Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is the most important factor in strength training that will determine if your training program will work or not. Its definition may sound fancy but it simply means that you will do more work over time.

The principle states: In order to build muscle or improve strength (power etc.), it is imperative to stimulate the body with stimulus that is greater than stimulus to which the body is adapted.

Why Is It So important?

Our bodies number one priority is to keep you alive and working efficiently. It does that by adapting to the environment and its threats.

So if you want to improve your body, you must force it to do that. You need to create an environment that will “convince” your body that it must adapt in order to survive.

How To Achieve Progressive Overload?

There are many ways how to go about achieving progressive overload but the most common probably are:

  • increase the weight you lift – Lets say you squat 3 sets x 5 reps x 100 lbs. Next time you will do again 3 sets x 5 reps but increase the weight to 105 lbs.
  • increase the number of repetitions – Using previous example, you will keep 3 sets and 100 lbs but increase the number of repetitions to 6 so you will do 3 sets x 6 reps x 100 lbs
  • increase the number of sets – You would go from 3 sets x 5 reps x 100 lbs to 4 sets x 5 reps x 100 lbs
  • shorten the rest periods between sets – For example, if you now rest 3 minutes between sets, you would keep the number of sets/reps and weight the same but decrease the rest periods to 2 minute and 30 seconds.
  • increase the frequency of training – Lets say you squat 3 sets x 5 reps x 100 lbs only once a week. So you will add another squat session but keep the set, reps and weight the same.

Which of these methods is best suited for you depends on your goal. Lets say you want to increase your maximal strength and you have decided to use the method of increasing the number of repetitions. At the beginning you would do 3 sets x 5 reps x 100 lbs. Assuming that you would add one repetition every week, after ten weeks you would do 3 sets x 15 reps x 100 lbs. Did you increased your maximal strength? Definitely. But was it the most effective way?

It would by much better choice to keep the sets x reps the same and increase the weight lifted. If you added 5 lbs every week you would end up doing 3 sets x 5 reps x 150 lbs.

man performing a cable biceps curls

How To Progress

I will use as an example probably the most used method of progressive overload – increasing the weight you’re lifting.

Lets say you are following a program where you squat two times a week using 3 sets x 5 reps. You should increase the load every time you will finish all 5 reps in all 3 sets.

At the beginning you will be able to add weight every training session:

  1. session – 3 x 5 x 100 lbs
  2. session – 3 x 5 x 105 lbs
  3. session – 3 x 5 x 110 lbs and so on

In the 10. session you would use 145 lbs and you would finish first 2 sets of 5 just fine but you would do only 4 reps in the last set. Now what?

Well, in the next session you would again use 145 lbs and most likely would finish all the reps (3 x 5). So you would increase the weight to 150 in the following session.

Progression with other methods is similar. You would increase (or decrease in case of rest periods) the variable (weight, reps, sets etc.) only after hitting the prescribed sets x reps x weight.

Real World Example

When I started using 5 x 5 system (sets x reps) I was squatting 65 kg (140 lbs) and I was able to add 2,5 kg (5 lbs) every week for around 8 weeks so my progress looked like this:

  1. week – 5 x 5 x 65 kg (145 lbs)
  2. week – 5 x 5 x 67,5 kg (150 lbs)
  3. week – 5 x 5 x 72,5 kg (155 lbs)
  4. week – 5 x 5 x 75 kg (160 lbs)
  5. week – 5 x 5 x 77,5 kg (165 lbs)
  6. week – 5 x 5 x 80 kg (170 lbs)
  7. week – 5 x 5 x 82,5 kg (175 lbs)
  8. week – I wasn’t able to do all the prescribed reps, I did 4 x 5 and 1 x 4 x 85 kg (180 lbs)
  9. week – finished all the reps so I again increased the weight by 2,5 kg (5 lbs) to 90 kg (185 lbs)
  10. week – I did 3 x 5 and 2 x 4 x 90 kg (185 lbs)
  11. week – 4 x 5 and 1 x 4 x 90 kg (185 lbs) and so on

I hope I managed to explain the principle of progressive overload so that you can implement it into your training.