The Progressive Overload Principle: What Is It and Tips to Help You Get Started

by Evelyn Valdez

If you want to improve, whether your strength training, hypertrophy training, or training for endurance, you need to do one thing - practice progressive overload. Progressive overload is a fitness principle that is known widely in the strength training world. And that's for good reason... Without it, you wouldn't make progress. It's as simple as that.

The progressive overload principle is simple and easy to understand, but putting it into practice is when it gets difficult, especially as you start getting results. So, before you apply this in your training, learn more about what progressive overload is and the different ways to practice it. Plus, get our best tips that will help you get started practicing so you can start building muscle and continue achieving strength gains!

What is progressive overload?

It's a fitness principle that requires an increase of stress on the body, overloading it enough to drive progression. Without it, you would hit a training plateau that would slow down your weight loss or muscle-building efforts and put a damper on achieving any type of fitness goal. It seems pretty straightforward but as simple as a concept it is, many new lifters and gym-goers tend to neglect it at first. This happens because those new to weight training experience faster progress than someone who's been training for years. Beginners don't know how to drive progress because it "sort of just happened", and once they've mastered their training routine they just continue doing the same set of exercises, with the same number of reps and sets. They think their current training program will continue driving results, but it won't, and eventually, they hit the dreaded workout plateau. Someone more advanced and has been training for years, might have a harder time driving progress, but they're able to do it more effectively because they have experience training and practicing progressive overload.

So, how exactly should you overload the body to promote muscle growth? 

The stresses you should apply should be gradual, manageable, scalable, and trackable. Your body needs a big enough training stimulus to promote better and effective muscle growth, but let's get more into detail...

Ways to practice progressive overload

Now you understand that you need to disrupt your body enough to drive adaptations. The best way to do that is by implementing these progressive overload techniques:

  • More resistance: Increasing the weight or resistance is the most popular and common way to drive progress. It's as simple as it sounds, simply lift a heavier weight than you did before. This also works with resistance bands! You can start with a light resistance band and work your way up to a heavier resistance.
  • More reps, more sets: Increasing the number of repetitions or sets in any given exercise is another challenge you can place on your muscles for them to adapt to. But how do you know when to increase sets or reps? You want to reach the point of muscle failure while maintaining decent form. So, if you feel like you can push through one or two more reps then do it, as long as you're not sacrificing form. As for sets, when starting a new exercise you might start with three sets. As you make progress, you can increase your sets to four instead of three and so on. The number of sets and reps you do for any given exercise will vary, but ideally, your rep range should be anywhere between 8-15 or 1-6 reps for heavier lifts. The number of sets can vary between 2-6.
  • Try different training frequencies: Want to target and grow a specific muscle group? Consider increasing the training frequency! Increasing the frequency will give the targeted muscle group extra challenges to promote better growth. For example, if you're trying to build stronger legs, but you're not driving the progress you've hoped then consider adding in an extra lower body workout a week. This means you'd have to adjust your training split so it includes three lower-body days as opposed to only two. But be careful not to overtrain the muscle, and plan for sufficient rest time in between leg workouts.
  • Change up the intensity: A more creative way to drive progress (and works really well for home workouts) is by changing the intensity of the exercise! There are three ways of doing this, you can either slow down the tempo, increase the range of motion, or add an isometric hold at the top or bottom of the movement. One of the most popular bodybuilding techniques is slowing down the pace when squatting or doing any compound lift. Slowing down will increase the time under tension that your muscles are placed under which will result in better muscle growth! Good form is important when lifting and an important part of that is going through the full range of motion. But it's not easy to get there, it requires time and practice. So, when performing a new exercise consider going through the full range of motion before adding a heavier resistance. Placing a hold at the top or bottom of the movement will also increase the time under tension thus helping with progression. An example of this would be performing a squat and adding a five-second pause at the bottom.
  • Decrease rest in between sets: Reducing rest times can help increase the overload without adding weight, plus help your body become more metabolically efficient. You'll essentially be doing the same amount of work but in less time! So, instead of taking 1-2 minutes of rest, try 30 seconds instead. However, don't do this for your really heavy lifts. Heavier weightlifting requires longer rest periods.

The best tips to get started with progressive overload

Knowing the different ways to practice progressive overload is just the first step to getting started! You can increase the weight, reps, sets, and try all the different ways to drive progress, but not knowing how to actually implement them into your training program is the second, and most important step.

To make sure you're on the fast track to making progress, here are the best progressive overload tips you should take into consideration when planning your workouts...

Always start with what you can do with good form

Never compare the amount of weight you can lift to others. Everyone starts at different levels, if you see someone loading up two or three plates then it's safe to assume that they've been in the game for a few years or have been practicing that exercise for a while! So, whenever you're starting out with a new exercise, start out as light as possible and work your way up to increase the volume or weight. Whenever you try a new exercise, think of yourself as a beginner again, and start with a bodyweight version (or at least a very light weight) and work your way up. It's important to do this because the heavy lifting isn't the only thing that drives progress. If you want to make progressive overload work for you, you need to make sure you have good technique so you're reaping the most out of your heavy lifts while reducing your risk of injury.

Also, apply this idea to when you increase the weight! You're obviously not going to go from deadlifting 185 lbs to just the barbell again before increasing the weight, that's just counterproductive. What you should do is increase the weight, and start at a lower rep range. You might have been able to deadlift 8 reps of 185 lbs with good form, but you won't be able to do that on your first shot with a heavier weight. So, always start with what you can do with good form.

Take it one step at a time

This second tip kind of goes hand-in-hand with the one above! When it comes to lifting weights you always want to take it slow and take it one step at a time. The same applies to progressive overload. What we mean is, increase one thing at a time. Don't try to change too much at once, so don't increase the weight and increase the volume of your workout at the same time. Let's take the bench press for example. Let's say you were able to push 60lbs for 10 reps with decent form and technique. Slap on ten more pounds to each side of the barbell, and the resistance increases. Your body is not adjusted to that weight because it hasn't been challenged to lift it. This means you most likely won't be able to do 10 perfect reps. So, take a step back and reduce the number of reps you do. Start with what you can do with good form!

The same applies to the other progressive overload methods! When changing up the intensity, you want to stick to one or two methods. For example, you don't want to go through the full range of motion while also slowing down your tempo because it might be too much tension for your body at once. Start by going through the entire range of motion first, after you feel comfortable doing it, then you can start to slow down your tempo or include an isometric hold at the bottom or top of the movement. 

As you become more advanced you'll be able to better determine what works best for you.

Increase volume before increasing the intensity

When it comes to resistance exercises, before you increase the intensity (by weight or other methods), increase the volume first. This means you should increase the reps or sets you perform before increasing the intensity in any way. Don't add weight or try to add hold or reduce rest times, always make sure you are able to do the max amount of reps and sets first. Once you're able to do the appropriate number of reps then you can increase the intensity. Remember, it's all about taking it slow to avoid overtraining and injuries!

Branch out and try different progressive overload techniques

Increasing the weight and volume of your workouts are always the two most popular techniques lifters practice. But there will come a point where you can't increase the weight anymore, or the reps and sets. If you're not quite ready to increase the weight or can't increase the reps and sets anymore then don't be afraid to try other techniques. Get a bit creative, it'll be fun and different from your usual training sessions and it'll still help you build muscle or achieve whatever fitness goal you have! 

So, what are different ways to drive progress and spice up your usual routine?

Adding a new element into the mix. You can try this for common resistance exercises like push-ups, dumbbell rows, squats, shoulder press, etc. Here are three elements you can implement:

  • Create a superset: Supersets involve combining two exercises in one set. This means you would do two exercises with no rest period in between. It's like reducing the rest time, but it includes another exercise to place a greater challenge on the muscle group in a short amount of time. The best way to do this is by starting with a dumbbell or barbell exercise and finishing off with a resistance band exercise. This is great if there's a particular muscle group you're trying to grow. For example, if you're struggling to build shoulders like boulders add a new and different challenge to that muscle group by creating supersets. You can start by doing a dumbbell shoulder press followed by upright rows with a long resistance band. There are so many ways to create supersets, it all depends on what your goal is.
  • Add a movement: Add in another movement to your exercise to engage more muscles! For example, adding a knee raises to pull-ups, or doing a barbell reverse lunge to a curtsy lunge. It's similar to a superset, but instead of doing exercises separately, you're combining two in one, not doing them in separate sets back to back.
  • Make it unilateral: Add an instability challenge and fix muscle weakness by implementing unilateral exercises! These exercises involve doing the exercise on one side of the body, opposed to both. An example of this would be a pistol squat, also known as a one-legged squat. It's a difficult exercise that doesn't require any weight, but it does require a lot of strength, balance, and stability. These exercises are much harder to perform because your muscle won't be relying on its counterpart if it needs it. It places a stability challenge that your muscle is not accustomed to, and it'll also help you identify any muscle weaknesses! 

Track your progress

This is by far the most important tip to follow – track your progress!! Do not rely on your memory to remember all the statistics of your workout. Trust us, you won't remember the number of reps, sets, or weight you lifted for every single exercise in your training program. And this information is crucial because without it you wouldn't be able to know what needs to be changed.

So, either write it down the old-fashioned way, track it on your phone, or use a fitness app. A great fitness app that does it all (seriously) is the Fit With Iulia app. It provides a space for you to track your progress on every single given exercise in the Fit With Iulia workout programs. But aside from that, you get new goal-focused workouts planned every week and they're planned by Iulia herself! And since she can't guess how much weight you should lift, there's a space for you to track it yourself, along with the number of reps and sets completed. There's so much more on the Fit With Iulia app that makes progressive overloading easier, but also working out in general! Luckily, Iulia's the founder of UPPPER, so we can let you in on how to give Fit With Iulia a try - a free one!

Here's how:

  1. Try the first workout of any goal for free - no subscription required! Go to Goals & Workouts (on desktop or the app) and select the first workout of any goal to start working out with Iulia.
  2. Subscribe to activate a 7-day free trial! Have access to a week's worth of home and gym workouts, and all the features on the FWI app so you can give it a try before committing!

>> Subscribe to activate a 7-day free trial <<

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