Progressive Overload: The Key to Seeing Results
5 Ways to Increase Progressive Overload
As a fitness professional one of the biggest complaints that I get is from people who are putting in a huge amount of effort in the gym, but not seeing the results they deserve.
Quite often they are lifting weights four to five days a week and doing cardio on top, but they still have fat around their middle, or struggle to make any sizable changes to their muscle tone.
As someone who trains intensively five days a week, I can only imagine how discouraging it would be to put in all that effort and not get the results I was expecting.
Quite frankly, I would throw in the towel!
However, what I usually find when I start asking questions of these people who have plateaued in their results is that they are doing the same exact full-body workout with the same exact weight, exact number of sets, repetitions, and effort, each time they are in the gym.
Or if not the exact same, pretty darn similar.
You wouldn’t be in the gym every week, committed to your workout routine, if you didn’t want to see results. You show up to the gym because you’re commited to making a differnce to your physique and you should always be seeing incremental changes in your body.
If you are not, then you are probably not pushing yourself enough.
The single most important factor in getting results from any type of workout or any form of exercise is challenging your muscles and pushing them to new a level at all times.
It’s this lack of progressive overload that is easily the #1 reason most of the people who workout look pretty much the same way today as they did when they first started working out.
It is the main reason people fail to see results, because they are no longer challenging themselves. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity didn’t you know?
Skeletal muscle grows bigger and stronger in response to the training stimulus. But for further gains, you need to continue making greater demands. If you don’t progressively overload the muscles by forcing them to do more than they’re accustomed to, they have no reason to make further adaptations.
Our body will not change unless it’s forced to. Your body doesn’t want to have a lot of muscle because it is calorie hungry and good for nothing except providing you with the strength that you need to live your life. So if you don’t make any additional demands on your body, then the muscles have no reason to grow. They will only grow to the strength that you need them to, and not a centimentre more.
That’s why, in order to keep sculpting a beautiful body, you can never grow complacent with your training. Once you fall into a comfort zone and the workouts are no longer challenging, I promise you that you will plateau.
So what exactly is Progressive Overload?
This principle can be defined as continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system to continually make gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance. Simply put, in order to get bigger and stronger, you must continually make your muscles work harder than they’re used to.
Most often, that means increasing the resistance (otherwise known as weight), but that is not the only way to increase the overload.
Fact: If the demands on the target muscle groups are not at least maintained or are even actually decreased (by lifting smaller weights for example), your muscles will shrink, losing size and strength.
The progressive-overload principle doesn’t apply just to lifting weights to increase muscle growth and strength. This principle can also be applied to cardiovascular-fitness programs.
If you want to run further, then you must run further!
What does Progressive Overload Look Like?
Let’s say when you start lifting you realize that, with a lot of effort, you can squat 3 sets of 10 reps with 40kg on the bar. You’re proud of your efforts and feel strong. Over time, you’ll get stronger and your muscles will grow as a result. Soon you realize that completing 10 reps is no longer a struggle.
In the beginning you introduced a weight (known as an overload) of 40kg but your muscles have now acclimated to this amount and have adapted accordingly.
As your muscles have adapted to the initial overload you introduced, where do you go now? Do you continue using the same load for the same number of repetitions, or are there changes you should consider making?
If you continue performing squats at 40kg for 10 repetitions, don’t expect any further gains. There’s no reason for your muscles to grow larger or stronger; they’re already capable of handling the all the force put upon them.
The only way, your muscles will become bigger and stronger is if you place even greater demands on them.
Here are five ways you can do just that.
Most Common and Effective Ways to Increase Your Overload
- Increase Your Resistance
Probably the most obvious way to increase the demands you place on your muscles is to increase the load, or weight. If 10kg is relatively easy when doing bicep curls, try increasing to 15 and then 20kg in subsequent sets.
Remember, there’s an inverse relationship between load and reps, so when you increase the weight, your reps are going to fall to some degree. That’s OK, because soon enough, you’ll get stronger with that weight and be able to repeat the cycle over again.
- Increase Your Reps
You don’t necessarily have to always add more weight. (even though load is King and the most effective way to progressively overload) However, you can switch it up occasiohnally by simply do more repetitions. Never stop a movement when you reach an arbitrary rep count. Keep going until you can’t complete any more on your own with good form. You must hit concrete muscle failure in the final set of every exercise.
Exercise science indicates that to maximize your muscle-building efforts, the point at which you end your set should be in the 8- to 12-rep range. So you wouldn’t want to indefinitely keep adding reps as you get stronger, because those incremental gains at some point would improve muscle endurance rather than muscle size, unless that is your goal.
When you reach 12 or 15 reps or so, you should increase the resistance rather than simply trying to do more. Your reps will come down, but it’ll keep you in that ideal range for hypertrophy.
A fantastic way to increase your rep range with a bigger load is to have a spotter help you. These forced reps, where you are possibly still carrying the weight on the negative rep, is one of the best ways to break the muscle tissue and force it to grow.
- Increase Your Volume
Volume is simply sets multiplied by reps multiplied by resistance. By adding more sets (either by doing more exercises or adding another set for your existing exercises), you’re making progressively greater demands on your muscle tissue.
Remember, too, that since your reps are best constrained to the 8-12 range and the loads you use don’t change dramatically to stay in that range, increasing your total sets is the best way to increase total training volume.
That may mean doing 3 sets instead of 2 or 5 instead of 4, for all the exercises in your routine, or adding another movement (hopefully from a slightly different angle to emphasize a different area of the muscle).
- Increase Your Training Frequency
Like volume, increasing the frequency with which you train a muscle group can increase the overload. And, like volume, you can get too much of a good thing. This technique works particularly well when targeting a lagging or weak body part. The traditional approach to training a muscle group is once over the course of the training split, but training it more frequently may help bring it up, especially when used as a short-term strategy.
So instead of training shoulders once a week, train them twice or three times. Add them onto another workout such as chest and triceps, or at the end of your back workout as well as giving them a full workout on another day,. As with all things body sculpting, remember to switch up the exercises so you are hitting the muscle groups from all angles.
- Decrease Your Rest Time Between Sets
Lastly, to progressively overload you can decrease the amount of time you rest between sets, asking more of your muscles and giving them less time to recover. This allows you to do the same amount of work but in less time forcing your body to become more metabolically efficient in weightlifting.
Decide which Method of Progressive Overload Works For You
You can include any of these methods in your training, but it’s best to focus on just one at a time. As adaptation eventually occurs, and I promise you it will, it’s good to know you have other methods available, especially if simply increasing weight just doesn’t seem to work any longer.
Of course, this is all assuming you’re interested in building muscle (staying with the 8- to 12-rep range, which is optimal for hypertrophy). If you’re looking to focus on strength, increasing resistance may be a more favorable option than simply doing more reps. Similarly, individuals wanting to increase muscle endurance may find that higher repetitions combined with increases in reps, not load, is more effective for achieving their goals.
While factors such as increasing total volume will be important to a bodybuilder, decreasing the rest time between sets and increasing repetitions may be more beneficial for endurance athletes or individuals concerned with muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness rather than gains in strength and power. The techniques you use should be in line with your fitness goals. Prioritize what’s important to you.
If you want to sculpt beautiful muscles, increase your metabolism and get stronger and fitter as a result, progressive overload is the absolute key.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what your goal is, or what type of workout/exercise you’re doing. If you want it to work, you must focus on making progressive overload happen.
If you don’t, you will plateau. If you do, you are guaranteed to see changes.
It’s that simple.
4 thoughts on “Progressive Overload: The Key to Seeing Results”
I’m just starting out so should I try for the reps indicated in the training plan at a weight I can do it (with effort to get that last two), or, should I not worry about the reps and do what I can, heavy? For example, I can do 15,10,8 reps of incline barbell chest press at 17.5kg. The last couple on the first set are an effort and then it is more effort to get through the other two sets, but I can do it. today I upped the weight to 20kg and could only do 7, 8, 6 against the rep requirements. Is that better? Thanks!
Hi Caroline! You should aim to increase your weight per set. So start with 15kg first set, then perhaps 17.5, then 20 then 22.5kg. Aim for the reps specified but if you fall a few short it’s fine. Keep those weights the same each week until you start to get stronger, then increase them all. Kim x
Great article! Love the accurate info. I’m a CSCCa certified strength coach and need some personal changes/new challenges. I’ve toyed with being a vegan lifter and would really like to dive in 100%. Glad I found your site.
You should totally do it! So glad you enjoyed the article 🙂 x
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