Millions of people spend hours and hours each week grinding away in the gym.
Yet, for all that “sweat equity” poured into working out, but not everyone actually see the results they want.
While there can be a number of reasons why someone isn’t seeing the results they want from their time spent exercising, one of the main reasons is that they aren’t pushing themselves hard enough in their weekly workouts.
Today, we discuss one of the most essential components to losing fat or building muscle during your transformation challenge --progressive overload.
What is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload can be summed up in two words -- “do more.”
A more technical definition of progressive overload could be:
“The gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.”
The concept of progressive overload was pioneered by Dr. Thomas Delorme while he rehabilitated soldiers following World War II.
In the context of your daily workouts, “doing more” can mean several different things and take several different forms in your training, but the end result is that your muscles do more than they previously have.
At its essence, progressive overload is the very foundation of muscle and strength building.
Applied consistently, progressive overload ensures you’ll continue to gain strength and build muscle (provided that your diet and sleep practices are also on point -- you need all three to be on point to experience success).
why it’s important and give examples on how to incorporate progressive overload beyond adding weight every workout.
Why is Progressive Overload Needed to Get Results?
The human body is incredibly advanced.
Without question, it is the most sophisticated machine ever created.
The human body has been engineered (and evolved over the eons) to come face-to-face with, respond to, and adapt, to just about anything and everything.
What this means is that whenever the human body encounters a stimulus (such as performing a squat) for the first time, the body perceives a stress, experiences a reaction (such as mechanical tension or muscle damage), and then “adapts” by enacting a set of “countermeasures” (protein synthesis, glycogen replenishment, etc.) so that the body is better prepared to handle said stimulus they next time it encounters it.
Based on this, if you never expose the body to new stimuli (lifting more weight, completing more reps, etc.), it stops adapting (growing bigger, getting stronger) as it has already acclimated to the demands imposed upon it.
So, if you want to get really good at only squatting the bar, keep doing that ad infinitum.
But if you want to gain strength and see results from your training, you need to continue to challenge your body to lift more weight, do more reps, etc.
Essentially, muscles respond to the demand imposed on them.
You MUST force them to experience ever-increasing amounts of stress in your training career, lest you hit the dreaded plateau.
So, how do you increase the stress that your muscles experience during your workouts?
We cover that next!
How to Incorporate Progressive Overload in Your Workouts
Common advice typically recommended for applying progressive overload during workouts is to just “add weight to the bar.”
And, make no mistake, adding weight to the bar is a fantastic method for driving progressive overload in your workouts, especially if you’re relatively new to training as newbies gains strength and size very quickly.
However, there comes a point in every gym rat’s journey when they can’t keep adding weight to the bar with each successive workout.
If you could keep adding weight to the bar ad infinitum, you’d be pressing, squatting, and deadlifting thousands and thousands of pounds.
Unfortunately, even the most naturally gifted of gym goers hit a point where adding weight isn’t feasible.
Does this mean that you’ve hit a plateau and you stop getting results?
Not at all.
You just have to find another way to challenge your muscles to “do more.”
Fortunately, there are a number of other ways to incorporate progressive overload into your workouts besides increasing load.
Remember, progressive overload holds that muscles need to be forced to “do more” in order to get stronger or bigger.
The manner in which you make them “do more” can be one of any of the following way:
- Adding weight to the bar
- Increasing reps
- Adding sets
- Increasing range of motion while lifting the same weight
- Increasing time under tension by manipulating lifting tempo (eccentrics, 1.5 reps, isometric holds, etc.)
- Completing more reps in the same amount of time (thereby increasing training density)
- Lifting the same weight for the same amount of sets and reps while resting less between sets (which again increases training density)
- Lifting the same weight with greater speed and acceleration
- Reducing perceived exertion (i.e. lifting the same weight for the same number of sets and reps while feeling less taxed after a set is completed)
- Increasing training frequency (how many times you train a particular muscle group each week)
- Lifting the same load while reducing body fat (which increases relative strength to weight ratio)
As you can see there are a multitude of ways to challenge your muscles to do more work in your training sessions, but before you start experimenting with these different progressive overload techniques, you need to understand a couple of “ground rules” about resistance training:
Block Out the Noise
We all want to look good at the gym. That includes not only how our physiques look, but also how we look while we’re actually working out (i.e. how much weight we’re lifting).
Caught up in trying to look good, we’re all tempted to match (or lift more) weight than we see others lifting.
As tempting as this may be, we’re going to advise that you avoid this practice.
Your focus when working out is to improve upon your own numbers (sets, reps, weights) from the last time you hit the gym. It isnot trying to out-bench, out-curl, or out-hip-thrust, the other people in the gym.
Remember, progressive overload is based on your work in the gym, not that of someone else.
Therefore, you should not sacrifice exercise form for the sake of progressive overload.
When you use body english, short change range of motion, or extend your rest periods for the sake of trying to beat the logbook, you’re not actually completing more work.
Sure, you will be able to scribble down a bigger number in your workout journal, but did you actually make your muscles do more work since you “cheated” the exercise?
This is why exercise execution (how you perform a movement) takes top priority to progressive overload.
If you can’t perform an exercise properly (using a full range of motion and moving the weight under control), you have no business trying to progress it.
However, once you can “own” a particular movement at a given weight and volume, then you should try to progressively overload it in one of the forms listed above.
Now that you understand the fundamentals of progressive overload, let’s take a look at a few examples of how to put it into practice.
Progressive Overload Examples
Adding weight to the bar
Example: Hip Thrust 225# for 3 sets x 8 reps with 2 minutes rest
The most basic (and frequently recommended) form of progressive overload is to add weight (increase resistance).
For example, let’s say your first workout, you performed 3 sets of 8 reps on the hip thrust using 225lbs with 2 minutes rest in-between sets.
To apply progressive overload using increasing resistance, your next training session, you would add 2.5-5 lbs. to each side of the bar, and again try to complete 3 sets of 8 repetitions (using a full range of motion with control) while still resting 2 minutes between sets.
When you complete 8 reps across all three sets with 2 minutes of rest between each set, you would then increase the weight again.
Example: Squat 185lbs for 3 sets of 6-10 reps with 3 minutes rest between sets
Using the squat example listed above, let’s say your recent leg workout began with three sets of squats and you completed the following:
- Set #1: 10 reps
- Set #2: 9 reps
- Set #3: 8 reps
You successfully completed 10 reps on the first set, but managed to complete only 9 reps on the second set and 8 reps on the third set.
Since you did not hit the upper limit of the prescribed rep range on all three sets (10 reps each set), you will keep the weight on the bar the same and try to complete more reps on sets #2 and #3 (while still keeping your rest between sets at 3 minutes).
When you are able to complete 10 reps on each set of squats with 3 minutes rest in-between sets, you will then add weight to the bar so that you’re staying within the prescribed 6-10 rep range.
Increasing Training Density
Example: Chin Ups 3 sets x 8 reps with 2 minutes rest between sets
Let’s say that in your most recent workout, you successfully executed 3 sets of 8 reps of strict form chin ups, but you don’t want to add weight (i.e. wearing a weight vest or hanging some plates from your waist), or that you don’t have access to the equipment needed to do so.
Another way to incorporate progressive overload into your workouts is to reduce the amount of time you rest between sets.
Instead of resting two minutes between sets, you can decrease the rest between sets between 10-15 seconds while still attempting to complete 8 chin ups every set.
When you are able to again complete 3 sets of 8 reps of strict chin ups resting 1 minute 45 seconds between sets, you can then either try to again reduce rest between sets or apply progressive overload in one of the other fashions described above (incorporating pauses, 1.5 reps, adding weight, adding reps, etc.).
Progressive overload is essential to gaining strength, building muscle and seeing results from your training program (as well as improving any other facet of life and performance, really).
At the same time, you also need to make sure that you are eating right, getting enough sleep, and managing stress in order to see results in the gym.
But, at the end of the day, if you aren’t making your muscles do more over the course of your weeks of training, then you won’t see much in the way of progress.
Try implementing a few of the progressive overload options discussed above into your current training program and see how your results skyrocket!
- Kraemer, William J.; Fleck, Steven J. (2007). "Progressive Overload". Optimizing Strength Training: Designing Nonlinear Periodization Workouts. Human Kinetics. pp. 33–6. ISBN 978-0-7360-6068-4