The progressive overload principle is the most important fitness principle that everyone (strength training or not) should follow because it's what drives results. In fact, that's why the Fit With Iulia app features progress tracking! The progress tracking feature was designed to make it easier for our users to track their progress in an effort to help them practice progressive overload. Unfortunately, not everyone uses our app or even knows how to practice progressive overload properly.
To help you understand what progressive overload is and how to start practicing it to drive better results, we've put together all the details you need from how it works to the four best ways to add a new challenge to your workouts!
What is progressive overload?
It's an important fitness principle that involves increasing demands on the musculoskeletal system to keep challenging your body so it can continue building muscle, get stronger, and increase muscular endurance. This doesn't only apply to weightlifting, it also applies to other types of training like circuit training and cardiovascular training, although the techniques may slightly differ.
Why should you incorporate this principle into your training program?
A lot of gym-goers, especially beginners, tend to stick to the workout routine they've mastered. Continuing to do basically the same workout week after week is going to cause your progress to slow down and eventually stop altogether. In fact, neglecting to push the body to work harder is one of the main reasons people hit training plateaus. Our bodies are lazy and in order to maintain muscle mass and build muscle it needs training stimulus to tell them to grow. After the muscles are stimulated they need rest (remember deep sleep when the muscle-building magic happens), and eventually, once the body has adapted to your workout routine, it needs a more challenging training stimulus. The key is to disrupt your system enough to drive adaptations.
How it works
To help you further understand how progressive overload works, let's look at this weightlifting example...
When wanting to grow your biceps the main exercise performed is bicep curls. So let's say you can perform 10 reps with 15lb dumbbells, it's a bit challenging, but you're able to do it with proper form. Over time, you might notice your biceps growing and an increase in strength, but you then continue to do the same amount of reps and weight with the same piece of equipment, in this case, dumbbells. You won't lose muscle, but you definitely won't gain any. That's because your biceps have no reason to grow or get stronger, they're already able to handle the overload you're giving them. They need more of a challenge in order to make more strength gains. That goes for all exercises! Luckily there are several ways to make exercises more difficult to improve your overall training session for better results.
How to practice progressive overload
This principle might sound simple at first, you might think "I can change up my workouts to be more difficult from time to time!". Sorry to break it to you, but there's more that you need to do. To practice progressive overload properly you need a plan and to be consistent with that plan. So, in order to continue making progress, you need to implement these progressive overload examples/strategies into your training routine and keep track of your workouts (amount of reps and weight) to know exactly where and what you need to improve next workout!
Increase the resistance
This is the first, and probably most obvious way, to practice progressive overload. Simply increase the resistance, or the weight, to place a harder demand on your muscles. You can do this by continuously lifting a heavier weight as your body adapts and gets stronger with each exercise. For training with resistance bands, start with light resistance, and as it gets easier you increase to medium, then heavy, then extra heavy. With free weights, this is simply increasing the weight by five pounds or more. Now, this doesn't mean you have to add 5lbs to every exercise, every week. Gradually work your way up, focus on being able to perform 12-15 reps with good form first before thinking about increasing the weight. Also remember, that when you increase the weight your reps are going to fall to some degree. You'll probably be in the 6-8 rep range, opposed to your usual 10-15 reps, but you'll eventually get stronger with that resistance and repeat the cycle over again.
Increase the volume
Before you even think about increasing the weight, consider increasing the volume first. You do this by simply increasing the number of repetitions or sets. First, focus on increasing the number of reps to at least 15. The point is to reach muscle failure, but not to the point you sacrifice form. For any exercise keep going until you can't complete any more reps with good form. Obviously you can't just keep adding reps on top of reps on top of reps, you'll end up doing hundreds! You want to keep your rep range anywhere from 12-15, this is ideal for hypertrophy and muscle-building.
Once you reach that point and feel like you can increase the volume a little more before increasing the resistance, increase the number of sets. Adding more sets is another way to make progressively greater demands on the muscle tissues. You can do this by increasing your sets from 3 to 4 (and so on). As you approach hitting the max amount of reps (up to 15) and sets (between 5-7), increase the amount of weight you use so the volume of exercise doesn't decrease. Again, you might not be able to do as many reps or sets as you did with a lighter weight, but you'll work your way up again.
Change up the frequency, intensity, or workout design
You might be thinking by now... There have to be other ways to continue making progress since there has to be some endpoint on how much weight you can increase or the number of reps and sets. Well, there are! Other changes you can make along the way that will help you continue making progress are by playing around with the intensity, frequency, and workout setup.
- Play around with your training frequency: Increasing the frequency you train can help increase the overload to promote muscle growth. This works when you're trying to target a weak body part and want to focus on building it up. For example, if you want to grow your glutes, but you're having trouble doing so, then you can increase the amount you train your glutes. Let's say your typical training split usually has two lower-body days, you can increase that to three lower-body days and make one or two of those days more glute-focused. Training a muscle group that you're struggling to build more frequently can help bring it up. But do not over-train it, this can lead to an overuse injury. So don't train the same muscle back-to-back, have a training split that gives you an adequate amount of rest in between sessions.
- Change up the intensity: There are three main ways to make an exercise intense - Slow down, isometric holds, or increase the range of motion. For example, if you normally squat at a normal pace try to slow it down to increase the time under tension (a bodybuilding technique.) Slowly descend as deep as you can, once you're at the bottom pause for at least four seconds to really feel the burn then go back up to the starting position. The same goes for any exercise! Move slowly throughout the exercise (if you can't go through the full range of motion then work your way up to it), and hold at the top or bottom of the movement. Holding for a few seconds helps place a demand on the desired group of muscles.
- Switch things up and change the design of your workout: Shake things up and change things around! One of the best ways to change things up is by playing around with the rest time. If you want to increase the overload and want to improve your body's metabolic efficiency then reduce the rest times in between sets. This will allow you to do the same amount of work in less time. If you want to increase strength and power then consider using heavier weights with longer rest periods in between sets, around 3-5 minutes.
Add another element
There is a list of key exercises that every lifter practices consistently, like push-ups, deadlifts, bench press, and dumbbell rows. Those are just to name a few, but the point is, these exercises can be made more difficult by introducing a new element. Adding in another element helps change up the exercise and make it more difficult for your body to do thus increasing the demand your muscles need!
Here are three ways to introduce a new element:
- Combine two movements to make a compound exercise: Adding another movement will help engage various muscle groups and the added motion you have to move through makes the exercise more difficult. An example of this would be to add a rotational or twisting movement like doing a pull-up, but introducing knee raises to further engage your core. Another example would be doing a squat with dumbbells and pushing back up to do a shoulder-press.
- Add instability by using different equipment: Adding instability makes your muscles work 10x harder. You can easily do this by changing up the type of equipment you're using. For example, using a stability ball for hip thrusts or leg curls.
- Make it unilateral: Another way to add instability is by switching to a single-sided exercise. Unilateral exercises are more difficult since it adds instability and weight. For example, a pistol squat (one-legged squat) is more difficult to do than a bodyweight squat because it increases the weight carried by one limb. Other unilateral exercise examples are single-arm overhead press, single-arm rows, single-leg glute bridges, and step-ups.
Four progressive overload rules to follow
Before you dive into implementing these strategies in your routine, there are four rules you should keep in mind to ensure you're maximizing results as safely as possible.
Start with whatever you can do with good technical form
When you begin a new exercise, no matter how experienced of a lifter you are, start out as light as possible and then gradually work your way up. Don't worry about what others are loading their bar with because everyone's starting point is different.
Think back to when you started working out, like most people, you probably didn't hit the heavy weights right away. You probably started out with bodyweight exercise, or training with resistance bands before actually weight training. The point is, in order to make progressive overload work for you, and reduce your risk of injury, take it slow. This brings us to our next point...
Only increase one thing at a time
To avoid overtraining and any injuries, only change one training variable at a time and, again, progress slowly. Fortunately, this happens organically! For example, let's say you increase the weight on your deadlift from 100 to 125 pounds, and prior to increasing you were able to do 8-10 reps with good form and technique. When you hit that 125 lb deadlift, we can guarantee you won't be able to do 10 reps. It's a heavier weight that your body is not adjusted to, so usually, your reps will fall short a bit. Which is perfectly fine! After a few weeks, you'll be able to increase the reps and/or change up the intensity!
Increase volume before intensity
When it comes to overloading, start with volume first. Increase the reps and sets you perform before adding any weight to the barbell. This will help manage fatigue and decrease the risk of under-recovery. So, adding on to that example, before you load up to 125 lb on your deadlift, make sure that you're able to do at least 10 reps or an extra set with good form before increasing the weight.
Track your progress
Lastly, and the most important rule of progressive overload is to track your progress!! The last thing you want to do is rely on your memory because chances are you won't remember the amount of reps, sets, and weight used for every single exercise you've done. It's crucial that you write everything down so you can look back at your exercise history and be able to determine what changes you need to make to your workout routine to continue making progress for your goals.
You can track your progress by either using a notebook, or an app on your phone. Or if you have the Fit With Iulia app, you can do everything directly on the app! For those who don't know, Fit With Iulia is a fitness app that helps gym-goers stay consistent, and get better results.
By planning your workouts every week! There are six workout programs to choose from (four gym programs, and two home programs), each is updated every week with the appropriate exercises and training split for those goals. Having planned goal-focused workouts every week will not only ensure that you're doing the right exercises for your goals, but it'll also help you stay consistent with your workouts because you'll always have your workout planned for you! Plus, the added features like progress tracking and exercise history make it even easier to practice progressive overload and continue the gains!
Here's how to access progress tracking:
In summary, you want to increase muscle size, endurance, or have certain fitness goals you're trying to reach then implement these methods in your training. All of them might not be right for you, so choose the techniques that fit your style of training and your goals. Just remember to take it one at a time, adaptation occurs and it's good to have other options available to help you continue making progress when adding more weight no longer works. And if you want to give the Fit With Iulia app a shot before committing to a subscription, try the first workout on any goal for free - no subscription required! Just download the Fit With Iulia app, open the app, go to Goals & Workouts, and select the goal that best fits yours to start working out with Iulia!