Progressive overload is a lot simpler than it may seem and, once you’ve cracked it, it’s a quick solution to training plateaus (or just plain old boredom). Several studies prove so, including this one, which showed that gradually increasing the weight and number of repetitions of exercises - not the only factors you can 'progressively overload' with, BTW - was effective for increasing bicep strength and muscle growth in both men and women who had stopped advancing.
What's more, several celebs including Kate Upton and Gal Gadot are big fans. Upton's PT Ben Bruno told People: 'One of they key tenets of my program is progressive overload. We do slow increases over time, so you build gradually.' He says Upton can deadlift more than 200 pounds, do sled pushes with 500 pounds, and do bear crawls with 300 pounds, so it's clearly working wonders for her. Exhibit A:
In a nutshell, progressive overload is about increasing the intensity of your workouts, and the key is to teach your body to adapt. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is progressive overload?
Andy Vincent, a strength and conditioning coach, breaks it down: ‘When you exercise, you place a stress on the body. Your body then recovers and adapts to this stressor, so that when that same stressor happens again, you can do it with much less effort.
‘Progressive overload is the focus of laying a slight incremental increase in training stress on top of another, session after session, week after week, so you continue to improve.’
Typically, progressive overload is associated with strength training, but Andy adds that the concept could also be applied to other forms of exercise, such as running and cycling, with duration being the variable that you'd progressively overload.
Benefits of progressive overload
As mentioned, the purpose of progressive overload is to make your body stronger and more able to recover and adapt to exercise stressors, and it's been scientifically proven.
A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology observed 83 people over a period of 12 weeks as they practiced progressive overload on a series of arm strengthening exercises — gradually increasing the weight and number of repetitions of exercises. The results showed that progressive overload was effective for increasing bicep strength and muscle growth in both men and women.
Andy is a huge proponent for all of his clients. ‘The human body has a borderline limitless capacity to adapt to training, meaning you can achieve anything you want if you get progressive overload right. If each exercise is gradually progressed, the body has a chance to adapt fully.’
The key is in the word ‘gradually’. ‘What’s common is for people to throw too much at their bodies,’ Andy explains. ‘Don’t try and lift too much too soon, or go from a 5k run to a 10k run. You might get away with it initially, but at some point, the lack of adaptation your body has will hold you back via injury or fatigue.’
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that a ‘2%-10% increase in load be applied when the individual can perform the current workload for one to two repetitions over the desired number.’
Read on to find more examples of how you can put progressive overload into place.
How does progressive overload work?
The science behind progressive overload involves both your brain and body. Andy explains: ‘When your body tries to fix damaged muscles, your brain and body increases the number of capillaries it has, so that more blood can flow to the muscles, your nerve signalling gets stronger, and your body learns to store more energy in the muscles.
'You’ll also lay down more muscle and tendon tissue. All of these changes are gradual and take time, but they mean that the next time you go to lift the weight you did before, or run the distance you did before, it’ll seem easier.’
How to implement progressive overload
4 progressive overload techniques
The amount of weight you can lift is probably the most common factor you've heard people progressively overloading, but it's not the only one. Andy cites all of the exercise variables that fit the model of progressive overload, and could help you get stronger and fitter:
First things first, let’s run through how increasing the amount of weight you lift would work. ‘Going up in load every 1-4 weeks is a clear way to progress,’ Andy explains. ‘For example, dumbbells usually go up in 2kg increments, and for a barbell, there are usually 1.25kg plates you can add to the end of each bar.’ The smaller the increase, the better.
Example progressive overload workout plan: intensity
Week 1: Perform a barbell back squat of 10kg
Week 2: Perform a barbell back squat of 10kg
Week 3: Perform a barbell back squat of 12.5kg
Week 4: Perform a barbell back squat of 12.5kg
Week 5: Perform a barbell back squat of 15kg
Week 6: Perform a barbell back squat of 15kg
Week 7: Perform a barbell back squat of 17.5kg
NB: You can apply this kind of progressive overload example to any weighted exercise - just remember to increase by no more than 2.5kg every two weeks. For example, if you're looking to progress your bicep curls, you could increase by 1kg per dumbbell every two weeks.
The number of reps performed. ‘If you did 3 sets of 10 reps (3x10), you accumulate 30 total reps,’ Andy says. ‘In progressive overload, you'd take this one step further and try 3x12 reps, to make 36 total.’ One study found volume progression to be particularly beneficial for women, with the female participants who increased their volume of resistance training showing a significant increase in muscle mass.
Example progressive overload workout plan: volume
Week 1: Perform 3 sets of 10 squats
Week 2: Perform 3 sets of 10 squats
Week 3: Perform 3 sets of 12 squats
Week 4: Perform 3 sets of 12 squats
Week 5: Perform 3 sets of 14 squats
Week 6: Perform 3 sets of 14 squats
Week 7: Perform 3 sets of 15 squats
This one’s all about the technique with which you execute each single rep. ‘Let’s say you can do 12kg goblet squat, but your knees always cave in,’ Andy says. ‘Spending 2-3 weeks mastering your form so that you can move better is a method of progression, and a very important one.’
The speed you perform each rep. ‘Most people rush their strength work,’ Andy says. ‘Slowing down and adding time under tension is a great way to progress. It’s the lowering phase that you should go slow on – adding a pause at the bottom of each exercise (say, a squat, or a bicep curl) is a great way to make it more challenging and progress.’
This study found that slowing exercises down makes them more difficult as it calls upon your stability, coordination, balance, power and agility – as well as strength – and results showed that gradual progression resulted in stronger muscles.
Example progressive workout plan: tempo
Week 1: Perform 3 sets of 12 squats, with equal time spent on the concentric (lowering or contracting) and eccentric (lifting or lengthening) phase
Week 2: Perform 3 sets of 12 squats, with equal time spent on the concentric (lowering or contracting) and eccentric (lifting or lengthening) phase
Week 3: Perform 3 sets of 12 squats, with a 2-second pause at the bottom
Week 4: Perform 3 sets of 12 squats, with a 2-second pause at the bottom
Week 5: Perform 3 sets of 12 squats, with a 3-second pause at the bottom
Week 6: Perform 3 sets of 12 squats, with a 3-second pause at the bottom
Week 7: Perform 3 sets of 12 squats, with a 5-second pause at the bottom
The amount of workouts you do in any given time. ‘Adding a session into your weekly routine is another method of progression, but make sure it’s gradual and sustainable,’ Andy says. ‘Remember it’s in the recovery process that you adapt, so doing more sessions and not giving yourself time to do that could actually hinder any progression you’re making.’
Example progressive overload workout plan: frequency
Week 1: Complete 2 workouts
Week 2: Complete 2 workouts
Week 3: Complete 3 workouts
Week 4: Complete 3 workouts
Week 5: Complete 4 workouts
Week 6: Complete 4 workouts
Week 7: Complete 5 workouts
Progressive overload safety tips
Always ensure you have mastered your form and technique before attempting to train harder, to reduce the risk of injuring yourself. Ask a professional or a member of staff at the gym if you're unsure, or check out our complete guide on all the most important weightlifting form tips.
Always remember to take rest days, to help your muscles recover and get stronger.
The smaller the increase in intensity/volume/tempo the better. Slow and steady wins the race.
Still with us? Check out our complete guide on strength training for beginners for exercises you can try and more tips.
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