The Overload Principle: Concept and Uses in Tactical Fitness

A Marine motivates his platoon during a push-up competition.
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Austin Richardson, a rifleman with Alpha Company, Black Sea Rotational Force, motivates his platoon during the push-up portion of the Spartan Elite competition aboard Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, April 1, 2016. (Cpl. Immanuel Johnson/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Many people who are regular gym members prefer a routine and will  do that same program every time they hit the weight room or cardio machines.  A typical workout will often include a 30-minute cardio warmup and a 30-minute circuit training in the weight room. 

There is nothing wrong with that; it is a steady maintenance plan that will keep you healthy and relatively fit. Often, athletes need a cycle of this type of maintenance vs. overload as a recovery cycle as a way to de-stress the body at a new baseline of improved fitness.

However, if you are training for achievement in competitive events (PT tests, races, power lifting, body building, etc.) or any of the tactical professions, you need to change things up in a progressive routine by using what is called the overload principle.

The overload principle -- as defined by William Kraemer in the book "Optimizing Strength Training" -- "is the principle that underscores the need for greater demands to be placed on the body during successive workouts over time if improvement is to be achieved."

In other words, the overload principle requires a gradually increasing the stress on the body during any physical training program to include many types of programs and skills used by a variety of athletes.  For the tactical athlete, being good at all of the elements of fitness is a job requirement. An above-average performance level in these elements can be the difference between life and death for you, your partner or someone you are trying to help. 

The reason why the overload principle is important is that if an athlete neglects to push progressively over time, there will be no adaptation and therefore no increases in performance. Here is how it can be used with several types of training programs, so you increase your abilities in all elements of fitness: endurance, speed, agility, strength, muscle stamina, flexibility and mobility. 

Lift heavier: Lifting heavier weight is the typical use of the overload principle as many athletes, powerlifters and body builders will go through strength and power cycles to build a stronger body capable of lifting more weight. Some classic workouts would increase the weight each set in a particular lift and decrease the repetitions as well until you build up to the most weight you can lift once.

Even pushing one more set so you fail at the next weight is beneficial to creating the adaptation to lifting the heavier weight in later workouts a few weeks in the future. You may find that longer rest sets will be ideal for recovery and building strength and power. However, if in the tactical professions, recovering with a form of active rest is also beneficial.  Consider a walk, bike or jog for 4-5 minutes between sets of lifting or high-repetition calisthenics sets.

Increase speed of repetitions: Doing repetitions faster is also a way to increase power in lifting (as well as calisthenics), but it is ideal for timed fitness tests like push-ups and sit-ups when you are limited to 1-2 minutes to test. Work on faster pace for lifting/calisthenics, and you can challenge the concentric (contraction) movements and controlling the eccentric movements if you prefer. 

Rest less: No matter what you are doing -- lifting, calisthenics, running or swimming intervals -- shortening the rest between sets is another form of pushing results and overloading the body in order to adapt to less rest and more speed or steady state movement. If you can notice that the rest between sets is getting easier, try to shorten the rest cycle between heavy weights, calisthenics and especially running and swimming if trying to get into the type of cardiovascular conditioning required of some tactical professions or competitive athletics.

Do more sets and repetitions: Building volume with increasing repetitions with the same weight also is considered overloading the body and will help build muscle stamina (strength-endurance). This ability is useful with calisthenics training, especially for fitness testing preparations. Adding more volume with running and swimming in the form of distance or speed intervals is also a way to increase volume for longer running or swimming events. Classic PT workouts -- PT Pyramid, SuperSets, Max Rep Sets.

Run or swim faster: Pushing interval sets from a comfortable pace to a more sprint-type pace or goal distance pace for a timed event will help you build the type of endurance needed to reach new goals in these events. A mix of interval training days of sprint/agility and goal-pace running/swimming are methods of incorporating the overload principle into running.

Run or swim longer: Progressive increases in volume of 10%-15% is typical in running/swimming training each week or so, depending upon the goal. Running plans typically will increase by what many have deemed a logical progression of 10% to 15% per week; of course, this depends on the runner's goals and health. 

Making sure the overuse injuries are not occurring along this journey is paramount to progression. Adding in more stretching and mobility can assist with decreasing typical inflammation from progressing too quickly. See running plan ideas.

Stretching/mobility: If you consider progress with stretching, it is guided by the overload principle as well. The goal of bending over to touch your toes without pain takes time. Each day, stretch to push former limitations until you are eventually touching your toes with ease. This is the progressive overload principle in its simplest form, but it applies to even stretching and mobility work.

The overload principle was actually created by an Army doctor during World War II while working with recovering/injured soldiers. Physical therapy is a great example of the overload principle, and this is how it was generated and is now applied to relatively all levels of athletic training. 

Overload Simplified: Crawl -- Walk -- Run.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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