If you’re not applying the principle of progressive overload to your training, then you’re not being as effective, nor gaining as much, as you could be. It’s as simple as that.

The progressive overload principle is not difficult to understand: You stimulate gains most rapidly when you progressively increase your training load over time. The human body adapts to stress. So, for it to continually adapt, it must be continually stressed.  

You can increase load in a variety of ways, but typically you do it by increasing the volume or intensity of your training. This means you do more work and/or you work harder.

Many of you in the strength training community will already know and understand this principle. You know that to be able to lift more, you have to lift more. But it’s not just a weight lifting thing. Progressive overload can and should be applied (safely) to all types of training, including endurance/aerobic, balance, and flexibility training.

When you adjust your workouts to safely and progressively increase the amount of actual work you do, you will stress your body in a way that results in rapid improvement.

How To Do Progressive Overload In Strength Training

Whether your goal is to get stronger, more muscular, or more powerful, overload is key. Weight training in particular offers an abundance of ways to progressively overload your workouts. You can:

Lift more weight

Progressively increase the number of plates you’re putting on your barbell or dumbbell. Even if it’s only a couple of pounds at a time.

Do more reps

If you’re working with a given weight, do more reps of that weight. Barring setbacks (injury, illness, etc.), you shouldn’t be doing the same number of reps with the same weight that you were doing even one week ago.

Do more sets

This is a particularly effective way to substantially increase your training volume. You can do more sets in a single session or across multiple sessions.

Increase the tempo

Lifting weights more explosively taxes both your muscle fibres and your neuromuscular system(s). Ensure that the increased tempo is on the way up, and that you’re still controlling the weight, especially on the way down. No wild swinging or jerking movements, please!

Decrease the tempo

In some instances, decreasing the tempo of your lifts—especially the negative or eccentric phase—can be an effective way to overload by increasing the target muscle’s time-under-tension.

Do different exercises

Exercise variation allows you to challenge muscles in different ways: Through different ranges of motions and at different angles. It also helps when you need to take the stress off commonly used joints.

If you train calisthenics (a.k.a. bodyweight training), then you can use all of these methods to progressively overload your workouts. Admittedly, it’s harder to increase the weight because your body is the weight and you can’t easily manipulate it like you can with free weights or machines. Instead, use progressions (the name is not a coincidence) or weighted clothing. For example, you might do archer push-ups instead of regular push-ups, and use a dip belt or weighted vest to do weighted dips and pull-ups.

Notice that there’s no prescription for how much weight you should be lifting, or how many reps you should be doing, or the tempo you should be working at. That’s because the progressive overload principle is independent of these numbers. Whether you lift at 95% of your one-rep max or 75%, do 3-5 rep sets or 10-15 rep sets, or do three sets or five The principle applies and works just the same.

And it’s not just weight training where it applies and works either.

Overloading Exercises Other Than Weight Training

You can also use progressive overload to increase your endurance, balance and/or flexibility.

In the same way that you would increase the training load when lifting, you need to progressively increase your training load in other modalities.

For example, if you like to run or cycle, then going the same distance, at the same speed, for the same amount of time will not help you build your endurance. You need to progressively increase the training load by running or riding further and further, faster and faster, or for longer and longer. Treadmills and exercise bikes are fantastic for this purpose as they precisely measure a range of variables that you can use in your overload training, such as speed, cadence, distance, elevation/incline, and heart rate. Fitness trackers and watches with GPS are also useful.

Similarly, if you’re trying to improve your flexibility and mobility, then doing the same stretches at the same depth over and over isn’t going to cut it. Push yourself to stretch deeper, do different stretches, and hold your stretches for longer.

The benefits of intelligently using progressive overload in your training will quickly make themselves obvious.

Benefits of Progressive Overload

If you’re not already incorporating the principle of progressive overload into whatever training you’re doing, then hopefully the information above has convinced you it’s time to start. If and when you do, some of the benefits you can expect to see are:

  1. Increased strength
  2. Increased muscular hypertrophy
  3. Improved muscular and cardiovascular endurance
  4. Fewer and shorter training plateaus
  5. Improved sport-specific performance
  6. Faster weight loss
  7. More interesting and stimulating workouts

But while it’s nice to know about and experience these benefits, you also need to know that overloading your training is no cakewalk and it does come with risks.

Limitations of Progressive Overload

If done improperly, you risk injuring yourself ending up with other health problems that take longer to fix.

Progressive overload can produce great results, but they must be achieved at a moderate pace. Planning is key here. Identify which elements of your training load (e.g., volume, intensity, frequency, etc.) to manipulate and then create a plan for gradually increasing this over time. Track your workouts using a fitness tracker or tracking app, and stick to your plan even if you feel like you could push yourself further or faster.

If it’s a viable option for you, working with a professional such as a certified trainer is the best way to get a customized plan that meets your goals and matches your current health status.

If getting the help of a professional isn’t on the cards for you, the best way to safely use progressive overload is by starting slow and only doing it with exercises that you’re proficient in. Placing increased stress on your body while also using incorrect form or technique is a recipe for injury and disappointment.

Finally, take notice of how well your body is recovering both in training sessions and between. Adequate recovery is a crucial component of overload training. If you notice that you’re becoming overly tired or sore, or seeing a marked decrease in your performance, it’s time to back off and reassess your plan.

Should I Progress Every Workout?

Logic will tell you that it’s not possible to progress in every workout indefinitely. If it was, there’d be athletes regularly performing supernatural physical feats. So, the tempting response is to say “no, you shouldn’t progress every workout, take it slow, so on and so forth.”

While all humans have a natural ceiling to their physical abilities, only professional athletes will ever get close to theirs. Your average recreational athlete is unlikely to ever even approach the limits of their capability.

So I say, yes! Try to make some progress in every workout. Use your common sense and listen to your body, of course, but if you can do one extra rep, lift one extra pound, or run for one extra minute then why not do it? If doing a little more every session fits your progression plan, then go for it.

How Long Does Progressive Overload Take?

Systematically increasing the demands of your workout will produce results, but the magnitude of results will vary from person to person. When you’re just starting out you will see quicker gains than you will after having trained consistently for an extended period.

There is simply no definitive answer to how long it will take for you to see results.

Rather than looking for an exact time frame for results, however, set a goal and then plan a progression that will help you to reach it. For example. If you’re able to run 3 miles a day now, but you want to increase to 8 miles a day, build a conservative schedule that helps you get there. You may not get it right the first time either. But if you track your progress you’ll be able to see if your plan is errant and adjust it accordingly.


Words: Eamonn @ The Home Fit Freak