What Is Progressive Overload? [Explained for Beginners]

Progressive overload is the result of productive training. If you can perform better, you've achieved progress. Find examples and learn more about how to apply the principle of progressive overload in weight training.

A Woman Doing Push-Ups on the Floor

Summary:

  • Progressive overload is a result, not doing more than you're capable of so you keep making gains.
    • (If you couldn't do it, you wouldn't have been able to lift that today).
  • If your training is productive, it should result in progression.
  • Balance fitness (exercise) and fatigue (stress). Relax.
  • You can't progress all the things, that's too tiring.
  • Good training programs use strategy to achieve specific fitness goals.

Sometimes referred to as the "overload principle" or "principle of progression", progressive overload is an important concept for beginners to grasp.

Examples of a proper application of this principle:

  • Increased muscle strength in the pecs, resulting in moving a heavier load in the bench press.
  • A macrocycle dedicated to volume in the hip thrust, resulting in muscle growth in the glutes.
  • Periodization aimed at increasing aerobic capacity, resulting in improved cardiovascular fitness.

A lifter pushing herself to grow or hypertrophy her glutes should focus on increasing volume over time in exercises that train them. Think hip thrusts, abductions, lunges, and deadlifts.

Here's what you're going to learn by reading the rest of this article:

  • What is progressive overload?
  • What are the basic principles of progressive overload in strength training?
  • How do you calculate progressive overload?
  • How do you apply progressive overload?
  • What are examples of progression exercises?
  • How do you do progressive overload at home?
  • How do you use progressive overload without gaining weight?

Quick notes on this article - There is a section on choosing the right weights. At the end, there will be a section on strategies you can use to add load. Yes, this article will be a long one.

Skip down to "examples" if you want some practical takeaways.

Don't worry - If this principle seems a little complicated, you're on the right track if you're making gains, bro.

What are the Basic Principles of Progressive Overload in Strength Training?

The core principle of progressive overload is that you need to increase the difficulty of your training to keep up with the gains in fitness that your body makes.

Gains in fitness can be observed using things like:

  • Load or weight used in exercises going up.
  • The amount of time it takes you to complete the same workout going down.
  • Distance traveled increasing, maybe when throwing or jumping.
  • Resting heart rate gradually decreasing as you add minutes to your weekly cardio.
  • Perception of effort or rating of perceived exertion going down when you do the same workout.
  • The volume of training increasing, sometimes measured as sets x reps x weight.

How you structure and change your fitness routine determines the type of results you get. (More on that below)

To reveal your gains, you need to manage the relationship between the gains in fitness you make and the amount of stress or fatigue you build up.

To explain the basics further, we need to introduce a useful model known as the banister model or fitness-fatigue paradigm:

The Fitness-Fatigue Paradigm | (Simplified)

When you exercise, you place a challenge on your body. Afterward, you've made new fitness gains but, these gains are masked by fatigue (stress).

Upward trending green bar graph icon

If you didn't exceed your ability to recover- with rest and food, your body will return around or exceed the level you were at before.

The next time you workout, your previous exercise won't be as great of a challenge. Unless you waited too long.

a sprinting icon in green tights

Planned well, fitness gains will remain and some of the fatigue will dissipate.

(This concept can become complicated. Different things in your body recover at different speeds than others.)

Now that you know you need to work hard, natural questions emerge. How do you measure how you're exercising? How do you target exercise towards specific goals like strength without weight gain?

Let's talk about the first question next.

How Do you Calculate Progressive Overload?

You can calculate progressive overload by measuring training performance against your goals.

For example:

  • If you're a sprinter, are you running faster?
  • If you're a powerlifter, are you lifting heavier in the squat, bench, and deadlift?
  • If you're a booty builder or bodybuilder, are your glutes or muscle getting bigger?

Endurance runners might ask themselves if their average mile times are improving.

Strength is a specific skill. If you want to get better at lifting heavy weights, you should use a model of progression that involves gradually increasing the amount of load lifted.

If you want to grow muscle, the type of training that you perform has some flexibility.

Personal training textbooks provide recommendations like this for selecting load:

How to Choose the Right Weight for Lifting

Source: Sheppard, Jeremy M, and N Travis Triplett. “Program Design for Resistance Training.” Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 4th ed., Human Kinetics, pp. 439–468.

Necessary tools and equipment

  • Bodyweight
  • Bands
  • Dumbbells
  • Kettlebells
  • Machines
  • Barbells

Steps

  1. 1 Determine the goal of the exercise

    The amount of rest, number of reps and load lifted will be shaped by your goal, and the implement you use.

  2. 2 To Train for Strength (Low-Speed Strength)

    Are you looking to perform your first pull-up or lift a human? That's strength.

    • Relatively longer rests, higher levels of effort, and lower relative repetitions.
    • 2-6 sets per exercise
    • ≤ 6 repetitions per set
    • 2-5 minutes of rest
    • ≥80-85% of 1 rep max
  3. 3 To Train for Endurance

    Are you looking to improve your marathon time? Muscular endurance will be important to you.

    • Muscular endurance training involves shorter rests and repeated efforts.
    • 2-3 sets per exercise
    • ≤30 seconds of rest
    • 12-25+ repetitions per set
    • ≤67% of 1 rep max
  4. 4 To Train for Muscle Growth (Hypertrophy)

    Are you looking to grow your thighs, glutes, or biceps? You're looking for hypertrophy.

    • Muscular Hypertrophy training can involve high, moderate, and low load training taken to near failure.
    • 3-6 sets per exercise
    • 30-90 seconds of rest or 2-3 minutes of rest
    • 6-12 or 8-20+ repetitions per set
    • 67-85% of 1 rep max
  5. 5 To Train for Power (High-Speed Strength)

    Would you like to jump higher or throw farther? Training power-fly will do that.

    • Power training can involve moving various weights at high speeds.
    • 3-5 sets per exercise
    • 2-5 minutes of rest between sets
    • 1-5 repetitions per set
    • 30-90% of 1 rep max

A Science Aside on How to Choose the Right Weights

Load selection seems to have been made a bit murkier when we consider recent research published on the relationship between muscle growth and reps per set.

Research reviewer Greg Nuckols on the effect of high reps vs low reps on muscle hypertrophy:

"Since different rep ranges go about triggering a growth response in slightly different ways, you’re probably better off training with a full spectrum of rep ranges instead of rigidly staying in a single rep range and intensity zone... the 'hypertrophy rep range' is, in general, the intensity range that allows people to maximize how much hard work they can manage per workout and per week. However, looking at things from the reverse perspective (asking yourself how to maximize high quality sets per week), there is quite a bit of variability in optimal loading zone and rep range person-to-person and lift-to-lift."

Now that you know what progressive overload is and how to calculate it, let's talk about how it's applied in different contexts.

How Do You Apply Progressive Overload?

You apply progressive overload by focusing on increasing specific challenges in your fitness routine.

You only get better at what you train for. This process is known as specific adaptions to imposed demands or SAID for short.

When your personal trainer sits down to write your plan, they think about where you're at and write backward to get you to your goals.

For example:

  • Would you like to burn fat and tone?
  • Do you have a wedding coming up?
  • Are you trying to gain weight?

A program can be written differently to achieve each of these goals, using the same exercises. Every strength coach will use different approaches to try and reach the same goal.

(That's why there are so many different routines on the internet)

Assuming good form, here are 9 ways that you can attempt to chase overload.

9 Ways You Can Apply Progressive Overload

  1. Perform an exercise with better form and control (efficiency/motor control).
  2. Add weight to an exercise (load/intensity).
  3. Perform more reps with the same weight (volume).
  4. Perform the exact same exercise routine in less time (density).
  5. Lift the same weight over a greater distance (range of motion).
  6. Lift the same total amount of weight in a week more often (ex squat 10 sets of 100 lbs over 3 workouts instead of 2) (frequency)
  7. Lift the same amount while losing weight (increasing relative intensity).
  8. Lift the same weight for more sets and reps (volume-load).
  9. Add an exercise to a session (volume-load).

Depending on where you place an exercise in your workout, one of these might make more or less sense for you. Also, different things in your body adapt at different speeds than others.)

If you're still making gains, don't change anything.

As you can see, you don't need to just focus on adding weight. You can progress the difficulty of exercises themselves.

Let's talk about that next - This will be useful for home workouts.

What are Examples of Progression Exercises?

Below are examples of how to progress in two scenarios:

  1. At home
  2. Specifically without gaining weight

Two things:

For the first example - Assume at home implies that there are no weights. We'll walk you through a bodyweight push-up.

For the second example - Assume that you know about energy balance. You'll only gain weight in a surplus. We'll talk about how to progress a hip thrust.

How Do You Do Progressive Overload at Home?

Here's an example of how to progress to a pushup at home:

  1. Start by mastering a plank and breathing mechanics. Push-ups are moving planks.
  2. Find a surface where you can properly move up and down. (floor, wall, bench, etc.)
    1. Perform more and more reps here each time you exercise.
  3. Work on lowering yourself to the ground under control.
    1. Build up reps and time spent lowering yourself down each week.
  4. Once you can perform a push-up, gradually work to increase the total number each week.
  5. Add difficulty by pausing, elevating your feet, or adding bands or loads to your upper back.

Meghan Callaway has a specific program aimed at making you better at push-ups.

How Do You Use Progressive Overload without Gaining Weight?

How to progress a hip thrust without gaining weight:

  1. Start by finding a proper foot placement for your glute bridge and hip thrust. Some people feel the move with their feet close to their body while others need to spread out.
  2. Work on adding reps and load in the glute bridge, assuming you feel most of the reps in your glutes.
  3. As you build your bridge, start to work on the hip thrust. You'll need to find good back placement.
  4. Add weight as needed from week to week to keep up with your progress.
    1. You can also increase your time under tension by slowing your reps down.

Just like any other exercise, you can increase the range of motion in your hip thrust. Try elevating your legs and shoulders.

How Do You Know When to Increase the Weights You are Using?

People progress at different rates to the same training programs.

You might be able to add 10 lbs to an exercise in a month while your friend might still be struggling to learn it.

Progression for beginners can look very different from overload for more advanced lifters.

For example, if you're a beginner, you might be able to do multiple things from week to week:

  • Add weight to an exercise.
  • And Perform more reps with an exercise.
  • And add a set.

A more experienced lifter might consider it a win to just be able to do one of those.

There are several load progression strategies.

Dr. Mike Zourdos covered a few in detail on Strongerbyscience.com:

  1. Arbitrary Progression-just going up 2.5 lbs each week
  2. Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE)-adjust weight based on how you lift week to week
  3. Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)-progress based on how hard you think you're working

Each system has potential benefits and drawbacks. Dr. Zourdos prefers a rating of perceived exertion system.

Experience will also help you know when it is time to push yourself a bit harder. Try to focus on one or two exercises to progress in at a time.

When you feel like you've maxed out the progress you can make in one area, shift to another.

Here's How to Perform Progressive Overload for Beginners:

  1. Choose a goal and exercise variations. Think squat, bench, deadlift, chin-up, push-up, hip thrust, and loaded carry.
  2. Pick a number of sets and reps. Start on the lower end, maybe 2-3 sets.
  3. Use a progression strategy. Add reps when it seems easy to add reps. Add load when things feel light.
  4. Measure progress. You can tell what's working by looking back at what you've made improvements in.
  5. Decide what to change when you plateau. Pick one progression strategy to chase when gains slow down.

This article was originally published as "What Is Progressive Overload? Best Practices" on 3/7/19.

Last updated: 10/17/21

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Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.