They say it is better to work smart than hard. Now, while that isn’t necessarily true when it comes to developing your body, you certainly need to include elements of both. While you undoubtedly need to work incredibly hard to see results, you won’t go anywhere fast if you aren’t training effectively.
One of the most important aspects of working out that commonly gets overlooked is the principle of progressive overload. Often thought of as something associated only with bodybuilding, progressive overload is a core element of any successful workout routine, no matter what your goals may be.
Unfortunately, with lots of people incorrectly believing that they need to steer clear of all aspects of bodybuilding if they don’t want to develop big muscles, it is a principle that many don’t fully grasp. With that in mind, we want to help you get a better understanding of progressive overload.
We will explain exactly what it is and the benefits it offers, while showing you how to implement it into your own workouts. This will give you the ability to optimise your workouts and achieve the most impressive results possible moving forwards.
What Is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload is an effective technique used by people participating in physical workouts to build physical strength, size, or endurance. The goal of the routine is to create more musculoskeletal strength, helping you to complete more difficult workouts, ensuring the cycle of progress continues.
The idea behind progressive overload is to gradually increase the intensity of the workouts that you participate in. There are various ways to increase the difficulty of your sessions and the option you should pick depends entirely on the results you are hoping to achieve.
While progressive overload is most commonly used in strength training, it can also be used effectively in other disciplines as well. The most common usage of the principle outside of strength training is seen among individuals who want to focus on building size or endurance.
Benefits Of The Progressive Overload Schedule
There are a number of benefits that you can expect to achieve from using progressive overload. First of all, you are not trying to immediately push your body far beyond its limit. This means that you can safely use progressive overload to increase the intensity of your workout regime with very little risk.
A progressive overload workout program also focuses on continuing to offer your body challenges. This means you won’t experience short term boosts in your results that then plateau or wear away quickly as your body gets used to the load it is experiencing.
Studies have also shown the efficacy of progressive overload in a number of different areas.
Researchers have found that this particular method of training is extremely effective for increasing both muscle size and strength, while improvements in endurance, speed, stamina, and explosiveness have all been seen. The training style also seems to be equally effective for both men and women.
Ways To Implement Progressive Overload
While the concept of progressive overload focuses on gradually increasing the challenge in each of your sessions, there is more than one way to implement it. We will now look at all of the options you have, to ensure you know exactly how to make progressive overload work for you.
Increase The Weight
Raising the weight you perform an exercise with is the most common and, perhaps, most effective way to implement progressive overload. This simply involves raising the weight either every session or every few sessions. Some people even raise it every set, in a method called pyramid training.
This method is designed to get the fibres of a muscle used to handling larger loads and forces them to grow. This is the best way to use progressive overload for anyone training for size or strength and is also good for power.
Up Your Reps Or Speed
Upping the number or speed of reps in a set is a great way to utilise progressive overload, without having to use any extra weight. Increasing the number of reps will increase the endurance of a muscle’s fibres, while raising the speed will increase their explosiveness.
This is an ideal way to improve your explosive power and stamina, while it can also be used to train for size as well. This option should be avoided if training for strength though, as that requires you to perform a small number of slow, controlled reps with as much weight as you can manage.
Raise Your Training Volume
Raising your training volume means increasing either the number of sets or exercises you perform in a workout. By doing this, you can continue to train exactly as you normally would, only your sessions will become longer, and you will move more weight overall.
This is a particularly effective method for improving the size of a muscle, as hypertrophy is inherently linked to the amount of work you are doing. However, by forcing the muscle to work for longer at a high intensity, it is also a good way to improve your muscular endurance.
When increasing your training volume, it is, however, important that you don’t let the intensity of your training dip as fatigue, boredom, or apathy begin to set in.
Reduce Your Rest Times
Reducing your rest times simply means taking shorter breaks in between each set in a workout. This will let you keep the weights, reps, sets, and exercises of your workout the same as they usually are, as the reduced rest time will mean the muscles are still forced to work harder than normal.
Reducing your rest times is a great way to promote hypertrophy, as it maximises the strain a muscle is under by giving it less time to recover. Similarly, it is also great for developing endurance, as the muscles have to get used to working harder for longer.
Train More Frequently
Training more frequently uses a similar concept to the one we have just looked at, only this time you reduce the amount of rest you get between workouts, as opposed to between sets. This is a great option for increasing endurance, as it gets your muscles used to exercising more often.
It is also a great way to develop size too though, as increasing the frequency of your workouts will boost your training volume, which we have already established is essential for hypertrophy.
It is still important to make sure you give your muscles enough time to rest between session though, as they won’t grow if the fibres never have the opportunity to recover and develop.
Why Your Workout Needs Progressive Overload
Workouts need progressive overload if you are going to continue producing results as your training with stagnate and plateau without it. By continuing to make your workouts more challenging every time, you will keep your muscles guessing, forcing them to adapt.
No matter what your goals are, you always need to push yourself. By settling into a routine that you are overly comfortable with, you become complacent, and your muscles have no need to develop as they are already capable of moving the load in question.
By increasing the stimuli, your body will grow naturally, as your anatomy does what it can to prepare for what it thinks it to come, to prevent you from getting injured. This ensures that each and every session you complete produces results, even if they aren’t immediately obvious each time.
Are There Any Limitations Or Risks With Progressive Overload?
When you follow a carefully planned program, there are very few risks associated with progressive overload training. As with any type of weight bearing workout routines though, there are always going to be some risks due to the nature of the activity you are performing.
How you progress and the rate at which you increase the intensity of your workouts can be used to determine your own risks. If you raise the intensity too quickly then you may end up causing injury to your muscles, as they are physically incapable of dealing with the strain you put them under.
Similarly, if you don’t allow them to recover properly, they will not only fail to grow but the fibres will also become more fragile and much more prone to injury.
The limitations of progressive overload are few and far between, as it is such a mechanically effective way to develop your muscles. However, it can still lull people into a false sense of security and lead to certain plateaus without you even realising it.
If you start to see your results drop of while using progressive overload training, make sure you switch up the individual exercises you are using. This will give the muscles a whole new set of stimuli to get used to and allow you to start your preferred method of progressive overload all over again.
Progressive Overload Training Template
Progressive overload can be implemented differently in a wide range of exercise programs. This means that it is possible, if not likely, that a routine which starts out extremely similar for two people can look almost completely unrecognisable from one another after just a few weeks.
With this said, there are a few basic steps that you can use to set up an initial program. For example, here are a few ways in which you can use progressive overload in a squat routine over an 18 week period. We will start by raising the volume.
- During week one and two, perform 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 12 squats
- In week three and four, do 3 to 4 sets of 12 to 15 squats
- 12 to 15 squats is the max you usually want to use, so in weeks five and six up the sets and perform 5 to 6 sets of 12 to 15 squats
Now that the volume of reps and sets of squats you are performing it maxed out, we will now turn to increasing the weight you use to add more resistance to your workouts. Be aware though, the weights listed in this section are guides, so don’t use a resistance that you feel is unsafe.
- In weeks one to six, you will have been performing your squats with a weight of around 70% of your max lift. In week seven, add around 10% of what you have been using and lift this for weeks seven and eight
- By week nine, upgrade the weight by roughly 7.5% of what you have just been using and lift this for weeks nine and ten
- Once you reach week eleven, the weight can again be increased by another 5% and you will use this weight for weeks eleven and twelve
The final technique we will add to our squats in this progressive overload routine is reducing the rest times.
- In weeks one through twelve, you will have been using rest times of 1 minute between sets. For weeks thirteen and fourteen, you will drop this to 50 seconds of rest between sets
- In weeks fifteen and sixteen, you will again decrease the duration of your rest, this time to 40 seconds between sets
- In weeks seventeen and eighteen, you will drop the rest length one final time, down to 30 seconds between sets.
Over the course of the 18 weeks following this routine, you will have gone from performing 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 12 squats per session, with 60 seconds between sets, to 5 to 6 sets of 12 to 15 squats per session with 30 seconds between sets. You will also have increased the weight by around 20%.
From here, you can continue to adjust the weights indefinitely to continue using progressive overload. You can even raise the weight so significantly that you are forced to lower the reps and sets and increase the rest times, which will allow you to begin working your way back up again.
As in any workout, the suggested jump in each section is just a guideline. It is always important that you listen to your body and make sure not to attempt any lifts that you feel are in any way unsafe.
While the example outlined focuses on squats, you can use the same timeline on virtually every exercise in your routine. That said, you may find you need to increase the weights in smaller jumps on the isolation exercises, perhaps increasing it by half the amount you would for a squat.
Those using calisthenics exercises may often see that progress is a bit slower than what is in the plan as well. This is because not only are they often more challenging to begin with, but you also grow as you go along, increasing the weight without realising it, so don’t stress if you are a little bit off track.
What Signs Show That Progressive Overload Is Working?
The exact evidence that progressive overload is working will vary depending on what you are training for, but generally will lead to your performance or physique improving at a faster rate than it had been previously.
Whether that means you are getting bigger, stronger, faster, or even if it is improving your explosiveness, endurance, or flexibility, if you have applied the progressive overload principles correctly, you will be experiencing results much faster than you were before.
How To Ensure You Continue Seeing Results After The Initial Program
As we already touched on, altering the weights, either slightly or drastically, is the best way to continue seeing results after the initial program has been completed. However, you also want to make sure you keep switching the exercises around as well.
You can either switch the actual exercises you do, change the order in which you do them, or a combination of the two.
This will ensure your muscles are continually being pushed out of their comfort zone, engaging new fibres and allowing you to apply the same progressive overload techniques all over again.
How Do You Know When To Increase The Weight?
While we have outlined an ideal schedule to increase your weights, it is still important to listen to your body. If you make the recommended jump and find it is too easy, make sure to add an extra plate on. Likewise, if it is too much of a challenge, feel free to take one off.
After the program has ended, you should look to continue adding weight either weekly or every two weeks, making sure the weight you are lifting provides enough of a challenge to stimulate progress, without putting you at risk of injury.
How To Determine When To Change The Exercises?
You want to change up your exercises as soon as you plateau and stop improving, otherwise your progress will stagnate. If after you have applied all of the progressive overload principles you find you make no improvements for three sessions in a row, it is probably time for a change.
This will give you long enough to make sure you didn’t just have an off day and provide clear evidence that progress hasn’t just become slower now that you are at a more advanced stage, without causing you to spin your wheels and waste your time for too long.
Common Issues People Have When Using Progressive Overload
The most common issue people face when utilising the progressive overload principle is making sure they stay safe while doing so. With a belief you have to be hitting certain goals each week, there can be a tendency to up the weights you use, even if you aren’t actually ready to do so.
On the other hand, some people will be so nervous about pushing themselves beyond their limits that they will never feel confident enough to raise the weights.
The only way to combat these issues is to be truly honest with yourself. Be realistic about the weights you plan to use and work hard to find that proper balance between too little and too much.
Progressive overload is one of the oldest workout principles there is, yet it is still one that gets far too often overlooked by many people. No matter what your fitness or physique goals may be, progressive overload is easily one of the best options available to help you achieve them quicker.
Whether you follow a strict 4 day workout split, take a traditional bodybuilding approach of training a different muscle every day, use a push pull routine, only do the major Olympic lifts, or even if you just stick to cardio, you can implement the progressive overload principles we have outlined above.
Our progressive overload workout plan should have shown you exactly how beneficial it can be, while giving you all the tools you need to implement it in your own routine. That means there is nothing left to stop you giving it a try and seeing the incredible results it can lead to for yourself.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed holds a bachelor’s degree in medicine from Alexandria university and is a practicing plastic surgeon. He’s our expert on all things nutrition, medicine, rehabilitation, and flexibility. Dr.Ahmed has been a medical content writer for more than 11 years and his work reached top publications such as the HuffingtonPost