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Fuel Your Strength 401 - Progressive Overload Not Working?

Progressive Overload Not Working?

When I hear people struggling with a lack of progress in training, it immediately brings some other questions to my mind.

Adding additional weight is not the only thing you need to be paying attention to in your workouts.

Nutrition, recovery, mindset, and training program are all important factors in reaching your goals, and they cannot be ignored.

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If You Want to See the Most From Your Progressive Overload:

  1. Make sure that your program is designed with your specific goals in mind
  2. Check how the different phases of your program are being transitioned with your bigger picture in mind
  3. Pay attention to your nutrition, recovery, and mindset, as they are equally as important to your training program

Stop the Comparison

Sometimes, as we age through our 40s and beyond, we think that we should always be able to hit heavier and heavier and heavier weights. With the right program, recovery, nutrition, and mindset, you can continue to do hard shit, but you must be willing to adjust your expectations.

Heavy ‘now’ and what your heavy was before don’t need to be compared. It’s all about hitting your goals and continuing to get stronger in a way that is sustainable, effective, and healthy.

Finding What Works for You

There are a lot of excellent programs and amazing coaches out there who can personalize a training plan with your unique goals in mind. Grabbing some random training plan off Google or YouTube is not going to assist you in helping you reach your goals and feel the best results.

There is no one clean-cut answer to the way in which you are going to get the most out of your training. But, by presenting you with questions that will make you think and reassess how and why you train, you can get clearer on your goals and start implementing a program that is going to work for you in your here-and-now body.

When was the last time you stopped to think about how your program, training, and recovery are working for you? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below.

In This Episode

  • Getting real about the fitness and nutrition information you see on the internet (2:49)
  • Questions to ask yourself if you feel like progressive overload is not working for you anymore (4:42)
  • The problem with programming for yourself even if you have been lifting for a long time (14:44)
  • How your recovery, nutrition, and mindset are playing a role in your training results (17:10)
  • Why you don’t need to worry about comparison, especially to your past self (22:14)


“Progressive overload doesn’t only mean tweaking the weight; there are other variables you can change in your training.” (8:18)

“There is a lot that goes into planning and programming and periodizing a really great program.” (13:27)

“You don’t build strength, you don’t actually get stronger when you train. You get stronger, or you improve your fitness in whatever metric of fitness you are looking at when you recover from your training.” (17:29)

“We can still do the hard shit. We just have to make sure the training plan is smart, we’re fueling appropriately, and we are recovering well.” (21:51)

“Yes, we need to challenge ourselves. But we also do need those other elements.” (28:51)

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FYS 399: Are You Overtraining?

FYS 392: Understanding Total Daily Energy Expenditure

Progressive Overload Not Working?

Steph Gaudreau

So you’ve been lifting weights for a while. And while it seemed like things went well, in the beginning, recently, it seems like no matter what you do, you just aren’t seeing improvements. How do you even go about tackling this problem? Today on the podcast, we’re going to be looking at what are some of the reasons why progressive overload seems like it’s not working for you. And what do you do instead? If you’re an athletic 40, something woman who loves lifting weights, challenging yourself, and doing hard shit, the Fuel Your Strength podcast is for you.

You’ll learn how to eat, train and recover smarter, so you build strength and muscle, have more energy, and perform better in and out of the gym. I’m strength nutrition strategist and weightlifting coach, Steph Gaudreau. The Fuel Your Strength podcast dives into evidence-based strategies for nutrition training and recovery, and why once you’re approaching your 40s and beyond, you need to do things a little differently than you did in your 20s. We’re here to challenge the limiting industry narratives about what women can and should do in training and beyond. If that sounds good, hit subscribe on your favorite podcast app. And let’s go.

Hello, and welcome back to the podcast. Thank you so very much for joining me on this episode. Today we are going to be diving into this question that I get fairly frequently, which is, you know, I’ve been lifting weights for a while. Maybe I’m not brand new. I’ve been at it for a bit. And it just seems like my strength is kind of gone. Poof. Like, what’s happening? I thought progressive overload means I can just continue to improve my weights week upon week upon week forever. Why isn’t it working for me anymore? And what do I do about this? This was actually a question that I got recently on social media. And I thought it was a great one to revisit here on the podcast. Make sure before we get to that, that you hit subscribe both on YouTube and, ring the bell for notifications, and subscribe on your very favorite podcast app.

So you’ll be notified about new episodes automatically. And if you’re ready to start putting a system that works into practice, for increasing your strength, building muscle, having more energy, performing better both in and out of the gym, and doing it with support coaching and community, then go ahead and find out more information and apply for Strength Nutrition Unlocked. This is our signature group program where we really take you through what you need to know, in terms of building strength in your 40s and beyond, you can find out more and apply at StephGaudreau.com/apply.

All right, let’s be honest about this. fitness and nutrition on the internet streets is absolutely a minefield. And for as much great information from qualified people operating from a place of solid values and ethics that’s out there. It seems like especially right now, there’s 100 times the amount of bullshit that’s being cranked out for every piece of good content. So one of the reasons why I oftentimes incorporate questions from social media and my followers into these episodes, this because I really do feel like you deserve to have better information than what’s being shared, frankly, around on social media and places like YouTube or podcasts even.

Yes, there’s some great stuff. But there’s also some really terrible stuff out there. And hopefully, this gives you a counterpoint to that. So the question I got on Instagram recently, and I’ll paraphrase it is, I’m in my late 40s. I’ve been lifting heavy for 10 years, but progressive overload isn’t working. I can’t do it anymore. What do I do about this? So the short answer to this is that there is no one thing. Oftentimes, it can be a combination of factors. But when I hear a question like this, it brings up more questions in my mind as a strength coach, and as a performance nutritionist. So I think we have to kind of dig into this a little bit. And I’m going to sort of coach you all as you’re listening to this with some of the questions that I’d want you to ask yourself if you indeed had a similar question. So the first question I would ask is, what does this person mean by the term progressive overload?

Progressive overload is a concept whereby we make slow, steady changes and tweaks to the different variables in a training program. so that we continue to elicit a stress response in your body, which then you recover from. And you then build either strength or size or fitness, some aspect of fitness. As a result, your body adapts, and so you get super-compensation. And thereby you get stronger your muscle grows, you increase your cardiovascular efficiency, and so on and so forth. So progressive overload isn’t just one kind of training plan. But it’s a physiological concept, right? So I would first ask, what does this person mean by progressive overload, to some people, progressive overload means that you have to increase your weights, week, by week by week, forever, in a linear progression.

So for example, if you started lifting 10 years ago, then every week, you should have been able to increase this is what people think you should have been able to increase your weights every single week, year, year upon year over those 10 years, which when you stop and think about it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Because you’re going to hit some kind of physiological stopping point. Being aware, even small increases in gaining strength, for example, is very difficult and takes a long time. So does it mean you can’t set lifetime PRS? If you started lifting 10 years ago, of course not. Last year, I hit two-lifetime PRs in my training, in the deadlift, and in the overhead press. I mean, that’s just an N equals one experience.

But we don’t want I don’t want to limit people and say, you can never hit a lifetime PR 1015 20 years later, of course, you can. But the idea that we should just be able to add 510 pounds to a lift, every single week, week upon week, upon week, year, over year over a year, that just starts to that we start to taper off there and that linear progression may need to be sussed out or sort of tweaked over time so that we have other kinds of periodization or, or progression in training. So when you’re a novice, it’s pretty easy to increase your loads every single week, and sometimes by a lot, it seems like every time you pick up a new weight, you’re hitting a PR, like the six, the first six months of CrossFit was like this, for me, and for a lot of people are you started on a lifting plan.

And every time that lift comes up, you feel stronger, you’re adding a lot more weight, or you’re just able to continue progressing for what seems like a long period of time. And you have this kind of glorious honeymoon phase where you feel unstoppable. But that rate of gains tends to slow down over time. And if you’re an experienced lifter, hopefully, you have, you know, through experience, that there will be times when you’re fighting for those small increments and weight. And so progressive overload doesn’t only mean tweaking the weight, there are other variables that you can change in your training. So if you think that progressive overload means increasing your load times infinity, or over time, it could feel like progressive overload isn’t working. Which then kind of brings me to the second question.

I would want to know, what is the current program? And how is it being periodized? So if you have a goal to get stronger, you need a program designed with that in mind. Yes, there, there will be some types of fitness that are going to cross over. But we have this concept about specificity. In fitness, if we want to build an aspect of fitness, then yes, some amount of generalized training will get us to a degree moving toward that. But if you really want to take that to your potential, you really need to train for that reason. And there’s absolutely value and training across different things.

You know, for example, if you’re a lifter and you’re more like offseason, you might do a little bit more conditioning or GPP, generalized physical preparedness, something of that nature. But if you want to get stronger, you hopefully are using a program designed with that in mind. If you’re really on the hypertrophy train, and you’re just trying to pack on as much muscle mass as possible. You want to make sure that the program that you’re using actually includes that type of training. I know this seems really obvious, but sometimes especially if you’re kind of grabbing programs, random programs from around the internet, or that are free on YouTube or whatever it is, it might not necessarily be designed for the goal that you have in mind.

If you want to increase your endurance, you would need to follow some kind of endurance program with that built-in as the main premise. So make sure, first and foremost that the goal that you’re envisioning, is being supported by the program that you’re following. So as I mentioned earlier, the rub with progressive overload is a lot of people believe that that means you only change the weight, you’re only going to add more weight every week. However, you might be in a program where for a period of time, and that could be a short amount of time. But nevertheless, you might not increase your load at all, as part of the program design. So again, we can’t just feel like a load is the only thing that’s going to change.

There are other factors, as I mentioned earlier, and other variables that are adjusted in progressive overload, those include things like the overall total volume, reps, time sets, and the tempo, of which at which those reps are performed. So are you doing a slower tempo, which is increasing the time over time under tension? And that time under tension is, is there for a couple of reasons it could be to help you develop proficiency in a new movement to find stability and more end range or fuller ranges of motion to just increase the mechanical tension time under tension to elicit a greater training response. You can adjust your rest periods, making them longer or shorter, and choose different exercises that slowly progress you to more difficult variations.

I mean, there are lots of different ways that you can look at Progressive overload. And then when we look at periodization, how, what is the overall plan, say you’re gonna get on a trading plan, that’s a whole year long, where our theme is like D loads? Are there phases where the focus shifts a bit, and maybe in one phase, you’re really looking at building a little bit of muscle, or having hypertrophy via the accessory exercises that you’re performing? Whereas in the main lifts, you may be more biasing towards strength. Or vice versa? Is there power? You know, or is there like a power phase in there where you’re including more power movements? Or is that kind of sprinkled throughout? Is there any regression at all in this periodization?

If you’re an athlete who’s competing, how are you building to that competition? What is the offseason like? So again, this can be a little bit more nuanced than just finding a random training program from around the internet. So in other words, with the periodization piece as well, how are the different phases of the program being transitioned with the bigger picture in mind? So there’s a lot that goes into planning, programming, and period Ising. A really great program, a great lifting program, for example. And unfortunately, and I do run into this a lot, some folks will program for themselves, especially if they’ve been lifting for a long time. And think that just because they’ve been lifting for a long time they know how to program really well. That might be the case, of course. And I’m not saying that that’s always going to be a bad thing for everyone.

But I do run into this a lot where people have been lifting for a while, and they still don’t really understand how to kind of pull and finesse the different levers of the training itself. And so can fall into some of these kinds of sort of common mistakes, which is like, over, like doing too much volume without appropriate recovery. Maybe you’re not progressing over the course of say, over the year in a way that makes sense for your goals. I talked to one person who was doing Bulgarian split squats six days a week, and I was like, What is the purpose of this? And they were like, I don’t know, it just sounded like those are really hard. So I should do them every day. And I was like, not necessarily. So there is nuance to that programming. And I feel like a lot of times either you put pressure on yourself to try to program your own workouts or because you’ve been doing it for a while.

You think Oh of course I could just do this myself. But even a lot of the coaches and trainers that I know don’t program for themselves, because it takes a lot of mental effort and planning to do it really well. And if you do this for a living, you’re like, I just want someone to tell me what to do and not have to think about it for myself. So don’t put pressure on yourself to try to program for yourself. Especially if you’re really not well versed in this, like, there are tons of amazing programs out there, and tons of amazing coaches that can even create personalized programs for you.

But suffice it to say, really try to find a program that incorporates a lot of those things that I mentioned, because for example, maybe you’re never D-loading. And the amount of D load that you need really is going to depend on you and your sort of training age and how experienced you are and how intense the programming is, there are a lot of different factors that go into that. I personally like to see a little bit more frequent D loading, especially when the loads are lifting heavy with my 40 Plus athletes, and I’m including myself in that because it’s like having a more frequent D load just means you’re it doesn’t mean you’re doing nothing during your D load week, by the way, usually, you’re lifting a much lighter percentage or sort of lighter RPE rate of perceived exertion from what you normally would, but it kind of just gives your body a chance to chill while still kind of moving through the movement patterns.

But I like that for those of us who are a little bit older. We’re very busy, we have things going on. And I think the case could be made for slightly more frequent D loads for us overall. So suffice to say, I’d really want to know, what kind of training plan this was right? In order to answer this question. So if you’re kind of struggling with this as well, you might want to think about that. And I guess this is a little bit of a side tangent here. And well, I’ll wait till the next point. And I’ll include what I was about to say. The third thing I would ask is, What about things like your recovery, your nutrition, and even your mindset?

Okay, so your recovery, your nutrition, and like your mindset or your beliefs. And I have said this probably 300 times on this podcast, you don’t build strength, you don’t actually get stronger, when you train, you get stronger, or you improve your fitness, whatever metric of fitness you’re looking at when you recover from your training, we have got to recover properly, in order for this to work and to really see progress in the long term. So I’m going to use an analogy here. And it doesn’t work perfectly, but I think it’ll get the point across. Have you ever gotten a rental car and then driven it super hard? So you know, you’re just like, flooring it off, off the stop stoplight, or you’re just like really breaking really hard or just kind of driving the car really rough.

Because you’re like, Man, I just get to give it back. Like, as long as I don’t crash it, it’s probably fine. But maybe you wouldn’t take as good care of it. I’m the type of person where I’m paranoid if I ever get a rental car and I need to drive this thing very, very carefully. But maybe, maybe you don’t, right? Imagine if you did that to that car every single day, and you didn’t maintain it well. So now it’s not just a rental car, it’s your car for every day, you’re just driving that thing super hard, what do you think is gonna happen? You’re gonna rack up the miles, the car’s gonna need more frequent maintenance, right, oil changes, new brakes are gonna be going through brakes like crazy, you’re gonna need new tires, you’re just driving a lot more.

And you’d probably have issues sooner than if you were taking care of it better. And so when I hear about people’s kind of lack of progress in terms of training, I want to know a few things. I want to know what is your nutrition like. Are you essentially trying to drive your car on empty? Or where is the gas gauge you will play that game, right? The gas gauge, you’re like, oh, gosh, it’s so low. It’s about to touch the red. I have an electric car now. So I see the same thing with the battery. And I’m like, stressing out the batteries to the battery anxiety is really all here like oh my gosh, I only have 5% 7% battery left. I try to never go to below 10%. But you know you if you’re not fueling up your car, and I’m not suggesting the human body is the same thing as a car.

That analogy is a little simplistic, of course. But if you are not putting much fuel in it, it’s going to be hard to either take a long trip because you’re gonna need to stop to refuel a lot or you’re just not going to be able to drive it if you run out of energy if you run out of fuel. Are you sleeping and resting right? Are you only trying to do hard workouts every day? single day, even more, accomplished athletes, elite athletes, and competitors understand that they’re not going to level 10 hard every day in their workouts. It doesn’t mean that you’re also just sitting around and doing nothing on those rest days, maybe it’s active recovery, but you need to sleep you need to active recovery. That would be like, imagine just driving the car 24/7 As you’ve never given it a break.

Things are gonna start to fall apart really fast, right? What are your stress levels? Like? Are you running yourself to the max with stress? And that’s not just in terms of training, stress. But of course, overall life stress, if your stress levels are super high, super high, super high, and then you’re just piling on a bunch more stress, that’s not necessarily going to help. Of course, things like exercise can help you feel better in terms of stress levels. But you need to be a little bit just box clever there, right? You need to think about how stressed in my overall. And of course, exercise can be useful there. But if we’re just pushing your body to the max, every single day, on top of that, you’re probably going to see diminished results.

It’ll be like every time you get in the car, you just floor it and the RPM is the thing, the needle is just pinned, right? So we have to be smart about those things. And I see so many other women that are 40 and OB tell me that they you’re like you I can’t train as I used to, of course, like you you’re older your body is changing, you can still do the hard stuff. As I said in a very recent episode, we can still do hard shit, we just have to make sure the trading plan is smart, or fueling appropriately, and we’re recovering well. And then we can keep doing hard things. But we can’t use and abuse and drive the car. Super, super hard. Like we used to maybe with the same disregard, I guess. Right? So maybe and then. So there’s that piece, like, what are the inputs?

What is the fuelling like what is the recovery like, then, here’s where the mindset and the belief part comes in. Sometimes, as we’re aging through our 40s and beyond, we think that we should always be able to hit heavier and heavier and heavier weights than we did a long time ago. For example. For me, my personal best back squat of all time was 291 pounds. That was in 2014. I was 10 years ago. I don’t squat anywhere near that right now. I still thought squat heavy for me, right now. So I need you to sometimes adjust your way of thinking, especially for not really training for hitting a one-rep max, it’s not really on your priority list. Maybe it is maybe it’s not I don’t know, you only know what your goals are.

But you may have to adjust your expectations or just sort of what is your heavy now compared to now. Not compared to before. So again, for me personally, I’m not really squatting as heavy as I used to. But the squatting that I’m doing right now is still hard for me. Even though it’s not anywhere near 291 pounds. And then again, on the other hand, I told you the story really quickly earlier in the episode. Last year, I hit an all-time deadlift PR, I was really training, you know, with increasing that lift in mind. And I’ll also say that, so yes, you can continue to get stronger. But sometimes maybe in specific lifts, you’re not lifting as much as you used to. That doesn’t mean that progressive overload is ineffective. It just means that your body has changed, maybe your priorities are different. Maybe we’re not putting the same effort and attention into increasing certain lifts, as compared to what you used to.

Maybe your heavy right now is just a different weight. And that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that progressive overload is a concept that doesn’t work. Okay? So just don’t fall into the trap of only comparing to what you used to be able to lift and think. I can’t lift that heavy now therefore, lifting heavy and I’m using air quotes lifting heavy for me now. doesn’t work anymore. No, it’s just we have to readjust our expectations. And then the other thing is, is the belief that every time you go to the gym, you should just go as hard as you can. Somebody recently sent me an article. It was for a men’s magazine. And they were like Four of the biggest mistakes people are making in their training over 40. And the first thing was like, Oh, thank you, you’re and of course, it was written, as a guy would say.

And it was sort of like, Oh, you think you’re gonna be like, go into the? What is his voice I’m doing, I don’t know how you’re gonna go into the garage and hit that like one rep. Max benchpress without warming up? Well, okay, first of all, if you’re on a program right now, where every single day you’re trying to max out, I would question why. Again, like, even if you have a goal, or you’re, maybe you’re lifting and powerlifting, and maybe you’re going to do a competition in Olympic weightlifting, you’re probably not going to try to max out every single day of your program. If that’s the kind of program you’re on. I don’t know, I would just question like, why am I doing all this, it’s not generally going to be a really smart way to train.

Of course, there are things like am raps, and those sorts of programming that you can sort of like, see how you’re doing that day, just based on how you feel. But if like, every day, you just think you’re gonna go, one rep max, every lift, that just doesn’t sound smart. And also lifting without warming up is really dumb. So don’t do that. That’s probably not going to lead to longevity, for you, it’s probably going to lead to an increased risk of injury for not warming up properly. So yeah, of course, we’re not going to lift in that way. It just doesn’t even make sense. But our article was sort of like, oh, well, don’t try to do all these one-rep maxes, you should only lift, you know, six to eight reps or higher. I don’t actually think that that’s great advice.

There’s a lot of utility, for example, in sets of five as your main lifts, or somewhere between threes and fives, I don’t know, maybe work up to even a heavy double. But does that mean that you’re doing that every single day? Likely not. So again, it’s just sort of being on a good training plan. Worst of all, but also readjusts your expectations. But where I see more women kind of getting into trouble with this is actually the flip side, I, I see more of the like going as hard as you can, every single day with the cardio, like hit element or like the circuit trading element where it’s like if I don’t get a sweat, and it’s not the hardest on my breathing every day, then I’m not doing a good enough job. Sometimes I see that.

But with women, I would say a generalization is I see that you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. And that means, you know, a few days a week, right? We’re not talking about daily in your training. But we have to see like, where are we falling in one of those two camps because some of you will try to like, try to go too hard every day thinking that that means that you’re doing a good job, or you’re working your body hard enough. Or if you just don’t push every single day to that level, then you’re not feeling the burn, or you’re not feeling like you got exhausted. Feeling like you’re wiped out after every single workout is not necessary. And in order to make progress. It’s not a measure of how good the workout was. But also you need to challenge your body, you need to challenge your muscles. And again, you may have to readjust your expectations. And think about your body right now. And what is heavier for you right now?

What is a heavy set of five for you right now, where you have a couple of the last couple of reps that are hard? Or a heavy set of six or seven, like you, have to start thinking about those things and allow for that recovery. So yes, we need to challenge ourselves. But we also do need those other elements. I know that this podcast was more about questions, and it was about specific answers, but I think that’s because there is no one. Just clean cut, answer. We reviewed some things here today on this episode, we talked about getting clear on Do you understand what progressive overload really is? And what are some of the factors that can be tweaked and progressive overload?

We talked about how does progressive overload fit into your overall program? What does periodization look like? Does it match your goals? Is it going to get you to the goals that you have? And if it doesn’t, you’re going to have to find a program that does match your goals and can move you in that direction. And then thirdly, we talked about some of the other pieces of the puzzle. We talked about needing to fuel properly, needing enough recovery, and dealing with stress. And then we also talked about dealing with the beliefs or the mindset that can sometimes get in the way of thinking that you’re going to get results by doing the things that you were doing when in fact you’d probably get better results.

If you challenged some of those mindsets and beliefs and aligned them more closely to the goals that you actually do have. I hope you found this episode helpful. Leave me a comment here on YouTube if you’re watching or send me a direct message on Instagram stories or share this episode. In your Instagram Stories, make sure you hit subscribe on your podcast app or here on YouTube and ring the bell for more notifications. And if you’re ready for a system that puts all of this together and gives you the coaching, guidance, community, and support that you need to be successful in this, then check out Strength Nutrition Unlocked. You can find out more information about that over at StephGaudreau.com/apply. Thanks for being with me this week on the podcast. And until next time, stay strong.

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Steph Gaudreau

Hi, I'm Steph Gaudreau (CISSN, NASM-CPT)!

Nutrition and fitness coach for women, Lord of the Rings nerd, and depending on who you ask, crazy cat lady. My mission is to help you fuel for more: bigger muscles, strength, energy, and possibilities. We’ll do it with my signature blend of science, strategy…and a little bit of sass.


Purpose built for strength, fitness, and athleticism. This is a templated, app-based 12-month progressive strength program for women over 40.


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