Progressive overload

The concept of progressive overload is taken from the field of physiology and specifically from weightlifting and body-building. It is a very simple concept, and in its bare form it merely means: Do more over time. Muscles and other physiological structures in the body react to progressive overload by getting stronger and building better connections. If you can lift 40 kg with perfect form and ease and then add five kilos to the bar, you will be forced out of your comfort zone in order to do the repetitions with good form. Your muscles will react to the increase of labour with growing more muscle fibre and in a while, you will have become stronger.  

Progressive overload applied to learning

In applying the concept of progressive overload to learning, we assume that the same principle holds true for the brain’s capacity of growing new neurons and establishing denser and more connected neural networks.

There are some things you need to know though.

Your progress will not be linear. You will reach plateaus where you will feel stuck for a long time, no matter how much you practice, and then suddenly you will make a big leap and arrive at a new, better baseline. So, don’t panic if you feel you are not making any progress. Continue practising and eventually, the leap will come.

There is not one programme of how to implement progressive overload that fits all. How much you should stretch yourself depends on where your starting point is and cannot be prescribed in absolute terms, only relative to your own present capacities.

You will find your own starting point at the level where you can perform the task perfectly (or near to perfectly). In lifting weights it, among other things, involves you having achieved the correct body posture and can maintain it throughout the whole of the exercise. If you want to speed up your reading, first find out at what speed you manage near to 100% comprehension, minimalize subvocalization, do not go back and forth in the text while reading, and use optimal eye-movements. No matter what it means in words-per-minute-count, this is the baseline from which you should aim for progressive overload.

You should never aim at an overload so big that it does not allow you to perform the task as it should near-to-ideally be performed. Do not compromise on form. It will only lead to sloppiness and you will have to pay for the increase in performance on one aspect by loosing out on another.

Progressive overload can take many forms. In weight lifting you may, for instance, add more weight, you may aim for more repetitions of the same weight, or you may aim at setting higher standards for how perfect you perform the same weight and the same amount of repetitions. In reading, you may aim for higher comprehension with the same speed. You may try out a higher speed with retained comprehension or aim at perfecting your eye movements. Yet another way of applying progressive overload is to increase the difficulty of the texts you read in a certain genre or switch text genre altogether. You may aim at managing reading for a longer period of time with maintained focus. The main thing is that you aim for overload in one way or the other.

It is only through stretching yourself out of your comfort zone that you will grow and make progress in learning.

Progressive overload applied to reading

But how do I implement the principle in practice? Here are a few tips for improving your reading speed:

  • Use a metronome or a timer of some kind. For each tick or beep, you should read a page, or a section, or a paragraph, whatever the structure of your material is and you should set the speed of the metronome or timer a little faster than feels comfortable for you.  
  • Use an online reading app and work you way up through the progressive levels of difficulty, starting from where you get 100% comprehension and aim at getting the same level of understanding, not worrying about the speed but trying to keep it the same. Then start all over again and aim at increasing the speed for each level of difficulty, trying to keep the level of comprehension the same. Etcetera.
  • Sometimes “shock the system” by varying the intensity and volume of training drastically. Try to read at a much faster speed than you are able to, not worrying about comprehension. When you then go back to your own level of speed, you will probably find it easier than before. Or, once in a while, reduce speed radically when reading a text and focus instead on perfecting marker generation and eye-movements, not worrying about the speed. That will have a positive impact on your marker generation when you then go back to practising on your present level of speed.