How much training is enough? The Overload Principle

What is Overload?

Why Overload?


Overload requires high effort beyond the preparedness level of the athlete. Training requires some level of intensity beyond what the athlete’s preparedness level (homeostasis) to induce an adaptation. The correct dosage of exercise will challenge the athlete and place physiological strain on the body.

After an overload, to stimulate an adaptation, change is needed. The most common training programs consist of a progressive overload period of 3 weeks followed by a reduction in volume which acts as a recovery period lasting 3 to 7 days.

Not everyone believes volume change is the key to adaptation, for example, Verkhoshansky and Siff (2009) advocate for a constant ‘fluctuating overload system’ with small waves in volume and intensity as an effective training method. It is viewed as being more effective than slowly progressing over several months to reach high intensity workouts. 

Programs can start with a gradual linear advancement of training (progressive overload) by increasing the intensity and volume of work at the start of a new training macrocycle. High intensity training should be reached as soon as athletes are ready.

Intense training should be maintained through the year with minor adjustments in volume and recovery to maximize the quality of work. “A central issue regarding programming strategy is the method by which increased intensity is achieved. Variable rather than linear workload progressions tend to yield superior results” (Stone, Stone & Sands, 2009, p. 268).  

With advanced athletes, the quality of training (intensity) is more important than volume.

No matter the training system, it will be important to reach high intensity training after an initial build up period to optimize training.

Overload is needed in exercises with less specificity to improve muscular strength and other athletic performance abilities required to increase sports performance. Overload is necessary for structural and functional changes in athletes; however, this can achieve by several methods, not just progressively increasing intensity or volume.

Other changes besides intensity and volume can be made to stimulate adaptation, including:

  • Switch exercises with similar physiological or physical movements
  • Adjustments to the recovery period: change timing between sets or exercises
  • Change in exercise rhythm: adjust the timing in the eccentric phase or concentric phase
  • Change the sequence of exercises: design a program with a different  exercise order
  • Combine exercises: perform two exercises together (contrast training)

Specificity and Overload
Bosch (2015) believes specific training and overload in the same movement is extremely difficult, the central/peripheral model states exercises that are very specific to the sporting movement (central) are difficult to overload. Exercises with less specificity to the sporting movement (peripheral) are easier to overload. Specificity in strength training links movement patterns in a specific event to movement patterns in strength exercises.

For the throwing coaches out there, here is a great article on the transfer of training.

Bosch concludes that significant overload in specific event movements for track and field is challenging but not impossible (Bosch, 2015). Training load for specific abilities must transfer from one exercise to the main competition event. Specific development exercises are auxiliary exercises that directly relate to the event movement. Specific development exercises typically are designed to enhance three primary categories of movement: competition technique, event specific-strength, or event specific-speed.

Coaches are often challenged creatively with finding specific exercises to meet the demands of each event’s technical requirements. The transfer of training effect of specific exercises are dependent on the motor abilities and the technical skills of the athlete to coordinate precise movements. General and specific preparation exercises have hundreds of exercise variations.

More specific training exercises have a much more limited selection but have a higher transfer of training:

Partial technical skills will develop the athletic abilities such as speed and strength within the specific event and improve the motor patterns related to technique (Issurin & Thome, 2019).

SimpliFaster wrote about overload and gave some examples of adjustments in training that can serve as a stressor:

Load/Intensity: More weight and power output. Higher velocity, and higher percentages of maximum output.

Volume: Time of output, more reps, more total sets.

Rest/Density: Rest between the sets; rest between the reps.

Tempo: Speed of a movement.

Metabolic load: Anaerobic, glycolytic, and aerobic. What are the fuels needed and rest to recovery ratios?

Strength and Overload
The overload will often provide a training stimulus that is needed but not possible with sport-specific training movements. Power development training and maximal training provide the overload needed in the larger muscle groups to develop strength; therefore, it is an important part of the program despite the lack of specificity in certain movements. Improving strength in muscles and the antagonist muscle groups will improve the ability to generate force and help prevent injuries while gaining strength.

Gains in athletic performance abilities such as strength and speed require a load beyond the magnitude of the accustomed stimulus to create an overload.

In this article, learn how Overload and Adaptation are interconnected.