Picture this. You’re sitting down on a bench in the gym. Waiting for a full squat rack because of course there’s only one. And you look around the gym, trying not to get too upset that the one rack is being taken by a guy doing curls. And you get to thinking.
You’ve seen a lot of these people before. Some of the regulars that seem to be there every day. There’s that one guy that you just KNOW will be on bench press at 5:45 on a Tuesday evening, lifting 135lbs. Another who will ALWAYS be on the lat pulldown at 6 on Monday evening doing 100lbs.
That’s just two examples of many. And you notice that a lot of them seem to be in exactly the same shape as two years ago. And they’re lifting the same weights.
I was always aware of this occurrence. But it was reinforced the other day when I was in just that situation waiting for the squat rack.
And is it good enough to just go to the gym? Or should you be trying to progress?
What is progressive overload?
To some it is considered the most important law in strength training. A critical concept for you to understand if you wish to make progress.
Simply defined it is the gradual increase in stress placed upon the body during any kind of fitness training.
Even more simply defined it can be likened to any area of life. Think learning times tables as a kid. You don’t spend all your time on the simple 2 times table. To get better and progress you must work on bigger and bigger 2 times. And then the 3 times. The 4 times. And so on.
So how does this relate to exercise?
If you go to the gym day in day out, and do the same weight, with the same number of reps, same number of sets, at the same tempo, your body adjusts. It no longer becomes challenging and is just a routine.
For your muscles to become bigger, to gain strength, or even increase cardiovascular capacity, you need to place greater and greater strain on your body. The human body adapts to the requirements you place on it.
No increase in requirements, no adaptation and progress. It is about becoming better, doing more over time.
Let’s use an example of a person (who we will call Gainz) who performs 3 sets of 6 reps of 100lb bench press twice per week. For Gainz, this is the stimulus his body receives on a regular basis. Without changing this routine, his body will have no reason to adapt and grow.
For Gainz to create overload, it will require an increase in one of the methods of progressive overload. If he were to increase the weight to 110lb, or increase the reps to 7 per set, this will provide a reason for his body to adapt.
This is because the above increase is more than what has been done before. Gainz is making a requirement of his body to become better. And his body will respond with an increase in strength and hypertrophy.
So, who exactly is progressive overload for?
Anyone who wants to achieve some kind of progress. Be it more strength, bigger muscles, better cardiovascular health.
Now don’t get me wrong, as a newbie you will see progress with the same weight and rep scheme. For a while….
But sooner or later you will hit a plateau, where you will see no more improvement. That’s when you need to challenge yourself with progressive overload.
However, if you’re a person who simply enjoys getting to the gym and working out, progressive overload probably isn’t for you. If you have no desire to lift more or get better, but simply to maintain your physique, feel free to continue your normal workouts.
In fact, I’ve seen many people doing the same routine day after day for years. And to be honest, that’s quite impressive in its own way. The dedication is real there. But there will be no progress. If however, they’re there just to enjoy it and go home then more power to them.
Prerequisites for progressive overload
Before you dive right in we need to discuss some prerequisites.
Correct Form. Progressive overload can only be done with exercises performed with proper technical form.
You will need to have full and correct range of motion in the movement. Without this, you will be progressing and improving on bad habits and potentially injury inducing form.
Think of it as the need to ingrain good habits. Start with a very light weight, or no weight at all. Learn to perform the movement with precise and perfect form. Then you can go on and add load.
Patience. Progress will not be linear, and often takes a long time once you have been training for quite a while. You will still stall. But it’s about knowing how to get past those plateaus and move forward.
Strength of mind. It takes a particular mindset to not get bored. You need to allow a reasonable amount of time for each exercise to see progress. You can’t be changing up your exercise routine every week.
Desire. Hand in hand with the above, you must have the desire to progress. There must be a good reason behind what you are trying to achieve. Anything less, and the hard work will quickly get to you and enthusiasm will dissolve into thin air.
Now I’m not saying you should create a workout and stick to it forever. But you will need to commit to a program for a while before seeing progress. And then maybe making some optimization changes later.
Methods of progressive overload
There are a number of ways that you can achieve progressive overload. The most common ones are shown below.
Weight – The most well known and easiest to understand method of progression. It means adding more weight. If you can do 8 reps of 100lb, try 105 or 110lb next workout, continuing with your target rep range. This is the best method for strength gain.
Volume – This is a key driver of hypertrophy, and bigger muscles. Bigger muscles generally have a greater potential for strength gains as well. Volume can be a higher rep range, or additional sets in a workout. If you’re doing 3 sets of 6 reps, try 3 sets of 8 reps, 4 sets of 6 reps. Or how about both? 4 sets of 8 reps anyone?
Density – This refers to the time between sets. The shorter the time between sets, the harder the work will be. This may not be ideal for strength, and you will also need to make sure fatigue doesn’t wreck your form.
Frequency – Is the number of workouts you are performing. If you are doing 3 workouts per week, you could try going for 4. Just be sure that you aren’t working all the same muscles every workout. And that you are also getting enough rest and recovery. That’s a big key to progress in the gym too!
Time under tension – A popular term in bodybuilding circles, it relates to the amount of time your muscle is under strain. For example, if you slow down the negative part of a bicep curl from 1 second to 3 seconds. In this example you are getting 3 times the time under tension in that part of the exercise. Add in the gravity factor and you are getting more out of the curl without doing more reps or sets.
A common way many people incorporate progressive overload is with a weight and volume method. This involves having a rep range, say 6 to 8, and using a weight you can reach at least 6 with. But once you can get to 8 for each set, you increase the weight so again you’re back at 6.
For example, a weight and rep progression might look like:
200*8/8/8 – more weight
210*8/7/6 – more reps
210*8/8/7 – more reps
210*8/8/8 – more weight
220*7/7/6 – more reps
Which should I use?
This totally depends on your long term goals.
If you focus only on increasing the amount of reps you do, you will achieve progressive overload. But, you will also be training more towards endurance. It does not especially suit training to increase maximum strength. For that, you would need to incorporate overload with weight.
Most commonly volume and weight are used together as per the example above. It is likely however, that at some point you will use some if not all the other methods.
This is because despite all best efforts you will likely hit a plateau anyway. For those that have been training a while, you will often need to try different methods to continue progressing. You may increase density or time under tension for a few weeks, before returning to strength efforts. You may then find yourself stronger than you were before.
It is also worth training various rep ranges. Research varies on what is best. Common thought is that strength is built in a 4-8 rep range, muscle hypertrophy in the 8-12 rep range, and endurance above that. Using multiple rep ranges is a well rounded approach, but you should err on one side depending on your goals.
How much should I progress?
Muscle and strength only increase in response to the requirements you place on them. But you need to continue to place greater demands in order for it to continue progressing.
In an ideal world this would continue to occur linearly. Unfortunately, the real world is much different. There will be times when you make great gains. And there will be times when you lose strength.
The extent of your progress can be dependent on a number of things. Weight, nutrition, experience, genetics, sleep, among other things.
So be patient. If you are new to training you will likely see great gains in the beginning. After you have been training a while these gains will start to level off. And you’ll need to work harder to keep progressing.
Take a longer term view. You may not improve from one week to the next. But over a longer period you should see an overall gain if you are working towards it properly.
And small gains make a big difference over the long term. Think about this. If you add just 2 lbs to a lift on average every month, over the course of a year that is 24 lbs. A not insignificant amount of weight!
Trust the process. You may reach one of these plateaus and have an overwhelming desire to switch up your routine, change exercises, or get frustrated. Don’t. Trust the process. You should try different methods of progressive overload as mentioned above. But the process should remain the same.
You will progress!
What about changing up my routine to confuse the muscles into growth and strength
This has been a more common theme in recent times. That you need to “confuse your muscles” or “keep your body guessing” to make gains.
This is just plain stupid.
Program hopping is a good way to hold yourself back from making progress. Starting a new training program every few weeks due to conflicting information, or in search of the perfect program, is sure to keep you where you are.
And as far as I am aware your muscles don’t have a brain. They can’t be “confused” into growing.
In fact the very method by which your body grows new muscle is exactly the same every time. Muscle protein synthesis occurs in a very systematic process that has nothing to do with how “confused” your muscles are.
The only thing that you may need to change from time to time is the method of progressive overload you choose to use. And then usually only to overcome a plateau.
Don’t fall into these traps
Unless you are new to weight training, you will need to mind your nutrition in order to make any kind of progress in strength. It is important that you are in a caloric surplus or neutral in calories to have a better chance of progressing to heavier weights.
When you are cutting or losing weight you are generally going to be in a caloric deficit. This means that you are going to lose some muscle along with the fat. It is inevitable. Don’t fret over it. And don’t try to keep pushing if your body cannot handle it.
This leads us to form again. If you put too much pressure on yourself to progress with heavier and heavier weights, your form can suffer. And remember correct form is a prerequisite to effective progressive overload.
Using poor form, momentum, or otherwise ‘cheating’ in order to lift a heavier weight is not only likely to lead to injury, but also has a negative effect on the muscles you want to grow. This is because you will be recruiting other muscles to compensate for your poor form. These muscles tend to take a lot of the load, leaving you no better off than had you done a correct lift with proper form.
Poor form also makes it very difficult to actually track your progress. Think about a squat with a full range of motion vs one that doesn’t’ even get close to parallel. Even if you lifted more weight, did you really progress?
The mental models and habits that will get you there
Once you make the very wise decision to pursue progressive overload, your training life becomes much simpler. You will not need to switch up your program every week or follow the latest instagram workout fad.
You will need to create a good program though. One that will cater to your needs and goals. Make sure that you incorporate effective compound lifts as well.
From there, you will need to have some kind of tracking. Whether it is an app, notes on your phone, or a good old fashioned notebook, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are tracking your progress.
You cannot expect to make progress if you don’t set goals. And you definitely cannot expect to make progress if you don’t track how much work you are doing. Unless you have a photographic memory you won’t remember the weights you used, or the reps you did from one workout to the next. It just won’t happen.
So do yourself a favor and commit to recording. It’s also very motivating when you get to look back and see the progress you have made. It keeps you coming back for more.
What are you waiting for?
This is an exciting time. You now understand the principle of progressive overload. One of the holy grails of fitness training. Now it’s time to get out there and put that knowledge to good use.
Let me know how it goes. Email me, I’d love to hear from you!
Now go do it!