The Progressive Overload Principle: [10 Easy Ways To Use It]

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Today, you are going to learn everything you need to know about the principle of progressive overload.

This is single-handedly the most important aspect of building muscle and gaining strength.

After reading this post, you will learn:

  • why progressive overload is essential for every workout program,
  • how to use progressive overload principles to breakthrough any fitness plateaus,
  • and 10 different examples of how to do it correctly

If you haven’t made any changes in your exercise routine for the past several months, now’s the time.

Let’s get started.

Disclaimer:

Although we are doctors and personal trainers, we are not your doctors. This information is for informational purposes only and should not substitute the advice from your healthcare professional. Please read our full Disclaimer for more information. Also, this post may contain affiliate links: meaning we may receive a commission if you use them.

What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is the most important concept in all of fitness. (Well maybe behind consistency).

Anyway…

In its simplest terms, progressive overload means that you must gradually increase the exercise stimulus imposed on your body.

Why?

Because your body is great at adapting.

You cannot do the exact same exercise at the exact same weight over and over and expect to make progress. You must progressively change the stimulus over time.

This 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. Period.

What Types Of Progressive Overload Are There?

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 employ the use of external resistance. These could be in the form of dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, pulleys, or resistance bands.

You could even use your own bodyweight as a great form of resistance.

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

Obviously, this must be done in a carefully planned fashion. You shouldn’t just randomly add 20 lbs to your exercise on any given day.

It is important that you increase 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 method of progressive overload:

Pros:

  • This 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

#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 given exercise. For example, doing 12 repetitions means that you lift the weight 12 times before you rest. If you do another round of 12 repetitions, then you have done 2 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 method of progressive overload:

Pros:

  • Increasing repetitions is a very easy and convenient way to measure progress
  • It Can build strength, hypertrophy, and endurance

Cons:

  • There are diminishing returns after 15 reps per set
  • Your form can suffer if you are only focused on achieving a very 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, instead of doing 2 sets of 12 squats, you can add on a third set.

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

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

In general, I recommend doing no more than 5 sets per exercise for efficiency.

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

Pros:

  • Increasing sets can helps 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 between each set.

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

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

This will improve muscular efficiency, as your muscles have to 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 method of progressive overload:

Pros:

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

Cons:

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

#5 Increasing Time Under Tension: Tempo

Another simple way of making your workouts more challenging is to decrease a movement’s tempo.

All this means is that you slow down the speed at which you do each repetition.

This will increases the difficulty of each exercise significantly, and increase your muscle’s time under tension (aka TUT). Studies have shown that TUT plays a critical role in optimizing muscular hypertrophy.

So how do you do this exactly?

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

You will see that this one simple addition can make your training brutal! This is a great strategy to progressively overload while the weight and repetitions remain the same.

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

Pros:

  • Improves time under tension
  • Improves your form as you are forced to slow down
  • Improves cardiovascular endurance
  • Improves hypertrophy

Cons:

  • These sets are very difficult and are tough to recover from – expect greater 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.

This will be performed at the hardest portion of the exercise, which is 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, nor perform the same number of repetitions as you are used to. The good news is, these repetitions will improve your form!

Here are the pros and cons of this method.

Pros:

  • Improves time under tension
  • Improves your form as you are forced to slow down
  • Improves cardiovascular endurance
  • Improves hypertrophy

Cons:

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

#7 Increase the intensity/effort

On the contrary, instead of lifting a weight slower- you can also lift it faster. This has been termed “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 faster you move something, the more power it requires.

As you could imagine, your form may suffer if you aren’t careful. When starting out, make sure to keep the repetition count low (no more than 5 reps per set) to make sure you aren’t sacrificing your technique.

Here are the pros and cons of this method.

Pros:

  • Builds a tremendous amount of power
  • Can help break through strength plateaus where speed is an issue

Cons:

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

#8 Increasing Range of Motion

This next 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 some parallettes. As a result, your chest can go lower than your hands, increasing the distance that you have to work to perform each repetition.

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

This isn’t possible for every single 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
  • Improves efficiency, as fewer reps would be needed 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 can only be used on a handful of exercises

#9 Increasing Frequency

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

This strategy works best if you are only training a specific muscle group once or twice per week.

In general, training each muscle group two times per week is better than once per week. It is unclear if three is better than two, but either way, this will represent a progressive overload.

Obviously, you need to be careful with this method. You must ensure that you are adequately recovering between exercise sessions and avoid training the exact 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:

  • Can increase the number of times you need to work out each week (or the length of your current workouts)
  • 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 is especially helpful if you have tried several of the progressive overload methods above and you are still plateauing.

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

For example, you can do:

  • 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 se 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
  • Helps strengthen weak points that other exercises may miss – this will make you a well rounded strength athlete

Cons:

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

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What Are The Most Common Examples of Progressive Overload?

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

First, let me show you the most straightforward method – adding more weight to the exercise.

adding Weight

In the following workout examples, you can see a gradual increase in the weight as the workouts go on.

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 increased. 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 in a linear fashion. 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

And so forth.

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 does yield a gradual overload effect over the course of 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 methods of overload.

Adding Sets

You can also add sets to each movement as the weeks go by. After a 3-4 week cycle goes by, you can then 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 1 each week until 5 sets were achieved. After which, the weight was increased and the sets were dropped back down to 3.

So, as you can see there are several ways to implement the principle of progressive overload to make long term changes.

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

Why Do I Need Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is absolutely essential if your goal is to make progress in any fitness aspect.

As I mentioned earlier, your body is amazing at adapting. If you do not use any of the principles above, your body will reach a plateau.

You cannot do the exact same workouts over and over and expect to get better. It’s like reading the same 3rd-grade algebra textbook and expecting to become a better mathematician.

You must eventually progress to harder and harder things. Fitness is no different.

So How Do I Use Progressive Overload In My Training?

Now that I have convinced you of the importance of progressive overload, let’s talk about how to use it.

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 it as well. Also, don’t begin to add pauses to each repetition. Change only one thing and leave everything else the same.

How to Incorporate Progressive Overload To Your Routine

So how should you actually incorporate progressive overload into your routine?

I recommend that you break up your training into separate blocks. Each block should last anywhere from 3-5 weeks and should 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 4 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 where you won’t be able to keep adding weight while maintaining the same amount of volume.

This is where you can implement another method of progression, such as increasing repetitions for 4 weeks without changing the weight.

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

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

Definitely not. I recommend you pick 3-4 of these strategies and stick to those for at least 1 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 single workout because progress will never be linear. Your body adapts in waves. At times, you’ll notice large improvements in your progress. Other times, you may notice extremely slow progress.

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

Is progressive overload essential for hypertrophy?

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

  1. hypertrophy,
  2. strength, and
  3. 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.

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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. Compared that to an advanced athlete who can squat 315 lbs for 10 repetitions.

315 lbs will be much harder to perform, and much harder to recover from. Whereas 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 key difference is the speed at which you could implement these 10 methods of progressive overload to your training.

Final Words

The concept of progressive overload can be quite tricky if you don’t understand how it works.

To recap:

  • Make a gradual and progressive change to your workouts on a week to week basis
  • Never sacrifice form for the sake of continued progress
  • Use 3-4 of the 10 methods described above to realize long term success

Now I want to hear from you.

Which method are you most interested in trying?

Comment below and let me know.

And if you are interested in a workout program that uses these principles in a tried and true way, (and only takes 30 minutes a day to do), check out the White Coat Trainer’s Strength Program!

Get Started With Four Free Tried and Tested Beginner Workouts That Only Take 30 Minutes A Day!

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

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

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM CPTs, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

Learn More About Them Here

2 thoughts on “The Progressive Overload Principle: [10 Easy 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.

Comments are closed.

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