“If you’re looking to get fitter and stronger, you have to make use of progressive overload.”
Ever heard that before? You must have. But just what is progressive overload in the first place? And how, exactly, do you progressively overload?
Don’t worry. That’s what this article is for.
What is progressive overload? Why do you need it?
We need to start with an important principle for progressive overload: stimulus.
You want your body to do more work over time so you grow in response.
Once your body has adapted to this greater stimulus, however, it stops growing since it no longer sees a need to adapt further.
That’s when you meet the dreaded workout plateau, where you’re stuck at a level of performance (i.e. same weight) and can’t seem to get past it.
Let me give you an example.
You start with 5 kg dumbbell split squats at 3 sets of 10 reps. At first, it might feel pretty challenging. Your quads are on fire. You’re barely balancing. The following day, you can barely get out of bed because of all your muscle soreness.
But over time, as your quads get stronger, those working sets start to feel more manageable. Your quads have adapted to the new demands that you’ve placed on them.
In response, you start doing your split squats with 10 kg dumbbells. Your quads adapt again.
But this time round, you don’t increase the weight. You keep doing 10 kg split squats at 3 sets of 10 reps. What happens?
Simple: you’re going to be stuck in this ‘comfort zone’ that your muscles have adapted to. Your quads are not going to grow any further.
After all, why would they, when you haven’t given them any reason to?
So, to reiterate, progressive overload is the idea that you need to increase the stimulus you place on the body – systematically and consistently – to ensure it keeps adapting.
That’s how your muscles get stronger and bigger.
Progressive overload is about gradually increasing the stimulus you place on your muscles. Doing so forces them to adapt – allowing your muscles to grow bigger and stronger in response.
How to progressive overload
Now that you know what progressive overload is, it’s time to talk about how you can build it into your workout plan effectively.
Contrary to popular belief, progressive overload isn’t only achieved by training with heavier weights. You can also build it into your workout plan by adjusting other training variables (5).
But that’s jumping the gun a little.
Let’s cover the more conventional ways to progress your workouts before moving on to the ones that’ll probably surprise you.
#1: Add weight
Ask any random individual in the gym, “Hey, what is progressive overload?” and you’ll likely get this answer: “It’s about lifting more weights!”
That isn’t the most comprehensive answer for sure. Still, it isn’t entirely wrong.
Adding weight is indeed one of the simplest ways to implement progressive overload into your workout plan. Lifting heavier provides ‘fresh stimulus’ to your muscles – forcing them to grow.
For instance, going from 50 kg to 70 kg on your hip thrusts is a clear case of progressive overload.
Oh, and here’s something worth noting about using this method (i.e. adding weight) to implement progressive overload in your workout plan.
You’re going to notice an inverse relationship between load and reps. Chances are, the more weight you use, the fewer reps you can complete within a set. Back to our example: maybe you’re only able to hit 10 reps for 70 kg hip thrusts compared to 15 reps for 50 kg.
That’s perfectly fine! Why? That’s because you’re increasing your training volume. This brings us to the next point.
One of the most straightforward ways to include progressive overload into your workout plan is simply to add more weight. Just note that there’s usually an inverse relationship between load and reps. In other words: you may be able to perform fewer reps.
#2: Increase training volume
Now, here’s where the concept of training volume comes into play. In case you needed a refresher, your training volume simply refers to the multiplication of the following:
- Number of working sets
- Number of reps
- Weight used
For progressive overload, you want to be increasing your training volume over time so there’s a constant increase in stimulus. You need to give your muscles a reason to get stronger and bigger.
Remember how I mentioned that increasing the weight – at the expense of the number of reps – is “perfectly fine”? Let’s work out the specifics together with this example.
- Scenario 1: 50 kg barbell hip thrusts, 3 sets of 12 reps
- Scenario 2: 70 kg barbell hip thrusts, 3 sets of 10 reps
The training volume for scenario 1? 1,800 kg. The training volume for scenario 2? 2,100 kg.
Before you take increasing your workout volume to the extreme (i.e. lifting the heaviest thing you can find and doing as many sets and reps as possible) … know that more isn’t always better.
Your optimal training volume still depends on various factors, including your fitness goals and lifting experience.
Increasing your training volume is a form of progressive overload. You can up your training volume by: 1) increasing the number of sets, 2) increasing the number of reps, and 3) increasing the weight you use.
#3: Decrease rest periods
When it comes to how you can build progressive overload into your workout plan, here’s something less-talked-about: reducing how long you rest between sets.
Shorter rest periods can significantly increase metabolic stress. This is the ‘burning’ sensation you feel during a particularly challenging set – and is also known to play a crucial role in muscle growth.
That said … you want to use this method of progressive overload with care.
Never fall prey to the fitness myths that you can only rest for “20 seconds, top” and “must be panting” for maximum muscle growth.
Training volume is still the most crucial driver of hypertrophy. Reducing your rest periods by too much increases your fatigue during your working sets (8, 9, 10, 11, 12). This slows your progress over time as your training volume drops from all the accumulated fatigue.
This begs the question: what is the appropriate rest period to adopt if you wish to use this method to ensure progressive overload in your workout plan?
It depends on the type of exercise you’re doing (13).
Single-joint exercises (e.g. bicep curls, leg extensions) have lower recovery demands; that means you’d be fine with roughly 2 minutes of rest. But for compound exercises like deadlifts and back squats, you’d want to give yourself at least 3 minutes of rest.
Only cut down on your rest periods for the sake of progressive overload if you can achieve it without compromising on training volume. If your training volume takes a dive because you’re resting less, it’s probably not worth it.
To lay it out simply, there are plenty of methods you can use to achieve progressive overload. Use those instead.
Cutting down on your rest periods between sets increases your metabolic stress – one of the drivers of muscle hypertrophy. This forces your muscles to work harder. That said, you shouldn’t cut your rest periods by too much as that can hurt your overall training volume.
#4: Increase range of motion
Ask anyone how to progressive overload, and, chances are, they’d never tell you about trying to increase your range of motion on a particular movement. But when you give it some thought … it all makes sense.
You may be sick of hearing this already but bear with me. What is progressive overload?
It’s the act of increasing the demands you place on your body and muscles. And how does increasing your range of motion help with this?
Let’s assume that you have ankle mobility issues.
Now imagine that you’ve put in the necessary work to fix your ankle mobility issues.
You’re now able to at least lower your hips past the parallel plane without lower-back rounding or upper-back arching.
That’s cause for celebration: you’ve increased the distance for which you’ve moved the distance. Meaning that you’re now asking your muscles to do more than they did before (i.e. when you couldn’t hit sufficient depth).
That’s what progressive overload is: doing more work over time.
Here’s an important disclaimer. This progressive overload method should only be included in your workout plan if – and only if – there’s an available range of motion you can safely explore.
If your range of motion is at (or near) the maximum of what you’re capable of, you’re unlikely to see any further progress. There’s even a possibility of injuring yourself if you force yourself into a range of motion your muscles aren’t anatomically capable of in the first place (16, 17)!
This is why beginners are most likely to benefit from this form of progressive overload.
Increasing your range of motion on a movement forces your muscles to move a particular weight over a longer distance (i.e. added stimulus). However, you should only use this form of progressive overload if you’ve yet to achieve your full range of motion. Otherwise, you risk taking your muscles and joints through an unsafe (i.e. anatomically impossible) range of motion.
#5: Play around with exercise tempo
Ever spotted a mysterious string of four numbers in your training program (e.g. 3030)? That’s probably the exercise tempo you’re supposed to use for a specific movement.
If you’ve always ignored it, now’s the time to start paying attention.
Changing exercise tempo is one of the many methods of progressive overload.
At its core, using an exercise tempo means lifting weights at a planned speed, typically slower than normal for training purposes.
How to read exercise tempo
It’s essentially adjusting the speed of your reps to change the amount of stress (i.e. stimulus) placed on your working muscles. There are usually 4 numbers in a sequence.
Here’s what they mean:
- First number: Eccentric phase (lowering of the load)
- Second number: Midpoint pause (at the bottom)
- Third number: Concentric phase (lifting of the load)
- Fourth number: Endpoint pause (at the top)
Tempo numbers are always written in the same order. Eccentric, midpoint pause, concentric, then endpoint pause (E-P-C-P). No exceptions.
However, not every exercise starts with an eccentric movement.
Good examples include deadlifts, pull-ups, and bicep curls. So, let’s say you’re reading a tempo for a pull-up training program. If the tempo is 3-1-1-0, you’ll start at the third number (i.e. concentric phase) instead of the first number (i.e. eccentric phase).
Your pull-up should, thus, look something like this:
- One second up
- One second hold at the top
- 3-second descent
- No pause before going for the next rep
Takeaway? Ensure you understand what position a specific exercise and/or movement starts with to perform the exercise with the correct tempo!
What is the connection between progressive overload and exercise tempo?
Changing exercise tempo increases something known as time under tension (TUT).
TUT refers to the amount of time a working muscle is held under tension or strain during an exercise set (i.e. stimulus!) The greater your TUT, the more work you’re doing with each rep (18). That’s what progressive overload is about.
Once again, don’t take this method to the extreme and start increasing TUT for all exercises.
What you want to do, instead, is to change exercise tempo strategically and meaningfully so it doesn’t end up hurting your training volume.
So, when will you benefit the most from changing up exercise tempo? Here are a few scenarios:
- Minimizing momentum lifting: Slowing down your reps helps you master the movement by reducing its speed. With less momentum than on your regular reps, you’re forced to work harder to move the same weight. This also improves your proprioception, balance and control over time.
- Addressing positional weaknesses: When you stop making progress with a compound movement, like the squats, a specific portion of the lift could be responsible for holding you back. That’s something you can address with exercise tempo. Slowing your reps down helps you hone in on your technique and weaknesses. You’re also better able to identify what’s lacking (e.g. mobility, strength), so you can work on them.
- Lifting with limited weights: You can build the same amount of muscle with light or heavy weights – but only if you train close to failure. Unfortunately, that can be challenging when you only have 5 kg dumbbells for your home workouts. This is where slower exercise tempo comes in. You can use it to get closer to the ‘failure’ point without cranking out a super high number of reps.
Changing up exercise tempo increases the amount of time target muscles spend under tension. This is, essentially, increasing the amount of stimulus you place on the working muscles. That said, changing exercise tempo shouldn’t compromise your overall training volume.
#6: Maintain training volume while losing weight
You’ve calculated your target calorie intake for weight loss – and you’ve stuck to it consistently for months.
Congratulations: you’re losing weight!
Now, let’s assume that you had a lean mass of 50 kg just 3 months ago. You were deadlifting 100 kg. But after losing weight, your lean mass comes in at 45 kg. And guess what? You’re still able to deadlift 100 kg.
When it comes to how you can program progressive overload into your workout plan … that, right there, is one arguably the most underrated methods.
Wait, what – but why is deadlifting the same weight considered progressive overload?
It’s all got to do with relativity. And for that, I’m going to bring in something called the ‘load lifted to lean mass ratio’.
Let’s calculate the ratios together:
- Before you lost weight: 100/50 = 2
- After you lost weight: 100/45 = 2.22
Suddenly, it becomes clear. Despite still deadlifting the same weight, you’re making your muscles work harder – simply because there’s ‘less’ of them to share the load!
Losing weight inevitably involves losing (at least some) lean muscle mass. So, if you can lift the same weight as before, then your relative load to lean mass would have increased. And that – right there – is progressive overload.
#7: Increase the intensity
One of the most advanced methods to build progressive overload into your workout plan is simply up the intensity of your effort.
But wait. Up the intensity? Haven’t we already been through this before?
We can achieve this by reducing rest times and increasing training volume, right? Nope. This is something different.
This is where you’re going to leave your training variables the same (i.e. weight, plus the number of sets and reps) till you’ve reached technical failure – then force yourself to get in more working reps through a variety of ‘intensity’ training techniques.
Technical failure vs. absolute failure
Before covering what these techniques are exactly, let’s talk about ‘technical failure’ and what it means.
- Absolute failure: This is where your muscles can no longer lift the weight for another rep – at all.
- Technical failure: This is where you’re unable to perform another rep with proper form (e.g. you have to generate force from your legs to grind the next rep out on the overhead press).
In general, you want to avoid going to absolute failure when training. Doing so can hurt your recovery rates – and, ultimately, reduce your overall training volume. And this hinders your progress in the gym instead of helping it.
How to use intensity techniques to achieve progress overload
- Forced reps: This is where a training partner/spotter comes in and helps you get out a few more reps once you’re past technical failure.
- Negatives: Your muscle has the greatest force production capability when it lengthens through the eccentric phase. So, negative reps are where you make the most of this – and only perform the eccentric portions of the movement.
- Drop sets: A lifting technique where you perform an exercise per usual – then drop (i.e. reduce) the weight and continue for more reps until you reach failure.
- Static holds: These are also called isometric holds. This is where you’re simply holding a position where your muscle is under tension at its end range of motion. Examples include the bottom of a squat and the top of a pull-up.
- Partial reps: These are exactly what they sound like. That is, reps performed with any exercise limited to a certain range of motion. Partial reps can be ½, ¾ of a movement, and even less (e.g. rack pulls for deadlifts).
That said, I would approach these intensity techniques to achieve progressive overload in my workout plan very carefully.
You could run into recovery issues if you get too aggressive with these methods. These can also be dangerous to do – especially when you’re a beginner, and you’re not exactly sure where your threshold for technical failure is.
Also, note that most of these methods aren’t suited for heavy, compound movements.
Form breakdown on a bicep curl isn’t going to do much damage. But the same can’t be said on deadlifts or squats, where lower back rounding can significantly increase the risks of a herniated disc.
One of the ways you can progressively overload is to increase your workout’s intensity. This is where you extend your sets past technical failure by using intensity techniques like forced reps, negatives, drop sets, static holds, and partial reps. In general, though, you should only use this method after exhausting other progressive overload forms.
When to progressive overload in your workout plan
Okay, now that you know just how vital progressive overload is to the building – and maintaining of – muscle mass … you’re likely to ask the following question. “What is the optimal frequency at which I should be implementing progressive overload?”
Great question. And the answer to this?
In general, you should only be training harder once you’ve been consistently doing the same routine for at least a few weeks (ideally 6 to 8 weeks) – particularly when you’re new to strength training.
After that, you’re going to want to progressive overload on your workout plan any time you can. But there’s a caveat to “any time you can”.
You want to make sure that you’re able to perform every single rep with good form.
So, let’s say you were doing 3 sets of bicep curls at 20 kg for 12 reps. Then, when you decide to increase your weight to 22.5 kg, make sure you’re able to maintain proper form through your desired set and rep range (maybe 3 sets of 10 reps).
If you have to cheat your curls to even get to the 6th rep on the first set … you’d be better off with simply adding a few more reps to your initial load. More specifically: 3 sets of 20 kg for 15 reps.
Form above all else when it comes to progressive overload. Otherwise, you’re simply cheating – and shortchanging – yourself.
Never prioritize progressive overload over proper form. You need to increase the stimulus placed on your muscles over time. And you’re not doing that when ‘bouncing’ out of heavier reps. That’s cheating. Only increase your weights when you’ve mastered the proper form – and can maintain this form even for a heavier weight.
What to note for progressive overload
Ready to start increasing the weights you use? Awesome. Before you do that, there are just 3 things you need to take note of.
#1: Progressive overload is the most fun during the first 3 months
A beginner to strength training? Then progressive overloading will be a breeze for you – at least in the first 3 months.
That’s because, as mentioned earlier, your body is going to adapt to the movement in this period neurologically. Your body will learn the correct muscles to fire for the movement and get them ‘talking’ to each other so you can more efficiently perform the lift.
So, it’s not uncommon for you to slaughter personal records weekly.
Deadlifting 60 kg when you could only manage 40 kg (that’s 50% more weight) the previous week is a typical phenomenon.
Just don’t expect this to carry on for months on end. Once your body has got all its neurological adaptations done, there’s nothing to do but grow more muscles. And that’s going to take some time (30, 31).
Thus, explaining why your rate of strength gain rapidly slows down after a few months of consistent training. But hey – that’s actually where it truly gets exciting.
#2: Progressive overload is never linear
What is the underlying principle driving the need for progressive overload? Adaptations.
By getting your body to handle more stimulus (be it weight, reps, or intensity), you’re essentially forcing it to adapt to the new challenge. And here’s something you need to know about adaptations. They never occur linearly; they happen in waves.
That means, sometimes, you’ll make big jumps in your squat numbers in a single week – but, other times, stall for 3 months no matter what you do.
The good news? When you zoom out a little, you’re going to see that your body can handle increased stimulus overall. It’s just that your progress will look a little winding (it’s a little like how the stock market looks over the long term).
So, you’ll have to stay the course. Be consistent. And you’ll see – and feel – the improvements in your performance and physique.
#3: Make sure you prioritize recovery
When it comes to progressive overload, more is not always better.
You don’t want to go so hard during your workouts that it starts to impact your recovery, which, in turn, can affect your overall training volume. Not sure how to know if you’re pushing too hard, too soon? Here are a few telling signs:
- You’re getting weaker: Despite trying to progressive overload, you find yourself getting weaker on your lifts. You can’t even hit your usual numbers – no matter how hard you try.
- You’re a lot more sore than usual: Workout soreness is typical. But when you’re still limping, hobbling, and wincing in pain 5 days after your training session? That’s one of the dreaded signs of overtraining.
- You’ve lost your enthusiasm for working out: Used to perk up at just the thought of heading to the gym – but now, feeling like you have to puke? That’s burnout. And, yep, when you’re feeling this way, you can be sure you’re doing too much, too soon.
Just 3 things to note about progressive overload:
- You can increase the weights used most quickly in the first 3 months of training. This is where your body is neurologically adapting to the movement.
- Progressive overload is never linear. But you will notice improvements over the long term. That’s why you’ll have to be consistent with your workout plan.
- It’s never a good idea to prioritize progressive overload over recovery. Training volume is, ultimately, the main driver of muscle growth.
Always plan for progressive overload in your workouts
Progressive overload is one concept you cannot do without on your fitness journey.
Just like how you aim to get better at what you do, you should also do the same with your training.
By doing more work with your muscles over time, you’re giving them the reason to grow stronger and bigger. That’s what we all want, don’t we?