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Progressive Overload – The Seriously Important Principle for Your Gains

Progressive Overload – The Seriously Important Principle for Your Gains

progressive overload featured image

Progressive overload is an absolute must if you want to get stronger and build muscle.

But what is it?

Put simply, it is the gradual increase in difficulty of your workout program over time. Time in this sense refers to session to session, week to week and month to month – rather than intra-workout.

This could be an increase in weight lifted, reps done, sets done, time under tension or exercise difficulty.

Increasing one or more of these variables over time will result in getting stronger.

Progressive overload using load or weight

This is the simplest form of progressive overload.

Example: You lift 100 lbs on bench press for one set of 8 reps.

One week later, you lift 105 lbs on bench press for one set of 8 reps.

The same number of total reps was done over the same number of sets (one) but the load on the bar increased. The increases in weight should be as small as possible. For this reason, it can sometimes be easier to progress with a barbell on certain exercises, because you can add small increments such as 1.25kg or 2.5 lbs. Dumbbells often go up in 2kg or 5lb increments – per hand, which can be too much on certain exercises.

Increasing weight like this across sessions is a simple form of progressive overload that will see you get stronger.

Progressive overload using reps

Another way to apply progressive overload is to increase the number of reps you’re able to perform with the same weight, from one session to the next.

Example: You lift 100 lbs on bench press for one set of 8 reps and you could not have lifted another rep with good form.

One week later, you lift 100 lbs on bench press for one set of 9 reps with good form.

You were able to lift more reps with the same weight, whilst keeping good form, therefore progressive overload has been applied.

You can continue like this for a long time, adding reps each session, and it will lead to increases in strength and stimulate muscle hypertrophy (growth of muscle tissue). If you have a goal to gain muscle and get stronger (and you’re not worried about maximal tests of that strength, e.g. in competitions) then it won’t matter if your reps get higher and higher. There is no such thing as a “hypertrophy rep range”. This meta analysis looked at 21 studies and the findings were that the rep range people trained in made no significant difference for hypertrophy as long as sets were taken to failure.

Progressive overload using sets

Adding more hard sets for a particular muscle group is another way to progressively overload.

For example, if I perform 3 hard sets to near muscular failure on leg press one week, and then add a fourth hard set to near failure then this is also progressive overload – even if the weight was lighter or fewer reps were done on the last set.

Example – First Week:

Set 1: 300 lbs x 10 reps

Set 2: 300 lbs x 8 reps

Set 3: 210 lbs x 10 reps

Example – Second Week:

Set 1: 300 lbs x 10 reps

Set 2: 300 lbs x 8 reps

Set 3: 210 lbs x 10 reps

Set 4: 210 lbs x 8 reps

 

This is an example of progressive overload.

What would NOT be progressive overload is adding another set that doesn’t come close to muscular failure. For example, if I added a 5th set and did 3 reps with 190 lbs, but could have done another 8 reps before reaching failure, then that is more than likely not going to have any significant impact for muscle and strength gains.

Sets have to be hard. It is during those last reps where the weight starts to move more slowly (and you couldn’t lift it faster despite all your efforts) that the most muscle damage is done. This damage occurs to the muscle fibres on a microscopic level and is sometimes referred to as “micro tears”. Between your workouts, these micro tears are healed and the muscle is built back stronger than it was before (supercompensation).

This study indicates that set difficulty and not total volume (as measured by total reps x weight) is important for hypertrophy. The compared two groups. One group performed sets of 10 with a 10 rep max load (so they lifted to failure with 10 reps). The other group did the same thing, but with a 30 second rest after 5 reps, so they effectively did twice as many sets but stopped 5 reps from failure on each one. This made their training less effective.

Progressive overload using time under tension

Time under tension refers to how long your muscles spend producing force against a resistance (the weights, gravity etc.).

If you are preforming a set of bench presses and your reps all take 4 seconds (2 seconds on the eccentric (the way down) and 2 seconds on the concentric (the way up)) and you do 10 reps, then the total time under tension for that exercise is 40 seconds. In reality, if the set is hard enough for stimulating strength and hypertrophy gains then the last few reps will take longer than the first ones.

With this example, if you were able to use longer eccentric and/or concentric phases (e.g. 3 or 4 seconds each) and are still able to lift the same weight for the same number of reps then you have definitely gotten stronger. Try this! It’s really difficult and is a great way to get more from lighter weights.

The first time you try this the number of reps you can get before failure will probably be significantly reduced. You can then build it back up by adding more reps over the coming weeks to apply progressive overload and get stronger.

Don’t rest between reps. You often see this with people resting at the top of a bench press or squat. There is no tension on the muscles in this position. The weight is supported by your skeleton rather than your musculature.

So while you’re waiting there resting, your muscles are recovering. The above linked study is relevant to this point. If you perform 10 reps with a weight without resting between reps (continuous tension on muscles) then you perform 11 reps the next week but rest for 5 seconds between reps, you cannot call this progressive overload. Likewise, if your reps speed up to get that 11th rep it is also not progressive overload because the time under tension has reduced.

Progressive overload using exercise difficulty

progressive overload using resistance bands

Tie the band round the bar, and put your knee or foot in the bottom

Another way you can apply progressive overload to a training program is by increasing the difficulty of exercises.

This could be starting with standard forms of exercises and progressing to more advanced ones (e.g. pushups to decline pushups with feet raised above hands)

Alternatively, it could be starting with regressed forms of exercises and progressing to more advanced ones. This could be a partial range of motion squat to a box, that progresses to a lower box, and eventually removes the box. It could also be assisted pullups using a resistance band, progressing to unassisted pullups. Over time you would change to using lighter bands and combine different thickness bands together. Eventually you’ll be using just a thin band and then performing unassisted pullups.

Starting with regressed versions of exercises and progressing to more advanced variations is a good way for many beginners to progressively overload if they lack strength or mobility to perform certain exercises.

Which Type of Progressive Overload is Right for You?

You might be wondering whether you should be trying to increase your weights every workout, add a rep, add a set or focus on increased time under tension.

Which one is right for you will depend on your training experience and circumstances.

Progressive Overload for Beginners

Many beginners will progress very fast and can increase their weights from workout to workout.

For example, a beginner might be able to add 2.5kg or 5lbs to their squat, deadlift and bench press every workout. This is called single progression because you are only focusing on one variable (weight/load).

This leads to rapid progress. In a month, a beginner can easily add 20 lbs to their bench press. In three months, they can add 60 lbs. This is remarkable progress (often referred to as “newbie gains”) which you won’t see at any other point of your training career.

You should take advantage of this and increase your weights often if you can and if you have good form. Just adding 1 rep per workout is a great form of progressive overload, but for many beginners it will be leaving strength gains on the table.

Eventually, these rapid strength gains will stop. It usually slows down and stops somewhere around the 6 month mark. You’ll know you’re at this point when it starts becoming very difficult, or impossible, to increase the weights you’re lifting from workout to workout. You might increase the weights, but the number of reps you’re able to do decreases, or your form becomes noticeably worse.

Not all beginners should add weight to their lifts

If you’re still not sure how to perform certain lifts, then you shouldn’t be adding weight to them. Instead, you should focus on improving your form first. Improvements in form will result in progression and increased strength, as you’ll lift with more control and target your muscles more effectively, increasing the time they spend under tension.

If you’re less confident or you’re struggling with form, it’s absolutely best to use light weights that you can lift for a lot of reps (10+). You’ll still get benefits from lifting these weights, you’ll get more technique practise from performing more reps, and there’ll be a lower injury risk.

You may not be at the point where you’re using weight for exercises. You might be using bodyweight exercises, in which case you should focus on using good form and adding reps from workout to workout. This will build your strength with these exercises and you will eventually be able to progress to more difficult exercise variations.

For example, if you’re doing pushups from your knees and you progress your sets from 10 reps to 20 reps over a number of weeks, you may have enough strength to start doing full pushups, or pushups with your hands raised higher than your feet. Eventually you’ll be strong enough to do pushups with your feet higher than your hands, which is a harder variation.

progressive overload to decline pushups

Increasing your weights from workout to workout is only a good idea for a beginner if you’ve got good form and you’re confident with the exercises. When you can no longer increase your weights every workout, it’s time to change approach.

Progressive Overload for Intermediate Trainees

Intermediates will no longer be able to increase their weights every workout.

A good approach for intermediates is to add reps within a range, then increase their weights once they can hit or exceed the top of that rep range. This is called double progression, because you’re manipulating two training variables to make progress (reps and weight/load).

For example, the rep range could be 8-10 reps. In the first session, the trainee might only manage to hit a set of 8, a set of 7 and a set of 6. They should focus on bringing the reps up on each set. Eventually they’ll be able to perform more than 10 reps with this weight – at which point the weight should be increased and the process repeated.

If you’re an early stage intermediate (you were more recently a beginner), you might be able to add more than one rep per week. This is fine, add whatever you can.

A later stage intermediate may only be able to add one rep to one of their sets. For example, if they lifted a weight for sets of 10, 8 and 6 one week, they might only manage 10, 8, 7 the next week.

Eventually you will reach a point where you can’t add a rep every week. This is usually when you’re an advanced trainee.

Progressive Overload for Advanced Trainees

Advanced trainees can’t add a rep every workout, and they certainly can’t increase their weights every workout.

Advanced trainees should use something called triple progression. This is where you manipulate three training variables by also adjusting the number of sets performed.

Triple Progression Example:

  • Week 1: 50 x 12, 11, 10
  • Week 2: 50 x 12, 12, 12
  • Week 3: 50 x 12, 12, 12, 10
  • Week 4: 50 x 12, 12, 12, 11
  • Week 5: 50 x 12, 12, 12, 12
  • Week 6: 50 x 12, 12, 12, 12, 11
  • Week 7: 50 x 12, 12, 12, 12, 12
  • Week 8: 52.5 x 12, 11, 10

This is a simplified example. In reality it may take even longer than this to increase some of the sets to 12 reps.

Progressive Overload Workout Plan

Any workout program should contain progressive overload, but how fast you increase the weights depends on your level of training experience and the quality of your form.

If you’re a beginner, a full body program is usually a good idea. You can progress the workouts by adding weight or reps every workout. If you’re past the beginner stage, an upper/lower program might be right for you.

There are many popular workout programs that have progressive overload baked in. For beginners, Starting Strength and Stronglifts focus on low volume, high frequency and simplicity. They also both have you performing demanding barbell lifts and increasing the weights every session – so it’s vital that you have good form. For this reason they’re probably not good choices if you’ve just walked into the gym for the first time.

If you’re past the beginner stage and can no longer increase your weights every session, but you want to build muscle and get stronger at the “big four” barbell lifts (bench press, deadlift, squat and overhead press) then the 5-3-1 program by Jim Wendler is a great choice. It mixes rep increases with weight increases and manages overall workload well.

The Importance of Tracking Your Workouts

It’s absolutely vital that you track your workouts if you want to get stronger.

If you want to add weight or reps, you need to know what weight or reps you did last time. Therefore you need to refer back, or have a plan for what you need to lift on your imminent session. You might think you’ll be able to remember, and this may be the case at the start. Especially if you’re following a really simple program like Stronglifts 5×5 that only focuses on a few lifts and has a simple progression template.

As you get more advanced and move onto different training programs you WILL forget how many reps and what weights you used. It is therefore a good idea to get into the habit of tracking as early as you can.

Make a note of everything you lift. What weights you lifted and for how many reps on each set. It’s also helpful to add notes to sets as well like “felt easy!”. Looking back on these logs will help you to ensure you’re always progressing in some form from workout to workout.

You can use pen and paper, a spreadsheet on your phone, a specially designed workout tracking logbook or a purpose built workout tracking app.

Personally, I prefer to use an app. Pen and paper means I’ve got to bring too many things to the gym, and I’m not a naturally organised or neat person, so it’s highly likely my notes will get lost, or not be organized well enough to be useful.

If you get a good app, they’re great because all of your records are in your phone, and they can automatically produce insights for you like your estimated 1 rep max over time, your training volume over time and more.

My favourite workout tracking app is Strengthlog, I wrote a review on it here.

Progressive Overload Mistakes

Progressive overload is vital to gaining strength and muscle, but there are some mistakes to be wary of.

One of these mistakes is progressing too fast.

This is common in beginners who are coming to, or have reached the end of their “newbie gains” phase, but don’t realise that they can no longer increase the weights from session to session.

You shouldn’t progress if it isn’t honest. There’s no point in adding weight from the last week if you can’t lift it with good form.

Say, for example, you added 5 lbs to your bench press weight, but you had to compromise your form, lifting your bum off of the bench and reducing the range of motion by not touching the bar to your chest.

Using a reduced range of motion and worse form won’t stimulate the target muscles as effectively as full range of motion and good form.

This study found that full range of motion training elicited greater hypertrophy than partial range of motion. The takeaway from this? Don’t artificially inflate your numbers by doing more reps with a shorter range of motion, or worse form, in pursuit of progressive overload. This isn’t true progressive overload, it’s fudging your actual numbers.

Junk Volume

Another mistake people make when progressively overloading is by adding extra sets that aren’t difficult enough to stimulate gains. The total volume goes up if you measure it by reps x weight, but the number of difficult sets has not increased, and this matters more.

Example: Say you lifted 100 lbs for 3 sets of 10, and then you repeated this several days later, but could not add an extra rep. Doing an extra set with the same weight, but only doing 5 reps, will increase your total volume. However, this isn’t really progressive overload if the additional set stopped a long way from failure. Sets need to be somewhat difficult and approach failure to stimulate strength and hypertrophy gains.

Not training the same movements frequently enough

If you change your exercises up too frequently, or you’re absent from the gym for long periods, you will struggle to make any progress. Training effectively will improve your strength and your skill, as your body adapts to the stresses placed on it. However, these adaptations only last for a short period of time. If you don’t make use of these new adaptations you will lose them.

If you train and then go several weeks without training, it’s likely that you’ll have lost your adaptations by the time you come back. The same happens when people train often, but don’t have a consistent routine where they’re performing the same movements frequently. This is common with people who have no plan and people who jump from class to class.

Training too frequently

Training the same muscle groups too frequently will make progressive overload and getting stronger very difficult.

After training, your body is weakened and needs time to recover. If you try to train the same muscle groups again while you’re still in this recovery period, it’s likely that you won’t even be able to match your previous performance.

You don’t get stronger in the gym. You get weaker, and then you get stronger between your workouts when your body rebuilds and makes adaptations as you rest.

How long this process takes varies from person to person and depends on various factors like how much training volume was done for a muscle group and how close each set was to failure.

It is individual, but most people need at least 48 hours for recovery, and many will need 72 hours or perhaps even longer.

I’ve written about this here, but here’s an excerpt from that article.

This study examined the effect of different recovery periods on muscle recovery by testing subjects 8RM (8 repetition max) on bench press and then testing it again after 24, 48 and 72 hours. Performance 24 hours after the first session was significantly worse compared to when 48 and 72 hours were allowed for recovery.
Even after 72 hours, 63% of the subjects (trained men) were not fully recovered. However, the training had involved 4 sets to failure on 3 different bench press exercises (flat, 30 and 45 degree incline). Recovery would likely have been better without as much volume and without so many sets to failure.
In this study involving 3 sets to failure, 80% of the subjects (age 18-30) were recovered after 72 hours. At 24 hours, the subjects performed worse than baseline. After 48 hours they tended to match their baseline performance. At 72 hours they tended to exceed their baseline performance – suggesting that 72 hours is better than 48 hours for recovery. When the sets were increased from 3 to failure, to 7 to failure, recovery was lengthened to 96 hours.
The study also tested older men (50-65) with 3 sets to failure and found that even after 96 hours 70% of these men were not recovered. This highlights the extra importance of recovery for older men.

Can progressive overload continue endlessly?

You should try to progressively overload when you can, but it won’t always be possible.

Fatigue will build up from overloading constantly, until it gets to a point where you can’t make progress from your last workout.

This is when a deload is needed.

A deload is usually a week long and is a period where you place a greater emphasis on recovery. Your training sessions should be easy. The goal is not to make any progress in a deload week. You can even take the whole week off, or do some other light activity instead. The idea is that you’re allowing your body to recover.

If you do train, you should significantly lower your training weights and lift the same reps, or significantly lower your reps but lift the same weights.

This way you’ll be coming nowhere near to failure in your sets. You keep your body moving, keep up the momentum and habit of going to the gym, get some technique practise, but you don’t stress your body. This means you can recover much better.

Some people reduce all of their weights by 50% and lift for the same reps, or lift the same weights but for 50% of the usual reps.

Either way, deloads are a vital part of progression. They might feel counter productive, but you’ll actually make more progress and gain more strength in the long run by incorporating them. You’ll often come back stronger when you return to higher intensity training. Deloads are usually needed somewhere between every 6 and 12 weeks. It’s better to take them before they’re neeeded!

Here’s a summary:

The key things to remember are:

  • Try to improve in some aspect from workout to workout.
  • Most people should try to improve their form, add a small amount of weight or increase the number of reps.
  • Keep training logs and refer back to them to ensure you’re making progress.
  • Remember that you won’t always be able to add more weight. Sometimes you’ve just got to add a rep, or improve your form so your muscles spend more time under tension.
  • Don’t try to progress too fast. Lifting more, but with worse form doesn’t help you.
  • Be consistent. Don’t miss sessions often or take so long to come back to a muscle group that the adaptations from the last training session have disappeared.
  • Don’t train too frequently! Once you’ve trained a muscle group and progressed from the last session, allow it to recover before training it again. Most people need 48-72 hours to be fully recovered.
  • Back off every so often and take deloads so you can recover from all of this progressive overload.

I’ve got some free program templates you can download here if you want some sensible programs to apply progressive overload to.

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