the body with a new stimulus to adapt to. 

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Examples of Progressive Overload

Let's take a look at one of the classic examples of progressive overload.

Consider this: Identical triplets training in 3 different ways each. They have identical body structure and respond similarly to similar exercises:

  1. The first person trains with the same 15 kg dumbbells all the time. He gained some muscle in the beginning but now he doesn't have any new gains. He's not getting stronger or muscular anymore. He plateaued.
  2. The second person also trained with the 15 kg dumbbells but he didn't stop there. Eventually, he went up to 30 kg dumbbells before deciding to change his routine a bit. He also did different exercises too. He continued to grow his muscles and is much stronger than before. He is progressing.
  3. The third person decided to start with 5 kg dumbbells instead. They are too light for him he never felt tired and his muscles never even got pumped while training. With time he lost some muscle. He even got weaker as he is not as strong as before. He is experiencing detraining.

Here's what happened with each one of them:

So what happened with the first person?

His body adapted to the initial weight which was a good weight to start with. He gained some muscle and strength. But since he never changed anything about his training routine his body never felt the necessity to gain more muscle mass or strength. So he plateaued.

The second person was training in accordance with the progressive overload principle. He never stayed too long doing one and the same thing. But at the same time, he never moved too quickly to different routines. When he was able he increased the weights, he incorporated different techniques and kept things difficult but not too much.

The third person used weights that are way too light for him. It induced a negative response on his body. Basically telling his body, "Hey we have way too much muscle that we don't need!" and the body responded accordingly. Since there is no need for all that muscle he had which is basically burning extra calories the body moved on to a more energy efficient state - meaning less muscle.


How to Implement Progressive overload

Although most of the examples have something to do with increasing weight, progressive overload doesn't end with just that.

Here are some examples of progressive overload:

  1. Changing Training Frequency

Training frequency is how often you train your muscles.

For example:

If you are training your chest every Monday and you've hit a plateau. Maybe it is a good time as any to try and start training chest twice a week.

  1. Changing Volume

Training volume is the overall work you have done. Think the total amount of weight you have lifted during your workout.

German volume training is one great example of this where increasing the volume can lead to new gains and breaking plateaus.

Think of it that way:

Imagine you are doing 4 sets of 10 reps with 100 kg that equals to 4000 kg in total.

But then you start doing 10 sets of 10 reps with 50 kg that would equal to 5000 kg in total.

An increase of 1000 kg in total volume despite the reduction of weight.

  1. Changing the training intensity

Training intensity is kind of a vague thing at times. In essence, this is how hard we perceive a certain lift. I won't get too much into that right now but there are a couple of ways we can increase the training intensity.

First one is to reduce the resting periods.

How to increase muscle mass

If you normally rest 2 or 3 minutes between sets you can reduce that to, say, 30 or 60 seconds. The short rest periods will definitely hit your nervous system in a new way.

Another way to increase intensity is by increasing the time under tension.

Making every rep last more time can definitely help some people with breaking their plateaus as it improves the mind-muscle connection and strength. The best part? You don't necessarily need to lift heavy to achieve that.


A Frequent Mistake People Do

There is something that it doesn't take a trained eye to spot.

There's always somebody in the gym that tries to use the heaviest weights possible. They cheat, use momentum, use one or several spotters, they don't stick with a training routine for more than a month, and etc.

All that will not help anyone in any way. Even worse it can hurt your gains.

Part of the reason is due to the unknown. When using a spotter you don't necessarily know how much he's helping you. The same thing happens with excessive cheating.

Overall you cannot really be sure how much stronger or weaker you are getting.

Everything that leads to some kind of uncertainty in your performance is standing in your way to progressive overload and real results.


Muscle Building Foundations - Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the takeaway message here is that when we are working out we are under the effect of the law of diminishing returns.

We cannot be constantly putting in the same thing and expect better results.

In order to get bigger/stronger/leaner, we need to apply progressive overload - as this is the fundamental element to building muscle.

We're now equipped with the knowledge on how we need to be spending our time in the gym to maximise muscle trophy. But do you know what your diet needs to look like in order to build muscle? After all, even if we're training optimally, if we're not fuelling our bodies correctly, we're never going to build muscle. 

Head over to How many calories do I need when bulking? to learn how much we need to be eating to maximise muscle hypertrophy.



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How to build muscle

Thomas D
Thomas D


Thomas is a dedicated fitness enthusiast with over 12 years of experience in the gym. As a level 2 qualified gym instructor, he combines his passion for working out and nutrition to help others achieve their fitness goals. Thomas stays up to date with the latest fitness research and follows the work of top experts in the field. With a balance of textbook knowledge and real-life experience, he provides practical guidance to help others reach their full potential.

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