What Is Progressive Overload?

Break this rule and you won't continue to see results from your fitness program.

Progressive overload is a strength training concept. It means to gradually make your workouts harder, over time.

Good training programs use strategy over time to achieve goals. Sometimes you need to focus on challenging yourself. Sometimes you need to take things easy in areas.

You might find that your routine isn't challenging anymore. The reason is likely because your body has adapted to your routine. You've reached a temporary plateau.

Progressive overload is the answer to breaking fitness plateaus.

Common questions people ask include:

  • What progressive overload is and why it's important for training?
  • How do you use progressive overload?
  • How can you use progressive overload effectively in a fitness plan?
  • How do you know when to increase the weights you are using?

In this article we're going to cover all those questions and hopefully some others you may have.

What is Progressive Overload and Why Do You Need it?

Progressive overload is a systematic process used to keep exercise routines challenging.

Progressive overload is based on the theory of how your body responds to fitness and fatigue (stress).

This process is known as the Fitness-Fatigue Paradigm.

A (Simplified) Explanation of Exercise Adaptation:

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

If you didn't overdo it-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 with some of the fatigue dissipated.

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

Why You Need to Learn to Apply Overload Properly

  • When exercise isn't challenging, your body doesn't have to adapt. (no gains short term)
  • If exercise is too easy long term, you can get in worse shape. Muscle is more inefficient and burns extra calories. Your body wants to get rid of it if you don't use it.
  • On the other end, when exercise is too challenging, your body won't adapt. It's too busy repairing to avoid injury.
  • You might need a day or two before you return to the gym after a really hard session.

More bad news on losing muscle, usually what's good for muscle is good for bone. You'll lose a bit of bone mass if you lose muscle.

All that being said, you need to work to find a balance. Pick one or two areas and focus on those while maintaining the others.

Let's talk about some of the ways that you can apply the concept of progressive overload.

9 Ways You Can Use Progressive Overload

Before you try anything new, be sure that you're getting as much out of the basic exercise as you can. Always ensure that you have good form above all else.

Without good form, you risk injury and leave results on the table.

Effective Ways to Apply Progressive Overload:

  1. Perform and 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.

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

I saved this question for last because it is really the most difficult to answer. 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.

Progressive overload 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

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

To get around this problem, there are a few load progression strategies that Dr. Mike Zourdos covered 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. I have trained in each.

Dr. Zourdos prefers a rating of perceived exertion system.

My college strength coach, Dr. Bryan Mann is credited with being the expert on the APRE.

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.

Want to Start a Training Program?

If you didn’t learn to lift in high school or it’s been a while, a weight room looks like a maze of weights, switches, knobs and bros.

Do more than just go pick up a dumbell; let’s create a plan to build strength, get sustainable results (and look like you know what you’re doing).

We’ll start with the basics of strength training and you’ll walk out with (a starter amount of) confidence.

Phone: 1-573-443-1495