You’ve probably heard about the Progressive Overload Principle social media and want to know if it’s necessary to keep making progress in your training.
The answer is yes, you need this in your life.
In this article, I’m going to tell you what it means, why it’s important, and I will give you a workout plan so you can apply it to your training so that you smash personal records left, right, and center, while minimizing the risk of hitting a plateau.
What is The Progressive Overload Principle?
To put it very simply, it means that throughout your lifting career you’re continuing to push your body so that it can adapt, grow and get stronger.
An extreme example of this would be, do you think a pro bodybuilder would be lifting the same weights for the same number of sets and reps as they did when they first started?
Of course not.
Adding weight to the bar doesn’t necessarily mean you’re progressively overloading.
But if you’re able to do more reps with more weight than you have in the past, that’s a good sign that you’ve gone through the process of overloading your system and your body has adapted and is now stronger.
The Progressive Overload Principles I discuss in this article should give you an understanding of how to assess your progress to determine if your program is working, and also how to use these principles as tools to apply to your everyday training so that you can keep making progress.
Is Progressive Overload Necessary?
Definitely. Progressive overload is the key driver for muscle growth and strength. Without it, you won’t provide your body with enough stimulus to keep growing or get stronger.
Don’t panic, if you have ever made improvements in strength or had an increase in muscle mass, you’ve progressively overloaded, you just didn’t realize it.
The 8 Principles of Progressive Overload:
The following Progressive Overload Principles are what I believe beginner and intermediate lifters should focus on in their training to both assess and improve their training.
It’s my opinion through working with hundreds of in-person and online clients over the last decade.
From most important to least…
Let the gains commence…
1. Progressive Overload Principle: Technique
This is your number one starting place because you should never sacrifice your technique for any of the following Progressive Overload Principles.
Your technique should be safe and controlled. If you can make improvements to your technique then you should.
It doesn’t need to be perfect before moving on, but you can always work on making improvements over time.
Why doesn’t it need to be perfect?
It’s never going to be perfect, especially when you’re pushing yourself close to failure in a set.
I’ve seen people in the gym who hyperfocus on technique, and they’ve looked the same for the last several years with no strength gains. Their body isn’t stimulated to grow or get stronger by doing the same thing over and over.
Maybe it’s not their goal to gain muscle and strength, but it’s certainly mine and probably yours too.
With that said, you should be trying to improve your technique and the most important thing is that you’re safe.
If you can lift the same weight for the same number of reps with better technique, you’re on your way to applying your first progressive overload principle.
2. Progressive Overload Principle: Range of Motion
Now that you’ve got your technique down, you can ask yourself, “can I safely increase my range of motion for this exercise?”. This can be improved in tandem with principle 1.
Increased range of motion means more distance travelled and therefore makes the exercise significantly harder.
An example of this would be a squat. Can you get deeper into the squat safely without sacrificing the first principle?
Go as deep as you can without allowing your back to start rounding under yourself (the dreaded butt wink).
Understand that safety is the number 1 priority and ensuring you’re stimulating the target muscle is a close second.
If you’re doing Romanian Deadlift, for example, increased range of motion means more range for the hamstrings, not the lower back.
So if you can get lower into the stretch while keeping your back straight then that’s awesome.
But if you start to round your back (at all) then you’re taking tension off the hamstrings and that’s not the purpose of the exercise (this could also be why you’re feeling it in your lower back more than you should be).
So the range of motion should be specific to the target muscle being trained.
When you’ve mastered these first 2 principles they should be easy to maintain and you can focus on the following principles as a method of progression for your training.
3. Progressive Overload Principle: Increase Load
Now we’re talkin’!
This is where you’ll likely spend a lot of your time making progress once your technique is dialled.
It’s also easy to quantify as it’s not subjective like the last two.
If you’re lifting more weight over time then you’re getting stronger and building muscle, just so long as you’re able to do it for the same number of reps.
For example, if you increase load but decrease reps, that may not mean that you’ve overloaded the system. You would ideally be able to do more weight at the same number of reps.
This is something that can be done over several weeks, months, and/or even years.
Don’t sacrifice technique and range of motion for extra weight, you’re not training your ego.
Can you add 5lbs to some of your lifts this week?
You won’t be able to do this every week but this is a good tool to continue to make progress.
4. Progressive Overload Principle: Number of Reps
This one’s also easy to quantify and will be where you spend a lot of time making progress, especially in the short term as there’s no point continuing to increase reps forever.
If you can do more reps with the same weight as you did previously, then you’re making great progress.
A great way to do this is to set yourself an ideal rep range target and then you have some room to make progress from session to session.
So instead of 3 sets of 8 reps, try 3 sets of 6-10 reps.
This can often be a great tool to use when you’re not able to increase weight because it would be too heavy, but you can squeeze out an extra rep or 2 in comparison to what you’ve done in the past.
5. Progressive Overload Principle: (Even) Slower Eccentric
The eccentric portion of the lift is where your muscle is lengthening under tension and having to control you and the weight against gravity. It’s often called the “negative” portion and is more often than not the lowering, depending on the exercise.
An example of this would be you lowering yourself from the standing position to a deep squat (because you’re working on the full range of motion too 😉).
Notice I added “(Even)” slower in the title, this is because you should already be controlling your lift’s eccentric by around 1-2 seconds, especially if muscle growth is your goal. That should be part of principle number 1 – technique.
Why? Because it makes for great gains.
This one can be difficult to quantify as I’ve seen some quick counting speeds when it comes to slower eccentric movements!
You gotta give it the old 1-Mississippi…
But adding additional seconds to your eccentric can make your lifts incredibly harder and can create a great stimulus for muscle growth and strength.
This comes in handy if you have access to a limited amount of equipment, you’ve already maxed out the weight you have access to, or the jump to the next set of dumbbells is too big.
For example, my dumbbells at home only go up to 90lbs and it’s too light for me when it comes to Romanian Deadlift. So I’ve added in a 4-second eccentric and it’s Les Misérables.
Although this is more of a tool you can use for your training to ensure you’re making progress, if you’re lifting the same weight and reps for a slower tempo then that’s a great sign that you’re making good progress.
6. Progressive Overload Principle: Rest and Recovery
I usually don’t like to use rest changes as a tool for progressive overload because I don’t think you should keep reducing rest times in an attempt to make progress.
This is because if you’re trying to build strength and/or muscle then your body needs enough rest to properly recover between sets.
If you can reduce rest and hit the same weight, I would rather you just try and increase the weight or squeeze a few more reps out.
With that said, if you’re able to lift the same weight and reps with less rest then that shows you’re getting stronger and building muscle.
I have started prescribing rest times for my clients because I know firsthand how carried away rest times can get, especially during heavy compound lifting sessions.
But the target rest time can also help ensure that you’re resting for long enough for your body to recover between sets.
Most of the time you should be resting around 2-3 minutes between sets that hit the same muscle, especially for the compound movements.
For isolation exercises you can get away with less rest, maybe aiming for between 1-2 minutes.
Adding rest times to your program will ensure that you’re getting enough rest between sets and also that you’re getting your workout done efficiently and finished within your allotted time frame.
7. Progressive Overload Principle: Number of Sets
More sets = More Volume
Volume = number of hard sets per muscle per week
If you’re able to handle more volume then that shows you’re overloading your system and making improvements. It can also be a tool to drive those improvements but in my opinion more of an advanced technique.
Most people benefit from the following programming principles:
Train 3-5x per week (more isn’t better)
Train each body part 2x per week
Pick 2 exercises per muscle group per session (so 4 in total for the week)
Do on average 3 sets of each exercise
Newbs can start with 2 sets
Intermediates can do 4 sets at a select few exercises. But with each additional set comes diminishing returns when it comes to the stimulus/gains.
8. Progressive Overload Principle: More Sessions per Week
Just like the last principle, this is more advanced.
If your volume has increased to a degree that it’s taking too long per session to complete your workouts then consider adding another session.
Additional sessions aren’t a sign of progressive overload but more volume can be.
How often should you progressive overload?
Should you be improving every single session?
Is it realistic to add 10lbs to your squat every week?
No, you would be a world record holder within a year most likely!
Some days/weeks you will feel good and you’ll be able to add some weight and or reps. Other times you will feel the burden of life and stress, and won’t be able to make even the small increases. You may even move backwards at certain periods of your life, and that’s fine.
But over time, you should be making progress.
But you should continually ask yourself
“Can I squeeze out an extra rep?”
“Could I have gone deeper into that squat”
“Can I use the heavier dumbbells for this exercise next week?”
Hopefully, you record your workouts otherwise this process will be a lot harder.
Progressive Overload Workout Plan
Here’s how I suggest having a Progressive Overload Workout Plan so that you progress on your training on a week-to-week basis.
We’re going with the assumption that you’ve got good technique and range of motion.
Here is a video explanation of this example…
We’re going to keep the volume and rest periods the same and therefore we’ll be focusing on principles 3, 4 and 5, which are Load, Reps, and Slow Eccentric.
Dumbbell Bench Press 3 sets of 8-12 reps
Week 1: Perform 3 sets of 12 at 50lbs
Week 2: Perform 3 sets of 12,11,10 at 55lbs
Week 3: Perform 3 sets of 12 at 55lbs
Week 4: Perform 3 sets of 10 with 3-second lowering at 55lbs
Week 5: Perform 3 sets of 12 with 3-second lowering at 55lbs
Week 6: Perform 3 sets of 8 at 60lbs
Week 7: Perform 3 sets of 10 at 60lbs
Week 8: Perform 3 sets of 11 at 60lbs
Here the ideal rep range is 8-12 reps.
You should ideally use a weight that you’re close to failure (1-3 reps shy of failure) in each set and fall within that range.
Try and aim for the upper end of the range, if you can’t get the 3 sets of 12 then stay at the same weight next week.
If you can, increase weight next week but expect that it will be harder and potentially the reps will go down slightly.
In week 4 of this example, it was too big of a jump to go for 60lbs and therefore this fake person that I made up slowed down the eccentric on the exercise.
This form of progression I initially learned from Andy Morgan from RippedBody.com, you can check out his article here on Linear Progression.
How to Properly Progressive Overload?
To know if you are properly doing a Progressive Overload, Continually ask yourself if you can:
- Improve technique
- Increase range of motion.
- Add a small amount of weight to the exercise in comparison to what you’ve done before.
- Squeeze another rep out with the same weight you used previously
- Slow down eccentric to maximize muscle growth potential.
- Stay accountable to your rest periods.
- Add another set to the exercise you’re doing without performance decreasing and fatigue sets in.
- Add another session to your weekly routine to help you train more body parts and do more volume
I suggest you learn to nail your technique and range of motion so that you’re able to stimulate the target muscle for each exercise, even if that means decreasing weight at first.
Then spend most of your time adding a small amount of weight, and/or a cheeky rep here or there.
If the jump in weight or reps isn’t feasible then consider playing around with slower eccentrics.
Set realistic rest times and be accountable for them.
Don’t stress about adding sets and extra sessions just yet.
Progressive overload is the outcome of a well-structured training program. You provide the stimulus by resistance training, and your body adapts.
You can use these Progressive Overload Principles to determine if your current training is working by looking back at your training log and analyzing your progress. But you can also use them as tools to ensure that you’re continuing to make progress.
Are you making small incremental improvements over time, whether that’s week-to-week or month-to-month?
As I mentioned before, sometimes you will make progress, and sometimes you won’t. When you’re a beginner you will probably be hitting PRs each week. As you progress it will get harder and harder to get the same results.