What Is Progressive Overload?

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Have you ever noticed that many routine gym goers’ bodies never seem to change over the years, in spite of the fact that they show up and work out regularly?

Maybe this has even happened to you. Have you ever thought that your results feel somewhat lackluster when compared to the amount of time you dedicate to working out?

While there are many factors that can potentially contribute to a lack of progress, it usually happens because you’ve overlooked one of the key principles of training, nutrition, or both.

Let me ask you this: when you go to the gym, do you repeat the same exercises, use the same weight, and perform the same number of sets and reps? Do you do this for weeks, months, or even years on end?

If you answered “yes,” a big missing piece of the puzzle may very well be the principle of progressive overload. With it, you’ll get fantastic results from your exercise program. Without it, you’ll probably end up spinning your wheels.

It’s all about adaptation.

Have you ever noticed that when you start a new routine, or start lifting again after having been out of the gym for a while, everything feels terrible at first? The weights feel like a ton of bricks, you’re gasping for air, and you get so sore you can barely walk.

Over time, though, something magical happens and the training starts to become easier. You get stronger, your cardiovascular conditioning improves, and the same stimulus that made you brutally sore before no longer makes you sore. That’s adaptation at work.

If there’s one thing your body excels at, it’s keeping you alive. As a result, you can adapt to all sorts of environmental and biological stressors. This is actually a pretty cool phenomenon, as it’s how you sustain life in the face of countless threats to homeostasis.

So adaptation is invaluable from a survival perspective. It’s why you and I don’t croak when our environment throws us a curve ball. But how does adaptation apply to exercise?

Adaptation and exercise.

We all train for something. Maybe you want to look great naked, or deadlift triple body weight, or unveil a roadmap of veins on your abs. Maybe you want to run faster, or farther. Maybe you want to compete in a sport.

Regardless of your goal, you must understand and work with your body’s adaptive response to get there. Just showing up at the gym and going through the motions won’t cut it, nor will repeating the same workouts continuously. If you want results, you’re going to have to do better than that.

Because your body is so eager to adapt, you need to continually challenge it in a way that forces it to adapt further. In other words, whether you want to lift more weight or grow bigger muscles, you must provide your body with enough of a stimulus to force it to get stronger or grow.

If you do this successfully, you’ll be well on your way to reaching your goals. But if you neglect to challenge the status quo, you’re not going to make much progress.

Enter progressive overload.

The principle of progressive overload states that, over time, you must gradually increase in the exercise demands that you place on the body. The demands must be greater than what the body is accustomed to, so that it is forced to adapt to the stress.

As your body adapts, you slowly but steadily improve. Depending on how your training is structured, that improvement may take the form of increased muscle size, increased strength, increased speed, increased endurance, and so forth.

Another way of saying this is that in order to see results, you must gradually increase the amount of work you do. But what does “more work” mean exactly? Is it adding weight? Is it working out longer?

Progress comes in many forms.

When you think of progressive overload, you may envision it as simply adding more weight to an exercise. And while lifting more weight is a straightforward and reliable way to achieve progressive overload, it’s not the only way.

New trainees and those coming back from a layoff can typically add weight to an exercise in a linear fashion for some time. But that type of progress is only feasible for so long.

Think of it this way. Let’s say that you just started training again after several years of not working out. Every week, you add 5–10 pounds to your bench press. This works great for several months, but eventually you find that you just can’t add any more weight.

What happened? Why the stall?

In spite of the rapid rate of adaptation that you experienced in the beginning, the inevitable happened: your overload strategy outpaced your body’s ability to adapt.

So will you never make progress again?

Absolutely not. But to get the ball rolling again, you’ll probably need to incorporate alternate methods of overload.

This is so that you can continue to challenge your body in a way that you can sustain. Accordingly, your body will continue to get stronger and build more muscle, over a long period of time.

So how do I do it?

As I mentioned before, you can achieve progressive overload by adding weight to an exercise. But increasing load shouldn’t be the only tool in your toolbox. Below are six examples of ways you can achieve progressive overload.

Keep in mind that progressive overload can take even more forms than those which I’ve mentioned here. So while these aren’t the only six ways to achieve progressive overload, they’re a great starting point.

1. Increase how much weight you’re lifting

This is the most common method of progressive overload. Let’s say you just started a program that calls for 3 sets of 8 reps on an exercise, and your starting weight is 95 pounds. A month of progressive overload may look something like this:

WEEK 1: 95 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets

WEEK 2: 105 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets

WEEK 3: 115 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets

WEEK 4: 125 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets

While this looks great on paper, it’s not realistic to expect that you’ll be able to progress forever in a straight line like this. If it were feasible, we’d all be capable of doing 1,000 pound bicep curls eventually.

The limit does indeed exist.

Sadly, there’s a limit to how long you can ride the linear progression train. Once you’re past the newbie stage, it’s unreasonable to expect that you’ll be able to maintain linear performance increases over the long-term.

A more practical depiction of progressive overload for a month may look more like this:

WEEK 1: 95 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets

WEEK 2: 105 pounds x 8 reps x 2 sets, 105 pounds x 7 reps

WEEK 3: 115 pounds x 7 reps, 115 pounds x 6 reps x 2 sets

WEEK 4: 125 pounds x 6 reps, 125 pounds x 5 reps, 125 pounds x 4 reps

In this example, you experienced a sticking point on week four wherein the load became so heavy that you had to decrease the number of reps per set you performed. But this still represents progress.

Now, depending on what your goals are, if your training were to play out like this, you may want to consider switching your focus to increasing reps before you increase load again. Which brings us to the next method.

2. Increase how many reps per set you perform

Doing more reps per set can be a more sustainable overload strategy than simply piling on more weight.

Let’s use the previous example where your program called for 3 sets of 8 on an exercise. A month of progressive overload using increases in reps may look something like this:

WEEK 1: 95 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets (24 total reps)

WEEK 2: 95 pounds x 9 reps x 3 sets (27 total reps)

WEEK 3: 95 pounds x 10 reps, 95 pounds x 9 reps x 2 sets (28 total reps)

WEEK 4: 95 pounds x 11 reps, 95 pounds x 10 reps, 95 pounds x 9 reps (30 total reps)

As you can see, you don’t have to add multiple reps to every single set of an exercise. In the example above, the total reps only increased by one rep between weeks two and three. But that’s still progress.

You can combine load and rep increases.

If you want to get super fancy, you can combine these first two strategies. One way you can accomplish this is to increase load when it’s reasonable to do so, but increase reps when it’s not.

A combination approach may look something like this:

WEEK 1: 95 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets (24 total reps)

WEEK 2: 105 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets (24 total reps)

WEEK 3: 115 pounds x 7 reps, 115 pounds x 6 reps x 2 sets (19 total reps)

WEEK 4: 115 pounds x 8 reps, 115 pounds x 7 reps x 2 sets (22 total reps)

In the example above, on week three you recognized that 115 pounds was already pretty tough, and that you wanted to stay at that load until you could perform more reps.

So on week four, instead of adding more weight to the exercise, you kept the load the same but you achieved three more reps than you could do the previous week.

While three additional reps across a training session may not feel as exciting as adding load, it still represents progress.

3. Increase the number of sets you perform

Increasing the number of sets of an exercise you perform is another way to progress. Increasing sets provides a method by which you can progress without increasing load or reps per set.

This makes increasing sets particularly useful for situations in which you feel stuck at a certain weight, but you’re also having trouble completing more reps.

Let’s look at a previous example.

To illustrate when and how you might choose to increase the number of sets you perform, let’s recall one of the previous examples where you simply increased load for four consecutive weeks.

WEEK 1: 95 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets

WEEK 2: 105 pounds x 8 reps x 2 sets, 105 pounds x 7 reps

WEEK 3: 115 pounds x 7 reps, 115 pounds x 6 reps x 2 sets

WEEK 4: 125 pounds x 6 reps, 125 pounds x 5 reps, 125 pounds x 4 reps

In this example, as the month progressed, the load became so heavy that you weren’t able to complete the prescribed 3 sets of 8.

A side note on volume and intensity.

I want to note that there’s nothing inherently wrong with how this played out. Beyond a certain point, it’s unreasonable to expect that you’ll be able to increase load while maintaining the same number of reps per set.

At some point it’s natural, even necessary, to reduce the reps per set to allow you to handle a heavier load. That’s generally how we get stronger at an exercise.

But let’s say that your primary goal isn’t to get stronger at the exercise. Maybe the only thing you want to focus on right now is doing lots of quality reps. If that’s the case, you could experiment with a different approach.

Another way you could do it.

An alternative strategy might be to decrease the reps per set on weeks three and four, while increasing the number of sets performed.

This way, you could still hit the total prescribed number of reps, but you’d be doing so in a set structure that you can better handle.

It might look something like the following:

WEEK 1: 95 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets (24 total reps)

WEEK 2: 105 pounds x 8 reps x 2 sets, 105 pounds x 7 reps (22 total reps)

WEEK 3: 115 pounds x 6 reps x 4 sets (24 total reps)

WEEK 4: 125 pounds x 4 reps x 6 sets (24 total reps)

In this example, after you increased load on week two, you noticed that your ability to hit 3 sets of 8 reps was compromised. So you changed your strategy.

This time, on weeks three and four, you performed fewer reps per set, but you performed more sets. All while incrementally increasing the load.

In this way, you were able to maintain both your load increases and your total reps performed for that exercise across the workout.

Using all three together.

Let’s say that once again, you want to be super fancy and utilize all three of these tactics in the same month. Here’s one way that could unfold:

WEEK 1: 95 pounds x 8 reps x 3 sets (24 total reps)

WEEK 2: 105 pounds x 6 reps x 4 sets (24 total reps)

WEEK 3: 115 pounds x 5 reps x 5 sets (25 total reps)

WEEK 4: 115 pounds x 6 reps x 5 sets (30 total reps)

In this scenario, you increased load on weeks two and three, but also increased sets and decreased reps in a way that allowed you to still hit a minimum of 24 total reps.

Then on week four, you kept the load the same as the previous week and just added a rep to each set. That’s progressive overload.

In fact, it would have been fine had you just added a single rep to just one of the sets on week four. While it may feel as though one measly rep over an entire workout is nothing, it’s progress.

4. Increase the density within your training

Training density describes the amount of work you do over a period of time. While it’s often overlooked, increasing training density is a viable way of achieving progressive overload.

Here are some examples of how to increase training density:

  • Increase the amount of work you’re doing in the same period of time
  • Decrease the amount of time it takes you to do the same amount of work
  • Decrease the rest period between sets while doing the same amount of work

Let’s take a closer look at each of these density tactics.

Same time, more work

Let’s say that you complete 20 reps of an exercise in 0:45 this week. Next week, you complete 22 reps of that exercise in 0:45 next week. That’s progress.

Same work, less time

Let’s say that it takes you 1:29 to complete 50 reps of an exercise this week. Next week, you complete those 50 reps in less than 1:29. That’s progress.

Same work, less rest

Let’s say that you complete 5 sets of 5 reps of an exercise this week, with about 3:00 rest between sets. Next week, you complete 5 sets of 5 with the same weight, but only rest 2:00 between sets. That’s progress.

5. Increase your range of motion on an exercise

Increasing the range of motion for an exercise means that you’re lifting the same load over a greater distance. Say you go from moving a load six inches to moving that same load ten inches. That’s progress.

While it’s not possible (or even desirable) to increase the range of motion on every exercise, it’s definitely a viable option for some exercises.

Here are a few examples of ways you can increase the range of motion for different movements.

Deficit deadlift

Simply put, the deadlift is an exercise that requires you to pick a loaded barbell up off the ground. The deadlift is already one of my favorite exercises without any modifications.

Deficit deadlifts are sometimes performed as an assistance exercise for the deadlift. With a deficit deadlift, you perform a deadlift while standing on a plate or some other slightly raised surface.

The result is that you’re forced to move the weight a few extra inches.

Deficit forward lunge

If you want a change of pace from walking lunges, give these a shot. You do them by performing a static forward lunge from a short step or platform.

Due to the fact that you’re stepping down several inches, you’ll lunge more deeply than you would have from a flat surface. The result is that your quads are forced work harder on both the way down and the way up.

Test these out with just your body weight first, then work your way up to using dumbbells.

Deficit reverse lunge

Reverse lunges are already brutal, but you can up the ante by performing them from an aerobics step or a short box. I like to do these holding a dumbbell in each hand.

Since the floor doesn’t stop your trailing knee quite as soon, they allow you to descend more deeply into the lunge. As a result, your legs must work a lot harder to stand you back up.

These light up my glutes and hamstrings.

Deficit single-leg hip thrust

The single-leg hip thrust is an excellent glute builder that’s performed with your upper back on a bench and the foot of your working leg on the floor.

With the deficit single-leg hip thrust, you elevate the foot of the working leg on a box or second bench. This way, you can dramatically increase your range of motion because you no longer have the floor stopping you at the bottom of the movement.

Improving your technique can help.

The last example I’d like to give is that sometimes, improving your technique for an exercise improves your range of motion.

For example, let’s say that you can bust out 8 pull-ups. But let’s also say that you only manage to lower yourself about 2/3 of the way down on each rep, as you can sense that if you lower yourself all the way down to a dead hang, you won’t be able to get back up.

This is a situation wherein allowing yourself to perform each rep from a dead hang is a form of progressive overload. So, instead of striving for more reps or adding weight, you might consider reducing the reps per set and doing each rep with full range of motion.

Once you’ve mastered that, then you can focus on building the reps back up.

A final note on range of motion.

The final point I’d like to make is that increasing the range of motion doesn’t automatically mean that an exercise is “better.” In fact, there are a lot of reasons why a partial range of motion could be useful.

So keep in mind that increasing the range of motion of an exercise is just one tool of many that we can use for situations in which it’s beneficial.

6. Increase the frequency of your training

Increasing the frequency of your training could mean a lot of things, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s say that it means going from two or three training sessions per week to four training sessions per week. That’s a form of progressive overload.

The tricky part about increasing frequency is that it directly affects other variables, such as the number of exercises you’re performing and total volume for the week. So ideally, frequency increases will be thoughtfully planned so as to consider these variables.

Don’t sacrifice form in the name of progress.

So far, we’ve established that progressive overload is critical to your results. But now let me tell you a cautionary tale. Loading up an exercise before you can perform it with proper form isn’t going to make you better or get you results.

So be sure to learn proper technique for each lift before you attempt to progress it. In fact, performing an exercise with very strict form can actually be a form of progressive overload.

After you’ve got the technique piece down and you’re ready to increase sets, reps or load on an exercise, make sure that you’re able to maintain good technique throughout your set.

For example, if you manage to add 20 pounds to an exercise but in doing so, your form goes to crap, you can’t maintain a good position, and you can no longer achieve full range of motion, stop.

Take some weight off the bar and try to progress in some other way, such as adding a rep or two, or reducing your rest between sets. Get stronger with good technique and then revisit the heavier load later on.

There’s no rush to any of this.

Lastly, remember that it won’t always be possible to get better every workout, or even every week. You can’t make linear progress indefinitely, and bad or mediocre sessions are bound to happen.

Sometimes, the best you can do is to just show up and punch the clock, so to speak. There will be weeks where you repeat the previous week’s the sets, reps and load for an exercise — maybe even for a whole workout.

You may have an entire month that goes like that. Occasionally, you may even get stuck at a certain weight for months on end. It can be discouraging.

But try not to fixate on a single workout, a single week, or even a single month. You’ve got to play the long game in strength training, so follow a smart program and remind yourself to have patience.

You won’t get better every workout. It just doesn’t work that way. But with a solid progressive program, you’ll see gradual improvement over the course of weeks, months and years.

Need help figuring out a program?

This is a lot of information to digest, but I hope that it helps. I know how time-consuming figuring out your own programming can be. Not to mention the frustration that accompanies second-guessing every programming decision you make.

I’m happy to answer any questions I can, so please don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments section below.

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