progressive overload

How To Progressive Overload for Strength and Hypertrophy

December 23, 2020

In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about the never-ending, always-important, progressive overload principle of training. As most of us want to gain both strength and muscle, we cover progressive overload for both purposes. However, generally speaking, progressive overload applies to all forms of training: strength, building muscle, endurance, and mobility.

In regards to strength and muscle size, the two are closely related. As such, the focus of your training should consider both. You can think of muscle size as strength capacity, and vice versa. The larger the muscle, the larger the strength capacity. We will get into specifics for employing progressive overload for strength and mass below.

Note: This is not just a progressive overload guide for beginners, we believe intermediate and even veteran lifters will find useful information within. Moreover, this applies to both men and women of all ages. 

Table of Contents:

  • What is progressive overload?
  • The progressive overload principle
  • Do I need progressive overload to build muscle?
  • Why is progressive overload so important?
  • Example of how progressive overload works
  • Prerequisites of progressive overload
  • Progressive overload METHODS
  • How to progressive overload at home too!
  • Understanding muscle fiber recruitment
  • Periodization
  • Progressive overload’s non-linear path
  • When & how often to progressive overload

progressive overload principle

WHAT IS PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD?

Progressive overload is a principle that involves progressively making your workouts more challenging over time, so that you can continually gain muscle, strength and endurance. Simply put, in order to continue getting bigger and stronger, you must make your workouts harder and harder. Your body adapts to the stimulus you place on it pretty quickly, so if you don’t progressively overload your musculoskeletal system, your gains will stagnate.

There are many ways to go about progressive overload, and all are important, which we will get into shortly, but the most commonly discussed are increasing weight, reps, and sets.

Progressive overload is the most important aspect of building muscle and strength. This should be obvious. Because if you don’t continue to increase the demands you place on your body, you will not be able to make further improvements. If your workouts are starting to become easier, you are not doing progressive overload, and you will not make any gains. 

That said, even people who workout but don’t know what progressive overload is employ some form of progressive overload without even knowing it. They likely increase the weight, do more challenging exercises, take less rest time, and so on. This is progressive overload. It is an umbrella term with lots of methods.

So, while most people naturally understand the principle of progressive overload (even if they’ve never heard of this term), getting a comprehensive understanding of progressive overload will help streamline and improve your hypertrophy (muscle building) and strength journey. This is why we are here. We want to give you the full run-down on progressive overload so that you can continue making gains in your training.

There’s a lot more to it than a simple definition and explanation. Progressive overload changes as you move from novice to intermediate to advance, progressive overload is not linear, and progressive overload has many approaches that you can mix in periodically. We will explain this all…

The Progressive Overload Principle

When you first start working out, any kind of stimulus (i.e. tension) you place on your muscles will cause the fibers to break down so they can regrow stronger. Your muscles and nervous system will adapt, and thus, you will see improvements in your workout and how you look, the former very quickly.

However, if you were to do the same workouts that you did the first week forever, you would never improve beyond that first week's demand. The workouts would become easier and easier as your body has adapts to it, and from there you will see zero improvements. Thankfully, we inherently know and strive to do more, so we naturally implement progressive overload. On week two, we do more reps with less rest time. Week three, we may increase the weight. Week four, we are doing the workout with more weight, more reps and much more intensity.

But here’s the thing, after a while, progress starts to slow down and eventually you will have to work really hard to continue making improvements. You will have to really dig deep to continue programming progressive overload into your training.

The goal of progressive overload is to continue overloading the stimulus you place on your musculoskeletal system (and that doesn’t mean "just increase the weight" as there are limitations to that), thus forcing your body to continue adapting, so that you can continue to get stronger, leaner, bigger, faster, etc. And it's not just your muscles, your bones will get denser and stronger too!

Our bodies were evolutionarily made to adapt to our environment. We adapt to the stimulus placed on us, both mentally and physically. If we continue to push ourselves to our near-limits, we will continue to adapt. Adaptions come in the form of strength, muscle mass, fat loss, performance improvements, and mental fortitude. Our body does this as it thinks it needs to to survive. The fight to survive over hundreds of thousands of years has blessed us with the ability to turn our bodies into bigger and stronger versions.

Now, to know if you are doing progressive overload, ask yourself, are my workouts continually challenging. Your workout today should be as hard as the workout last week. If they are getting easier, then you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough and you are not employing progressive overload. Without progressive overload, you will not be able to get stronger or bigger. It’s as simple as that. You need to challenge yourself and improve over time.

That said, don’t worry if you have some “off” days. Not every workout is going to be absolutely killer and harder than the last. We are humans and it just doesn’t work that way. There are variables, such as sleep, that can effect your workout. Don’t be discouraged if your workout felt easier today than it did last week. One day you might absolutely crush it and then next you don’t. Stay as consistent as you can and you will progress. Just remember to stay on track. Progressive overload is a long game and it is not linear. If you stay consistent, you will see big improvements over months. It’s hard to see these improvements day to day.

Furthermore, it will be much easier to make gains at first, as a beginner, but as you advance, you need to really understand how to employ progressive overload methods so that you can continue gaining muscle and strength. It’s truly not easy once you reach a certain point. This is why so many people you see in the gym look the same year after year. They’ve reached a point where they just maintain because they don’t know how to employ progressive overload correctly.

BUT...not you, because you are going to master progressive overload for the long haul. And trust us, it’s a LONG haul.

progressive overload training

DO I NEED TO PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD TO BUILD MUSCLE?

100%, yes. It would be impossible to gain muscle or strength without progressive overload.

But this is a nonsensical question. So, let’s assume the question above means “do you need to add more weight to build muscle?”, as that is what most people think of when they hear progressive overload “i.e. add more weight”…

Firstly, adding more weight is not the only method of progressive overload. However, it is a very important one. Adding more weight will make you stronger, and more strength gives your muscles greater capacity to grow. Strength and muscle mass go hand-in-hand.

For building muscle, you should be in the 10-15 rep range with most exercises. So, if you are doing 15 reps with ease and minimal rest time, then it's time to go up in weight (small incremental jumps). That is, if you want to build more muscle. The goal is to go to near-failure each set, and that near failure should occur within 10-15 reps. This is how you recruit the most muscle fibers. This is how you build muscle. 

Note: You also need to diet and recover well if you want to build muscle and strength. But we are not here today to teach you how to eat. This is just an obvious fact of the matter.

All in all, if you want to build muscle, there are many progressive overload methods that will work, such as decreasing rest time, increasing reps, increasing volume, and so on. However, you need to increase the weight as well for certain compound exercises. You don't have to employ all the progressive overload methods at the same time. You can work on certain progressive overload methods periodically. More on 'Periodization X Progressive Overload' later. 

WHY IS PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD IMPORTANT?

Without progressive overload, you will quickly plateau. By changing and progressing your workouts, you will consistently keep your muscles challenged and you will get stronger and gain more muscle.

And the progressive overload principle doesn’t just apply to strength and muscle growth! Progressive overload works for cardiovascular health, metabolic health, endurance, and pretty much all the skills we want to achieve in life, even outside of the gym.

Think about it like reading the same book over and over. You will learn what’s in that book, but you will never gain anymore knowledge than that book has to offer. That book is like your first week of working out. If you kept doing that same exact first-week-beginner workout, you will never get past the gains of that first week.

Progressive overload is a positively essential aspect of fitness that must not be overlooked. Thankfully, it is one that most of us do naturally. But like most things, if we take a more comprehensive approach, we can see the improvements that we so very wish for.

why is progressive overload important

EXAMPLE OF HOW PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD WORKS

Let’s go over a quick example of progressive overload.

On week one, you do a 135lb squat for 3 sets of 8 reps.

Week two, you do a 135lb squat for 3 sets of 9 reps.

Week three, you are able to do a 135lb squat for 3 sets of 10.

You are progressively overloading!

At some point, you are going to want to add some weight, right?

So, week four, you decide to add 10 pounds in total. When you do that, you are likely back down to 8 reps. That’s perfectly normal, over the next month you can increase the reps.

The above is a simple example of two progressive overload techniques - increasing reps and increasing weight. As you can see, you can employ more than one tactic.

It should be noted, that you may not increase every week. You may have a week were you do the same thing as the previous week and that is fine, as your body is still getting enough stimulus to grow. The issue would be if you stayed at that same exact weight, repetition, rest time, for weeks on end.

All in all, progressive overload can be very nominal week by week (and sometimes not at all), but over time, the results are significant. It’s a gradual process, and as gradual as it may be, your body responds to it perfectly well.

PREREQUISITES OF PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD

If you are a novice to working out, first things first, you need to work on your form and range of motion before you even think about adding load.

Form should be prioritized over everything. If you add weight one week but your form becomes sloppy, you are compensating in some way just to get that weight up and you could injure yourself. You won’t get positive results this way, as sloppy form is not conducive to adequate muscle fiber recruitment. You should only increase weight or reps if your form is solid all the way through.

If you don’t even know how to perform an exercise correctly, such as squats, do bodyweight squats until you get the form down pat. From there, start light and maintain good form. As you progress, your form should always take precedence. Good form is the key to effective progressive overload.

progressive overload for beginners

RANGE OF MOTION & TEMPO

Let’s say you got the form down, but you still lack the full range of motion. The first progressive overload technique to employ is improving your range of motion. Work on getting proper depth in your lift. This is a form of progressive overload and one of the most important ones to nail first. You will also notice this as you start to increase weights. Your range of motion might decrease. Instead of adding more reps, focus on range of motion.

The same applies to tempo too. Don’t whiz through a set just to get it over with. Use a tempo that provides good stimulus and time under tension. If the weight is too much for you to use a good tempo, then you should not be increasing the weight. Tempo comes first.

Note: Sometimes it’s good to work on explosive movements. You can do sets of an exercise to work on explosiveness. But even then, the tempo should be slow and controlled on the eccentric (downward motion).

All in all, focus on good form, full range of motion and controlling the weight correctly with each rep before you employ other progressive overload methods…

progressive overload methods

PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD METHODS

In essence, progressive overload is about doing more over time. As such, there are many ways to tackle this. We’ve already mentioned a few ways, such as increasing weight, reps, and sets, but there are many more tools in the progressive overload toolbox.

Speaking of tools, we want you to really think about the following methods as different tools. If adding weight is a hammer, increasing reps is like a nail, and adding sets is like a wooden beam. You need all of them to grow (build your house). You obviously can’t build a house with just a hammer, but you damn sure need that hammer to build the house. The same applies to all the tools in your tool box. You'll need them all eventually.

Just to reiterate before we run through all of the methods of progressive overload that we can think of, remember that proper form and full range of motion are the number one priority. They must be established and they must always come first before you employ any other progressive overload tactic. We will, however, include these below just so there is no confusion that they should be the focus at all stages of your progressive overload journey.

1. Increasing Range of Motion

Before you move on to a heavier load, focus on your range of motion. You want to be completing every exercise, rep and set with a full range of motion because this is how you recruit the most muscle fibers.

2. Increasing Efficiency

In addition to range of motion, you want to be able to move the weight (or your bodyweight if you are a beginner) with absolute control and perfect form. Your tempo should be correct for the movement at hand. Once it takes less and less effort, then you can move on.

3. Increasing Volume

You can increase the volume of your workout with reps, sets and exercises. Start with adding reps, then sets, and finally, exercises. There is a limit to this, of course, as we only have so much time to workout. But before you add weight, volume should be maximized.

If your goal is to build muscle, a rep range of 10-15 is great. So, if you start at 10 reps, work your way up to 15 before you add another set, then you can drop the reps back down if needed with the additional set and work your way up again. You can also add an exercise if you are beginning to finish a workout with a lot more gas left in the tank.

Note: For building muscle, you want to choose a weight that brings you to failure, or near-failure, within the above rep range.

If your goal is to increase strength, then the same rules apply with a different rep range (and thus weight load). For strength training, 3-8 reps is ideal, and occasionally try to hit your 1RM (one rep max).

4. Increasing Density

To increase density, the goal is to do more work in the same amount of time, and then, eventually, do the same work in less time. To do this, you should decrease your rest time. To do more work in less time, you need to decrease rest time while increasing volume. The two work in tandem.

5. Increasing Weight Load

This is obviously the most talked about method of progressive overload. It involves adding more weight to any given exercise. If you are performing exercises with a full range of motion, fully in control, and you are maximizing your ideal rep and set range, then it is time to move up in weight.

This will not always be linear. You may have a day where you are on fire and able to go heavier and then the following week you can’t do that same lift with that load for x-amount of reps. That is perfectly fine, readjust the weight or keep the reps lower for that week. In the long run, you will be ahead of the game.

Note: Sometimes it’s great to test yourself with heavier loads, even if it means you get less reps than your target rep range. As long as you are doing them with a full range of motion, that is. For example, let’s say you go heavier and are only able to do 5 reps. That is fine. Your mind needs that progressive overload too. The following week when you go back to a weight load that has you in the 10-15 rep range, it will start to feel lighter for you!

6. Increasing Intensity

While being in control of the weight is essential, your training should also implement explosive work. Focus on lifting a load with more speed and acceleration. This is how you build power, which will help your muscle building capacity as well, as your muscles will have more strength to manage heavier loads for a muscle building rep range.

Note: Explosive on the way up (concentric phase of the lift) and controlled on the way down (eccentric phase of the lift).

Related: Explosive Exercises with Resistance Bands

Another way to increase intensity is to do harder variations of an exercises. For example, if you are doing bodyweight lunges, doing jumping lunges takes that same kind of movement to a harder, more intense level. 

Supersets will also increase the intensity. That and the volume of your workout!

Finally, implementing resistance bands into your lifts will change up the dynamics of the lift. It is a great way to shock your muscles, as it will hit them with both elastic tension and gravitational force. Moreover, resistance bands will eliminate strength curves that come with free weight training, allowing for maximum tension throughout the lift, as well as more time under tension with each set. Learn more about eliminating strength curves with resistance bands.

7. Increasing Frequency

If you are doing 3-4 workouts a week, at some point, you can up the frequency of your workout. You can go 5-6 times a week, which means you will be hitting muscles groups more frequently.

It’s good to switch up your routine too, which can help with increasing frequency. If you do a typical 4-5 day split, do a period of upper/lower split, which could have you hitting your larger muscle groups 2 or even 3 times per week!

8. Increasing Intensity - Part 2 (Going Past Technical Failure)

This one is very important for building muscle. As we mentioned, you want to go to failure, or near failure (meaning you had just one more rep left in the tank). However, if you want to gain muscle mass over time, you need to implement methods that allow you to go past technical failure (meaning good form & tempo with a specific weight load).

To do this, you can use forced reps, negatives, drop sets, static holds, pause reps, partial reps, or post-exhaustion.

These techniques can be programmed on a weekly basis. By switching things up like this, you will constantly be shocking your muscles, which means you are increasing muscle fiber recruitment.

e.g. maybe your last set of bench press on chest day is a drop set. 

BONUS:

At some point in your fitness journey, you will want to lose fat. When you are training to lose fat, you cut calories, and you start to lose body mass. If you can maintain the same work capacity, this is a form of progressive overload, as you are increasing the relative volume and strength.

For example, if you are now 195lbs and you are doing the same workout you did at 200lbs, you have increased the relative volume because you weigh 5 pounds less!

progressive overload at home

How to progressive overload at home?

If you workout at home and you have limited equipment or you simply do bodyweight only workouts, most of the above methods still apply. Progressive overload principles that can be employed at home are as follows:

  • Increase range of motion
  • Adjust tempo
  • Increase reps
  • Increase sets
  • Increase overall volume
  • Decrease rest
  • Increase intensity (progression exercises, supersets, explosive movements, static holds, etc.)
  • Increase frequency

Essentially all the same progressive overload principles apply except increasing weight load. Even that can be done if you get creative. For example, you could throw on a backpack to do your squats, then slowly add more weight to the backpack.

Related: Bodyweight Exercises for Home Workouts

UNDERSTANDING MUSCLE FIBER RECRUITMENT

As you gain muscle and strength from lifting a certain load for a specific number of reps, fewer muscle fibers are recruited.

For example, if you do a 100lb squat for 10 reps, and that brings you to failure, or close to failure, you will be recruiting a large majority of muscle fibers in the targeted muscles. As you recover, you will have muscular and neural adaption to this weight and rep scheme, which means you will build muscle and strength. As such, you will not need to recruit as many muscle fibers to accomplish the same 100lb squat for 10 reps. Eventually, the stimulus will become sub-optimal, and so, you need to increase the weight or the reps to recruit more muscle fiber, ergo continue getting stronger and building more muscle.

Overall, the goal is to recruit the majority of the muscle fiber when lifting. And to do this, you should aim to train to, or close to, failure with an adequate load, which is typically 35-85% of your one rep max. Generally speaking, the lighter the load (i.e. 35%-60%), the higher the reps required, and the better it is for building muscle. Conversely, the heavier the load, the less reps, and the better it is for building strength.

progressive overload hypertrophy

PERIODIZATION FOR BUILDING MUSCLE

If you want to build muscle, periodization is as important as progressive overload. Nevertheless, the two go hand-in-hand.

Periodization is a strategic implementation of specific training phases. So, you may do a couple months of increased volume (so the progressive overload goal is to increase volume - i.e. less rest, more reps/sets). Following that, you may do a couple months of increasing weight (so the progressive overload is to increase weight and intensity - heavier loads and more reps). By systematically changing your training scheme, you can avoid (and break) plateaus. This is the best way to continually provide adequate stimulus on your muscles, which in turn, will maximize muscle fiber recruitment.

PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD IS NON-LINEAR

Although the legend Milo of Croton is inspiring (you know the story...Milo carries a baby calf over his shoulders every day, as the calf grows bigger and into a bull, he continues to carry it, becoming stronger and stronger, until he is hoisting a full grown bull around like its nothing) it’s not the reality of progressive overload.

Progressive overload is not so linear. No improvements in weight training, whether it be hypertrophy, strength, power, endurance or mobility, will never be a straight path up. Our bodies don’t work that way. Our adaptations and improvements happen in waves. There are other variables in life that need to be considered. Not a single person will have constant gains week in and week out forever. Some weeks will be better than others, so accept that. In the long run, those waves will keep pushing up and you will be far above what you were when you once started, but it won’t be straight diagonal line shooting up. It will be a wavy one like a winding road leading north.

If you don’t believe us, just think about it. If you were to increase your strength in a lift by say, 5lbs a week, that’s 260lbs per year. No one is gaining 260lbs in a lift in a year, year after year. Moreover, for some lifts, that would be physically impossible even in a lifetime. Our bodies have limitations (if not, strongmen would be lifting thousands of pounds for exercises like squats), but even before we meet those limitations, we are bound to hit plateaus, which will require us to systematically change our approach so we can continue improving. We need to figure out how to continue our progressive overload path, which may put us on a flat line for a couple weeks (or worse, months and years). A flat line of simply maintaining. Eventually, with determination, you can continue to make gains...

how to progressive overload

Beginners - Enjoy Progressive Overload While it Lasts!

When you are a beginner, the path will be much MUCH more linear. You will see sick improvements in your strength and endurance each week. You are likely to smash personal records every week as a beginner.

For example, week one you may get 5 reps on bench press with X-weight, and the next week you are doing 15 reps with that same weight. This is normal for beginners. Progressive overload happens quickly and easily.

But…that won’t last forever. Your rate of improvement (and gain) will dramatically start to slow, and then you will be like all the other more experienced trainees, constantly battling to employ progressive overload.

Once you become an intermediate lifter, you will have to be clever about your programming in order to achieve new levels of strength and gain more muscle mass. You need to rotate your lifts, employ periodization, fluctuate your training intensity and stress, and play around with different methods (which is why progressive overload is not linear). It becomes harder and harder to pack on muscle and increase strength. Once you reach an advanced level, the percentage of growth each year will be a fraction of what it was when you were a beginner.

How often should you progressive overload

WHEN AND HOW OFTEN TO PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD?

Progressive overload is a constant, every week thing. It should always be top of mind. You should go into every workout session with the goal to beat your previous training session in some way, shape or form. It may not happen, and that’s fine, but that’s the ultimate goal. Your workout should always be as hard, if not harder, than the last. That's the theory anyway. 

That said, you need to think optimally. If you push yourself way too hard, you will have excess overload, which can lead to overtraining and injuries. Your body will simply not be able to maintain that. That’s worse than no overload, which is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Aim for optimal overload so you can keep recruiting a high level of muscle fibers in a way that is maintainable, and will allow you to recover adequately each week.

SUMMARY

If your goal is to build muscle and strength, keep progressive overload top of mind. It’s one of the most important aspects of weightlifting. It’s second to actually getting in the gym (or your home gym) and doing something. That said, don’t beat yourself up over it. Remember, it is a non-linear path. Look at the big picture and don’t get discouraged if you hit a wall every now and then. Keep pushing through and re-approach your training when you plateau. Fitness is a methodical game, so approach it that way. At the same time, have fun! In our opinion, progressive overload is fun! It’s nice to be in competition with yourself, always aiming to improve and become a better you.

If you have any questions about progressive overload training, please feel free to contact us or leave a comment below. And, if you think we missed something, feel free to add it in the comment below. We’d love to hear from you!



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