Progressive Overload


Jan 23, 2024

 by Tyler Watling
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If you read my blog on the 4 necessities of exercise training (quick, do it now), you saw that 1 of the 4 was progressive overload. In my opinion, this is the most effective way to ensure you achieve continual results and the reason for its own in-depth blog.

Whenever I have worked with someone and they say they’ve hit a plateau I always ask the same thing: How often do you change your workouts? The answer is generally “not often”. They've continued to do the same workout they got from a program online or an old coach. One of the body’s greatest strengths is it's ability to adapt, but if you place it under the same stressors over and over, it will adapt to that stress level and you will have a new baseline state. From there, that level or type of training will no longer have an effect. 

YARN | I'm gonna shock the biceps later, then some cardio. Keep the body  guessing. | Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) | Video clips by quotes  | 49ae1ba4 | 紗

Gordon has the right idea...

The best way to keep your body guessing and prevent a training plateau is to adjust the demand on the body via Progressive Overload. In order to cause adaptations as you become more trained, you have to continue to increase the stress level placed upon it. There are several key methods to achieve this and types of adaptations they are best suited for.


Methods of Progressive Overload

Increase Load

  • Week by week increase the amount of weight lifted for key exercises.
  • Best done in increments of 3-5% but will depend on recovery rates and muscle type.
    • It is much easier to increase a back squat 5% every week rather than a shoulder press. At a certain point you will need to slow the pace of increasing weight.
  • Applies best for strength training but sets of up to 8-10 reps are also appropriate. Beyond that, weight increases are not as feasible.
  • Becomes more difficult the longer you train due to limits on your muscles. Week by week increase could eventually turn to every other week or once a month.

Increase Volume

  • This can be done through an increase in number of sets or reps.
  • I recommend the number of total reps performed does not increase by more than 5-8
    • Week 1: 2 sets of 10 (20 reps)
    • Week 2: 2 sets of 12 (24 reps)
    • Week 3: 3 sets of 10 (30 reps)
  • Ideal choice for those training for endurance and hypertrophy. These categories offer you more flexibility in training volume.
  • Also, the most appropriate choice for runners.
    • 1 mile the first week, 1.5 the next, 2 miles week 3.
  • The higher volume may come at the expense of strength.

Increase Frequency

  • Train more often.
  • This is one method I recommend be done at a slower pace.
    • Working out 1 day per week and trying to increase to 6 days per week just 5 weeks later is a huge stress on the body.
    • It will depend on your skill level, but as a general rule, adding a day once a month is a safe increase.
  • Limited by the amount of time you have. You can only exercise so much before you start encroaching on “overtraining”. Give your muscles some time to recover.
  • Useful for any adaptation, but the more intense the workout, the less likely you will be able to sustain this amount of activity.
    • Incorporating more deload weeks could be helpful if you are in the 5-6 days/week category.
  • A sample of this would be progressing through the following splits:
    • Upper/Lower – Push/Pull/Legs – Upper Push/Lower Push/Upper Pull/Lower Pull
    • 2 days a week to 4 days a week.

Adjust Tempo

  • Vary the speed at which you move the weight.
  • This is also referred to as “Time Under Tension”.
    • The amount of time you are actively moving the weight.
  • Instead of a simple 1 up, 1 down, rep cadence, try to move the weight eccentrically for 3 seconds and then concentrically move the weight as fast as possible aiming.
    • 5 reps at 1:1 = 10 seconds under tension.
    • 5 reps at 3:1 = 20 seconds under tension
  • Most useful for strength and hypertrophy adaptations.
  • Incredibly useful for developing awareness of your form as the movements are done much more controlled and deliberately.

Adjust Rest Periods

  • This can be either an increase or decrease in the time between sets/exercises depending on the adaptation.
  • Increased rest periods are most effective for strength training (3+ minutes).
    • You want to be able to move as much weight as possible every set so allowing your body to have time to replenish its fuel is beneficial for allowing that.
  • Decreased rest periods are more effective for hypertrophy and endurance (<2 minutes).
    • Hypertrophy is more dependent on volume rather than weight. Being able to move moderately heavy weight with short rest is very anaerobically taxing and will product better hypertrophy gains.
    • Endurance is entirely volume. Do as much as you can in as little time possible.
  • Adjust this variable at your own pace. If your performance suffers when rest is too short than you can increase it.
    • Able to vary it throughout a workout. I like to decrease the rest periods as the workout goes on and my body is more warmed up.

Change the Muscle Stimulus

  • This is one that should be done least frequently. It is preferred to stick with a solid foundation of a program for 4-6 weeks so you can establish some baseline numbers and expectations.
    • Going from barbell bench to incline bench to dumbbell bench week after week does not give you any clear indication of progress.
  • Mix in drop sets, super sets, negatives or a different angle of work on the muscle.
    • Drop Sets: Performing 2 or more sets in a row without rest, decreasing the weight each time.
      • Should be done close to failure each set before moving down in weight.
    • Super Sets: Performing multiple workouts in a row without rest.
      • 8 chin ups immediately followed by 8 dumbbell curls.
    • Negatives: Overloading the weight to more than normal and only performing the eccentric portion of a lift.
      • If your 1 rep max on bench is 225 pounds, load the bar to 250 and slowly lower it a set of spotter arms about an inch above your chest.
    • Different Angle: Adjust the angle at which you target a muscle group.
      • Decline pushups instead of normal pushups.
    • If done frequently, they should be applied mainly to accessory movements where load/volume is not as big of a concern.

The Keys to Progressive Overload

With as many variables as there are to progressive overload, there are 2 important factors that are vital to the success of this method.

  1. Track all of your metrics.

You need to be aware of and track all the changes you are making. If you are just guessing how much to lift or how many reps to do each week then there is no consistency and you may end up progressing too far or not enough. The more structured you can be in your approach the better your results will be.

  1. Listen to your body.

Just because you are practicing progressive overload does not mean you have to move up every workout or every week. Progressive does not mean immediate. At a certain point your body can only make adaptations so quickly. If you try to push past what you are capable just for the sake of one more rep or 5 more pounds and then you will most likely sacrifice form and injury risk skyrockets. Now because you wanted that last rep this week, you hurt yourself and can’t train for 4 more. The risk is not worth the reward. Be smart and make the proper adjustments.


Progressive overload is a training concept that will ensure you are constantly challenging your body to make various forms of adaptations. If you progress in a measured and safe way, you will be able to overcome gradually larger stress inputs and continue to get better.

For help with designing a program to include progressive overload, reach out to me on Instagram with any questions.