The Progressive Overload Principle (10 Effective Ways To Use It)

Progressive overload is the most important concept in all of fitness.

After reading this post, you will learn:

  • why the progressive overload principle is essential for every workout program,
  • how to use progressive overload principles to break through any fitness plateaus,
  • and ten different examples of how to do it effectively

If you haven’t changed your exercise routine for the past several months, now’s the time.

Let’s get started.

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Okay, let’s get started.



What is Progressive Overload?

In its simplest terms, progressive overload is a training method in which you gradually increase the exercise stimulus imposed on your body. In other words, you do more work over time).

You cannot do the same workout at the same intensity over and over and expect to make progress. You must progressively increase the stimulus over time.

You can use progressive overload in many different forms of training, such as:

  • strength training,
  • hypertrophy training, and
  • cardiovascular training

Why is progressive overload important?

Progressive overload is necessary if you want to get stronger, build more muscle, or improve your endurance.

The reason is that the human body is incredibly adaptable. If you do the same exercises at the same weight for the same number of repetitions, your body will eventually adapt to that workout and plateau.

To continue improving your fitness level, you need to increase the challenge on your body over time.

Gradually increasing the demands of your workout forces your body to adapt by becoming stronger and more efficient.

Progressive is the only way to ensure that your muscles will:

  • grow in size (aka hypertrophy), and
  • recruit more motor neurons (aka get stronger), and
  • metabolize energy more efficiently (aka build endurance)

Without this, you will not get better.

What is an example of Progressive Overload?

The most common example of progressive overload is increasing the weight you are using on a particular exercise.

For example:

You lift 100 lbs for three sets of eight repetitions. The following week, you increase the weight to 105 lbs and attempt to get three sets of eight repetitions again.

Let’s review other ways to use this fundamental principle in your workout.

10 ways To create a progressive overload In Your Workout

There are many different ways to apply progressive overload to your workouts.

Some of the most effective and efficient methods are:

#1 Increasing Resistance

Many exercises use external resistance such as dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, pulleys, or resistance bands. 

You could even use your body weight as a form of resistance.

As you get stronger, you will eventually need to increase the resistance (aka the weight) that you are using.

However, you shouldn’t just randomly add 20 lbs to your exercise from workout to workout.

It would be best if you increased the weight slowly and gradually. A 2.5 – 5 lb increase still constitutes a progression.

Give your body time to adapt to the weight increases. Otherwise, you run the risk of excessive muscle soreness and injury.

Now let’s quickly talk about the pros and cons of using this progressive overload method.

Pros:

  • Increasing resistance method is very easy to scale and measure
  • Increasing resistance builds muscular strength

Cons:

  • You will eventually reach a cap where you cannot increase the weight any further
  • Your form can suffer if you let your ego lift more than you can handle
  • As the amount of weight on the bar increases, so does the risk of injury

#2 Increasing Volume: Repetitions

The second way to progressively overload is to increase the number of repetitions you do per exercise.

Repetitions refer to the number of consecutive times you lift a weight for any exercise. For example, doing 12 repetitions means lifting the weight 12 times before resting. If you do another round of 12 repetitions, you have done two sets.

On the next workout, instead of 2 sets of 12, you do 2 sets of 13 or even 2 sets of 14 squats.

As you do more repetitions, the training volume increases, and, thus, you are progressively overloading.

I go over this in much more detail in: How Many Sets & Reps Should I Do?

Now let’s quickly talk about the pros and cons of using this progressive overload method.

Pros:

  •  Increasing repetitions is a straightforward and convenient way to measure progress
  • It can build strength, hypertrophy, and endurance

Cons:

  • There are diminishing returns after 15-20 reps per set (the best rep range is 6-12)
  • Your form can suffer if you focus only on achieving a specific rep goal

#3 Increasing Volume: Sets

By that same token, you can also increase training volume by adding another set.

Sticking to the previous example, you can add on a third set instead of doing 2 sets of 12 squats.

Now you do 3 total sets of 12 repetitions on the squat.

In this situation, you use the same weight and rep scheme. You are increasing the volume by dividing the workload into more equal bouts.

I recommend doing no more than five sets per exercise for efficiency.

Now let’s quickly talk about the pros and cons of using this progressive overload method.

Pros:

  • Increasing sets can help divide your workload into manageable chunks, allowing you to do more volume across more time

Cons:

  • Adding sets can increase the length of your workout

#4 Decreasing Rest Time

Another way to progressively overload is to simply decrease the rest time between each exercise and each set.

Let’s say you started with 90 seconds of rest between two sets of 12 squats. You can decrease the rest time to 60 seconds for the next workout.

Decreasing rest time forces your body to perform the same amount of work in less time.

It will also improve muscular efficiency, as your muscles must overcome fatigue before starting the next set.

I go over rest periods in much more detail in: How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?

Now let’s quickly talk about the pros and cons of using this progressive overload method.

Pros:

  • Decreasing rest time helps keep the workout short and efficient
  • Improves cardiovascular endurance
  • Improves muscular efficiency

Cons:

  • Total volume will decrease as you may not be able to keep up the same number of reps in subsequent sets

#5 Increasing Time Under Tension: Tempo

Another simple way to make your workouts more challenging is by decreasing a movement’s tempo.

In other words, you slow down the speed at which you do each repetition.

Decreasing tempo will increase the difficulty of each exercise significantly and increase your muscle’s time under tension (aka TUT). Studies have shown that TUT is critical in optimizing muscular hypertrophy (i.e., muscle size).

So how do you do this exactly?

Let’s say it takes you 1 second to descend on your squat and then 1 second to ascend. By decreasing the tempo, you will take 3 seconds to descend.

Tempo training is an excellent strategy to overload as the weight and repetitions remain the same progressively.

Now, let’s quickly talk about the pros and cons of using this progressive overload method.

Pros:

  • Improves time under tension
  • It improves your form as you must slow down
  • Improves cardiovascular endurance
  • Improves hypertrophy

Cons:

  •  These sets are challenging and are tough to recover from – expect more significant muscular soreness

#6 Increasing Time Under Tension: Paused Reps

The second way to increase time under tension is to perform a pause on every repetition.

Typically, you should pause at the most challenging portion of the exercise, usually at the midway point of the lift. For example:

  • Squat: Pause at the bottom of the exercise
  • Bench Press: Pause with the barbell at your chest
  • Pull-ups: Pause at the top of the exercise

Do not expect to be able to lift as much weight or perform the same number of repetitions. The good news is that these repetitions can help you learn the proper form!

Here are the pros and cons of this method.

Pros:

  • Improves time under tension
  • It improves your form as you must slow down
  • Improves cardiovascular endurance
  • Improves hypertrophy

Cons:

  • Expect total volume to decrease as you may not be able to use as much weight or perform as many repetitions as you usually could

#7 Increase the intensity/effort

On the contrary, instead of lifting a weight slower- you can also lift it faster. This method is called “dynamic effort training.” 

Lifting a weight as fast as you can increase power production- which is defined as the amount of energy applied to an object divided by time. The quicker you move something, the more power it requires.

As you can imagine, your form may suffer if you aren’t careful. When starting, keep the repetition count low (no more than five reps per set) to ensure you aren’t sacrificing your technique.

Here are the pros and cons of this method.

Pros:

  •  It builds a tremendous amount of power
  • It can help break through strength plateaus where speed is an issue

Cons:

  • This method is best for lower repetition sets only
  • Your form can suffer if you aren’t careful

#8 Increasing Range of Motion

This following method of progressive overload will have you modify the main exercises to make them more challenging.

One way to do this is to increase a movement’s range of motion. All this means is that you lift the weight for a greater distance.

Let’s take the push-up, for example.

Instead of doing push-ups on the floor, you can elevate your hands on parallettes. As a result, your chest can go lower than your hands, increasing the distance you have to work to perform each repetition.

Or, if you are doing a deadlift, you can either stand on a short platform or use shorter plates to lift the bar a greater distance. This is known as a deficit deadlift.

This method isn’t possible for every exercise, but you can get creative.

Here are the pros and cons of this method.

Pros:

  • Works your muscles through a larger range of motion for each repetition, which can improve muscular hypertrophy
  • It improves efficiency, as you need fewer reps to achieve the same level of fatigue

Cons:

  • If you don’t have adequate mobility in any particular joint, the extra range of motion can lead to injury
  • This technique is only useful in a handful of exercises

#9 Increasing Frequency

Another great way of gradually increasing your workout demands is to increase the number of times you train each muscle group.

This strategy works best if you only train a specific muscle group once or twice weekly.

Training each muscle group twice per week is generally better than once per week, and it is unclear if three is better than two. Still, either way, the increasing training frequency will represent a progressive overload.

You need to be careful with this method. You must ensure that you adequately recover between exercise sessions and avoid training the same movement patterns two days in a row.

Here are the pros and cons of this method.

Pros:

  • Promotes superior strength gains to once-per-week training
  • Promotes superior hypertrophy gains to once-per-week training

Cons:

  • It can increase the number of times you need to work out each week (or the length of your current workouts)
  • It can lead to muscular overuse and fatigue if inter-workout recovery is inadequate

#10 Modify the exercise Variation

If you have been doing the same strength exercises for several months, you can always move on to more challenging variations. This method is beneficial if you have tried several progressive overload methods above and are still plateauing.

Instead of modifying your volume or resistance, you can move on to a more challenging variation.

For example, you can do the following:

  • Bench Press -> Close Grip Bench Press
  • Back Squats -> Front Squats
  • Push-ups -> Decline Push-ups
  • Pull-ups – > Wide Grip Pull-ups
  • Lunges -> Bulgarian Split Squats

Your goal is to move to a completely different yet similar exercise that still strengthens one of the key 6 functional movement patterns.

Here are the pros and cons of this method.

Pros:

  • Keeps your workouts fun with endless variations
  • It helps strengthen weak points that other exercises may miss – this will make you a well-rounded strength athlete

Cons:

  •  The immense library of exercises can incentivize you to switch things around constantly – don’t do this!

Here is a chart showing all ten ways to overload your training program progressively.

Progressive Overload Chart

Progressive Overload MethodExample Of How To Do It
Increasing ResistanceWorkout A: Squat 135 lbs x 3 sets of 8 || Workout B: 140 lbs x 3 sets of 8
Increasing Volume: RepetitionsWorkout A: Squat 135 lbs x 3 sets of 8 || Workout B: 135 lbs x 3 sets of 9
Increasing Volume: SetsWorkout A: Squat 135 lbs x 3 sets of 8 || Workout B: 135 lbs x 4 sets of 8
Decreasing Rest TimeWorkout A: 3 minutes rest between sets || Workout B: 2 minutes rest
Increasing Time Under Tension: TempoWorkout A: 1 second eccentric each rep || Workout B: 3 second eccentric
Increasing Time Under Tension: PausesCycle A: Squat 135 lbs || Cycle B: Pause Squats 135 lbs
Increasing Intensity/EffortCycle A: Squat 135 lbs || Cycle B: Dynamic Effort (Speed) Squat 135 lbs
Increasing Range of MotionCycle A: Deadlift 135 lbs || Cycle B: Deficit Deadlift 135 lbs
Increasing FrequencyCycle A: Deadlift Once per week || Cycle B: Deadlift twice per week
Modifying Exercise VariationCycle A: Back Squat || Cycle B: Front Squat

How to Incorporate Progressive Overload Into Your Routine

The best way to incorporate progressive overload into your training routine is to break your training up into separate blocks. Each block should last anywhere from 3-5 weeks and focus on only one method of progression.

For example, in the first 4-week cycle of your training, you can focus on increasing the weights from workout to workout.

After that four-week block, you can choose to do another 4-week block of adding weight to each movement. Obviously, this can’t go on forever. There will come a time when you won’t be able to continue adding weight while maintaining the same volume.

After one to two blocks of adding weight, you can implement another method of progression, such as increasing repetitions for four weeks without changing the weight.

Your entire training cycle will then be composed of blocks dedicated to different overload methods.

Now, the most important thing you must understand first is this-

Change only one thing at a time.

I.e., don’t use more than one of the strategies mentioned above simultaneously. For example, if you have already added more weight to your squats, don’t add more repetitions to them as well. Also, don’t begin to add pauses to each repetition. Change only one thing and leave everything else the same.

How fast should I progressive overload?

If you are a beginner, you can implement progressive overload on every workout or as often as possible. However, you must keep the progress slow and gradual.

Only increase the weight by 2.5 to 5 lbs (if adding resistance), or increase your volume by one repetition per set (if adding repetitions).

Intermediate and advanced athletes should plan on using one of the progressive overload methods every week.

Can you progressive overload forever?

You will not be able to progressively overload forever. Progress will slow down, and you will have to cycle between different forms of progressive overload as the months pass by.

For example, some training cycles can employ lighter weight but increased volume and vice versa.

How do you use progressive overload with bodyweight exercises?

The easiest way to progressively overload bodyweight exercises is to perform more repetitions, switch to a more challenging variation, or wear a weight vest and gradually use heavier weights.

My favorite weight vest for this is the Kensui Plate Loaded Weight Vest.

With this vest, you can slowly add 2.5 to 5 lbs at a time to each calisthenics exercise by using standard weight plates.

Here is what it looks like.

Other Related Questions

Can You Show Examples Of Progressive Overload In Action?

Okay, now that we have discussed how you can progressively overload, let’s go over some examples.

adding Weight

In the following workout examples, you can see a gradual increase in the weight of each training session.

  • Workout 1- Squat 185 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions, Bench Press 135 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Workout 2- Squat 190 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions, Bench Press 140 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Workout 3- Squat 195 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions, Bench Press 145 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions

As you can see, the sets and number of repetitions in each set remain the same while only the weight increases. These workouts can occur on a weekly or twice a week basis.

Similarly, you can keep the weight lifted the same for 3-4 weeks and then increase it after every 3-4 week block.

There are many ways to skin the cat!

Adding Reps Linearly

Another example of progressive overload is to add reps linearly. For example:

  • Workout 1- Squat 185 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions, Bench Press 135 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Workout 2- Squat 185 lbs x 3 sets of 9 repetitions, Bench Press 135 lbs x 3 sets of 9 repetitions
  • Workout 3- Squat 185 lbs x 3 sets of 10 repetitions, Bench Press 135 lbs x 3 sets of 10 repetitions

Adding Reps Step-Wise

Another method you could use is the adding of repetitions in a step-wise manner. This approach is much slower but yields a gradual overload effect over the months. For example:

  • Workout 1- Squat 185 lbs x 8, 8, 8 repetitions, respectively
  • Workout 2– Squat 185 lbs x 9, 8, 8 repetitions, respectively
  • Workout 3- Squat 185 lbs x 9, 9, 8 repetitions, respectively
  • Workout 4- Squat 185 lbs x 9, 9, 9 repetitions, respectively

This gradual approach works best for more advanced trainees who need slow and controlled overload methods.

Adding Sets

You can also increase the number of sets for each movement as each week passes. After a 3-4 week cycle, you can change another variable.

For example:

  • Workout 1- Squat 185 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Workout 2- Squat 185 lbs x 4 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Workout 3- Squat 185 lbs x 5 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Workout 4- Squat 190 lbs x 3 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Workout 5- Squat 190 lbs x 4 sets of 8 repetitions

In this example, the sets were increased by one each week until five sets were achieved. After that, the weight increased, and the sets were dropped back down to 3.

Do I Need To Use All 10 Of These Progressive Overload Training Methods?

Definitely not. I recommend you pick 3-4 strategies and stick to those for at least one year. My personal favorites are

  1. Adding weight
  2. Adding repetitions
  3. Adding sets
  4. Modifying the exercise variation

Do I Have To Progress Every workout?

You do not have to progress every workout because progress will never be linear. Your body adapts in waves. At times, you’ll notice significant progress improvements; other times, you may see slow progress.

Aim for weekly progress instead of daily progress. Always keep track of your workouts and analyze what is and isn’t working.

Is progressive overload essential for hypertrophy?

Yes, progressive overload is essential for all three fitness domains:

  1. muscle hypertrophy (increasing muscle mass),
  2. muscle strength, and
  3. muscular endurance

Without it, you would never get stronger, bigger, or faster. Strength athletes, marathon runners, and bodybuilders all use progressive overload to get to the top of their game.

Is progressive overload good for fat loss?

Progressive overload can be beneficial for fat loss; however, your diet will always be more important than your training.

It is essential that you fix your nutrition first. Only then will resistance training help in achieving your weight loss goals.

Is There A Difference Between Progressive Overload For Beginners Vs. Advanced Athletes?

In general, beginners can realize faster progress than a trained person. If you are a beginner, you might notice that you can progress from workout to workout.

In contrast, advanced athletes generally require longer training blocks. The stronger you are, the more resistance is needed to induce a stimulus sufficient for adaptations.

If you think about it, this makes sense.

A beginner may be able to squat 135 lbs for 10 repetitions and no more. Compare that to an advanced athlete who can squat 315 lbs for 10 repetitions.

315 lbs will be much harder to perform and recover from. In contrast, the 135 lbs will induce fatigue, but not so much that you can’t get back to another squat session in 2-3 days.

So the critical difference is the speed at which you could implement these ten methods of progressive overload in your training.

A 12-week progressive overload workout program For Beginners

If you are looking for a complete done-for-you workout program that implements the principle of progressive overload, check out The WCT’s Strength Program For Busy Professionals.

This program will help you build muscle and gain strength in just 30 minutes a day. Plus, you won’t have to worry about how or when to overload your workouts progressively!

wct strength program cover images

Final Words

Progressive overload is essential for improving all fitness goals.

To recap:

  • Make a gradual and progressive change to your workouts on a week-to-week basis
  • Never sacrifice form for continued progress- always focus on good form first!
  • Use 3-4 of the ten methods described above to realize long-term success

Now I want to hear from you.

Which method will you use first in your workout routine?

Comment below and let me know.

What’s Next?



alex-brittany-robles-white-coat-trainer

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM Certified Personal Trainers, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a resource dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals using time-efficient strategies. Their advice has been featured in My Fitness Pal, Prevention, Livestrong, Reader’s Digest, Bustle, The Active Times, and more. Learn more about them here.


2 thoughts on “The Progressive Overload Principle (10 Effective Ways To Use It)”

  1. Darryl Shakeshaft

    Thanks, I have been implementing this progressive overload and have seen some results. I have to use lighter weights because of RA. but it works well. Thank you for sending this out.

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