Progressive Overload


Tip Tuesday: Progressive Overload

by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

If lifting weights is a common part of your exercise routine and your goal is to get bigger or stronger, you NEED to be familiar with progressive overload. You need to have a plan to generate real change. Lifting the same weights with the same reps and rest scheme will cause your body to adapt and remain that way until the stress placed on it is more significant. If the same thing is always done, the result will not be any different. That is where progressive overload comes in. You can also apply this principle to cardiovascular exercise as well, but we will focus specifically on the application of progressive overload as it relates to strength training.

Progressive Overload is the continual increase of stress or demand placed on your muscles in order to make strength, hypertrophy, and endurance gains. What does this really mean? If you want to get bigger or stronger, you are going to have to make your muscles work HARDER. Lift more weight, do more reps, don’t rest as long, run faster, run farther, or do anything that will cause additional stress to the muscles that maybe they didn’t quite get last week. If you can continue to increase the stress applied to the muscles, then you can continue to make increases in strength, hypertrophy, or endurance.

Doing this is actually quite simple and easy to apply. If we use the barbell back squat as an example, let’s just say today you do 4 sets of 8 reps at 185 pounds. Maybe you do that set and rep scheme with that weight a couple of days, and then you up the weight. So the third or fourth day you go to squat, you can do 4 sets of 8 repetitions at 190 pounds instead of 185 pounds. Here you are applying the progressive overload principle by increasing the amount of weight that you are using by 5 pounds and in turn increasing the overall amount of stress on the muscles.

Using the same back squat example, you can also apply other variations. You can go up to doing 4 sets of 10 repetitions at 185 pounds. Another change you can make is by going up to 5 sets of 8 repetitions. In both of these cases, you are applying the progressive overload by increasing your total volume. In each of these examples you are going from 32 total repetitions to 40 total repetitions and still increasing the total amount of stress that you are putting on your muscles.

Again, if you use the same example, you can still manipulate it in other ways as well. One of those ways is rest time. If you are specifically looking to make gains and train rather than just exercising for maintenance, rest is something to which you absolutely should be paying attention. For example, if you are taking 3 minutes in between each set of 8 reps at 185 pounds, you can cut your rest time down after a couple of workouts and only take 2 minutes and 30 seconds between sets, for example. Here you are still applying the progressive overload principle, just in a different, less obvious way. You can do the same by increasing the frequency of your workouts. Maybe you typically only workout a specific muscle group one day a week, you can increase the total stress you are placing on the muscles by increasing your workouts of that specific muscle group to twice a week.

Now let's apply the progressive overload principle to cardiovascular training for example, running. Let’s say you run 1 mile every other day for your training. You can run 1.5 miles every other day and increase your distance, or run 1 mile every day increasing your frequency, or run 1 mile at a faster pace increasing your speed. In these examples, even though weight is not involved, you are still applying progressive overload because you are adding additional stress by increasing the total amount of volume that you are running over the course of each week.

Progressive overload, an easy concept to apply, is extremely important to understand and utilize if you are trying to improve your performance. If you are exercising to maintain your current health status and not necessarily training to increase performance, then this principle is still of importance to recognize but might not weigh so heavily in your workout regimen. However, if you feel like you've hit a plateau in the amount of weight you are able to lift, go back to this simple principle and apply it to your training! If you can continue to overload your muscles, you will continue to make progress.