Applying Progressive Overload

How to Use Progressive Overload for Strength & Size Gains

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: Mar 10, 2024

If you’re training to increase strength, build muscle mass, or improve athletic performance, you’ve probably heard of progressive overload. This fundamental idea serves as the basis of any effective training program, and understanding how it works is crucial to achieving your fitness objectives.

Progressive Overload Principle

While progressive overload may seem straightforward, it’s essential to approach it in an organized and systematic manner. This ensures steady progress without risking injury or overtraining.

In the following article, I will delve into the key principles of progressive overload training and explain how to apply them to workouts for any objective. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned lifter, grasping the fundamentals is essential for achieving your fitness goals.

Principle of Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is the principle of gradually increasing the demands placed on the body during exercise. This can be achieved by increasing weight, reps, sets, or decreasing rest time between sets. Doing so forces your body to adapt to the increased stress, which results in strength and muscle gains.

Milos of Croton, a six-time Olympic wrestling champion, is a famous example of progressive overload. It’s said he gained his incredible strength by lifting the same calf every day until he could lift a full-grown bull. This old tale highlights the importance of gradually introducing new challenges to help your body adapt to handle the load.

Like the story of Milos, the key to progressive overload is to make small, incremental changes over time. This allows your body to adjust and avoid injury. It’s important to remember that progressive overload is not just about lifting heavier weights. It’s about challenging your body in a way it hasn’t experienced before.

Progressive Overload Principle

Is Progressive Overload Necessary for Everyone?

It’s worth noting that progressive overload is not required in every situation. For instance, if you are new to weightlifting, you may experience “newbie gains” and see progress without needing to add more stimulus.

However, as you continue to train and reach a certain level of strength and muscle mass, you will likely hit a plateau. To continue progressing, you must challenge your muscles with new exercises or heavier loads, which is where progressive overload comes in.

Without progressive overload, your body will adapt to your current training routine, and you will stop making progress. It’s also worth mentioning that this strategy can be used in any form of exercise, from weightlifting to yoga.

Benefits of Progressive Overload

There are several benefits to incorporating progressive overload into your fitness routine. Here are a few:

  • Increased strength: Gradually increasing the demands on your muscles will improve your overall strength.
  • Muscle growth: Progressive overload stimulates muscle growth as your body adapts to the physical stresses.
  • Improved fitness: By challenging your body in new ways, you’ll improve your overall endurance and stamina.
  • Prevents plateauing: By incorporating progressive overload, you’ll continue to progress toward your fitness goal every week.

Starting Progressive Overload

To implement progressive overload, you need to start with a baseline. This means determining your current level of strength and muscular endurance.

The best way to test your strength is with a one-rep max on lifts like the bench press, deadlift, or squat. However, this can be dangerous, especially if you’re a beginner. Alternatively, you could start with a 5 or 10-rep max on any given exercise.

Another great way to establish a fitness baseline is with your weekly workout volume, duration, or frequency. Once you have established your baseline, you can gradually increase one of the training variables.

Progressive Overload Variables

There are a variety of ways to implement progressive overload. These include:

  • Weight: The most common way to apply progressive overload is to gradually increase the weight you lift. Proceed carefully to ensure proper form avoid injury.
  • Repetitions: Aiming to perform more reps in a given set can also be an effective way to apply progressive overload. Just remember to stay within the allotted rep range for your fitness goal.
  • Sets: Adding sets to your workout can help to increase the overall training volume. Always to balance higher volume with proper recovery time.
  • Frequency: Increasing the frequency of your workouts can help to provide a new stimulus to your body and promote continued progress. Again, you should also ensure that you allow proper recovery time.
  • Duration: Taking shorter breaks between sets challenges your body to do more work in less time. This approach increases workout intensity and saves time.

When designing your progressive overload plan, it’s best to focus on increasing one training variable while keeping the others constant or decreasing them. This will ensure you don’t add too much stress on your body and nervous system.

progressive overload program

Implementing Progressive Overload

Correctly implementing progressive overload requires a basic understanding of your training goals.  While there is some overlap in strength, muscle mass, and physical fitness outcomes, it is critical to pick a primary goal to optimize your training.

For this reason, I will show you some examples of how to use progressive overload for strength training, hypertrophy training, and general fitness.

How to Use Progressive Overload for Strength Training

The primary way to implement progressive overload to get stronger is by gradually increasing the weight you lift every week. For instance, you can add small increments of 2.5-5 pounds to your lifting weight.

Another approach is maintaining the same weight but performing one or two additional reps each week. Once you can comfortably complete more than ten reps, you should increase the weight by 5-10% in the following week.

This will help you continue to challenge your muscles and progress in your strength training.

Increasing Weight Example

I want to share an example to give you an idea of how progressive overload improved my bench press strength. My initial one-rep max for this particular exercise was 265 pounds.

In the first week, I began with five reps at 200 pounds, 75% of my one-rep max. The next week, I increased the weight to 215 pounds (81% 1RM) for four reps, and so on.

Every week, I added more weight while decreasing reps and sets. After six weeks, I had improved my one-rep max to 275 pounds.

Table 1. Progressive Overload for Bench Press Strength

Week Weight % Max Reps Sets
1 200 lbs 75% 5 6
2 215 lbs 81% 4 6
3 230 lbs 87% 3 5
4 245 lbs 92% 2 4
5 260 lbs 98% 3 1
6 275 lbs 104% 1 1

Safely Increasing Weight: To safely increase weight, always choose a poundage you can handle with good form for your desired number of reps. You don’t always have to go to absolute failure on a set when training for strength.

Pay attention to your body and avoid lifting weights that are too heavy for you, which can increase your risk of injury. Having a trained spotter when lifting heavy weights or going for a new PR is also a good idea.

Take my word for it: I once tore my pectoral muscle going for a one-rep max on a bench press!

How to Use Progressive Overload for Hypertrophy Training

Progressive overload is also a crucial concept for building muscle size. One effective way to implement progressive overload is to increase your workout volume. This can be achieved by gradually increasing the number of sets you perform for each muscle group.

When increasing your workout volume, do so in a controlled manner. Don’t add too many sets too quickly, as this can lead to excessive fatigue or injury. Instead, aim to increase your total volume by a small amount each week, such as adding one or two extra sets.

Increasing Volume Example

I recently used a progressive volume workout plan to systematically add sets to my workouts each week. I did this for four weeks before taking a break with a “deload” week.

In the first week, I started at the Minimum Effective Volume (MEV), considered the lowest volume that stimulates muscle growth. To maintain muscle size, you should generally aim to do at least ten sets per muscle group.

I added two sets per muscle group each week until I reached the proposed Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). Your MRV depends on your experience level, but studies suggest it typically falls in the range of 16-20 sets per muscle group.

While progressing with volume, I kept the same weight and tried to get at least the same number of reps. As long as my reps didn’t decrease with the higher volume, I knew I was recovering from my workouts.

By gradually increasing your workout volume, your muscles will continue to adapt and stimulate hypertrophy. This can help you grow even stubborn muscle groups and continue making progress toward your muscle-building goals.

How to Use Progressive Overload for Fitness

An example of applying progressive overload to cardiovascular fitness would be gradually increasing the distance you run. You might also increase your pace to improve your mile time.

You can apply the same concept to your weight training workouts by gradually increasing the intensity. Again, intensity increases when you do more work in less time.

Increasing Intensity Example

One effective way to implement progressive overload in your workouts is to decrease the rest periods between sets. By reducing rest time, you can increase the overall intensity of your workout and challenge your body to adapt to the increased demands.

Another strategy for implementing progressive overload is to use drop sets. Drop sets involve performing an exercise to failure, then immediately reducing the weight and doing more reps. This technique can help to increase muscle endurance and improve workout intensity.

When applied in this way, progressive overload can improve fitness, build muscle, and be an effective tool for weight loss. Increasing your workout intensity elevates your heart rate and can burn more calories. However, this strategy is not the best for maximizing strength gains.

Progressive Overload Program Considerations

When it comes to progressive overload, there are a few programming considerations you should keep in mind to ensure you are making progress toward your fitness goals.

Periodization

Periodization is cycling between different training styles to achieve greater results. For instance, you can alternate between building strength (increasing load) and building muscle (increasing volume) phases.

The length of each phase will vary depending on your current state and final goal. However, it is advisable to stick with any phase for at least eight weeks to see the benefits. Furthermore, phases longer than 4-5 months can be counterproductive.

For each phase, you should prioritize either strength or size but not omit the other entirely. Therefore, I recommend at least one exercise using heavy weight and low reps during a growth phase and vice versa.

Related: See the Powerbuilding Workout I Developed for Building Size & Strength Simultaneously

Rep Ranges and Rest Periods

During the strength phase, your priority is heavy weights for lower reps. Use a weight that feels challenging at 3-5 reps and rest for 2 to 3 minutes between sets.

In contrast, during the muscle hypertrophy phase, you should target moderate weights you can lift for 8-12 reps before failing. You should rest for 1 to 2 minutes between sets.

Training Frequency and Rest Days

How often you train depends on your experience level and fitness goals, but generally, it is recommended to train each muscle group once a week. This allows for sufficient stimulus to promote training adaptations and prevent overtraining.

More advanced lifters can try training each muscle group twice a week to optimize muscle and strength gains. However, the workout split must be for adequate recovery before training the same muscle group.

Rest days are also important for recovery and preventing injury. At least one rest day is recommended per week, but this can vary depending on your training frequency and intensity. Make sure to listen to your body and take rest days as needed.

Progressive Overload Pitfalls

In this section, I’ll cover some common mistakes and misconceptions regarding progressive overload. Understanding these pitfalls can help you get better results from your training.

Strength Gain Without Muscle Gain

As you approach your maximum strength capacity, it can become more difficult to get stronger. This is when technique changes can come into play.

For example, during a heavy squat, you may widen your stance and place the bar lower on your back. This technique distributes the load to other muscle groups, allowing you to generate more power and lift heavier weights.

Essentially, your mechanics change, and you become more efficient in the movement. However, this change in technique may take some of the load away from specific muscles, such as the quadriceps. As a result, your quads may no longer be directly stimulated and could fail to grow.

This scenario shows that muscle strength and growth may not always be directly linked. If your goal is muscle growth, reducing weight and increasing training volume would be more suitable for achieving it.

‚ÄčOvertraining & Undertraining

In resistance training, progressive overload is like a car’s transmission. When you drive, the transmission stays in the same gear until the engine reaches a certain number of revolutions per minute (RPMs), then shifts to a higher gear to continue accelerating.

Similarly, you will stop progressing if you don’t respond to changes in your body. You must shift gears in your training to provide a new challenge that forces your body to adapt and improve.

Also, like a car’s transmission, you must make the change at the right time. If you increase the load or volume too quickly, you risk overtraining. Conversely, if you don’t increase the demands soon enough, your progress will stall.

By gradually increasing the stress, you allow your body to adapt and improve, ensuring you continue driving toward your fitness goals.

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