If you have heard the term progressive overload and you have ever since wondered “what is progressive overload?”, prepare to be educated.
When it comes to changing the way your body looks, what does that require of you?
Hiit cardio classes that have you humping the ground (aka doing burpees) and jacking your heart rate super high?
Is making sure you lift light weight for high reps to “tone” the muscle?
How about what your grandfather told you he did in the Vietnam War to stay fit, 300 push ups and sit ups a day.
Well, it is actually none of the above.
The single most important thing when it comes to building the body you want is something called progressive overload.
What is progressive overload? So excited you asked. Let’s dive into everything progressive overload right now.
What Is Progressive Overload?
But First, Nutrition
This is not an article that is going to be based around your training routine not your nutrition, but it would be doing you a disservice to not at least mention it.
The truth is nutrition is going to play a huge role in your body composition changes.
If you are looking to lose body fat and see those abs, you can exercise all you want, but you can never out train a bad diet.
As well as if you are looking to build some muscle definition, if you are constantly under eating, good luck building any significant amount of lean muscle mass or strength.
Nutrition is the driving factor of fat loss and it helps your body build strength and lean muscle mass as well.
When it comes to nutrition here is the short and sweet of it.
If you want to lose body fat you need to be eating in a calorie deficit and getting adequate protein.
If you want to know how many calories to eat and how much protein to eat, simply head HERE where you can find my free calculator.
Now, if you want to gain muscle mass, you should be eating in at the very least calorie maintenance, but more so in a 150-300 calorie surplus.
This means adding 150-300 calories on top of your maintenance calories.
If you want to know how to find your maintenance calories, you can head HERE for my free calculator for that as well.
If you want to learn more about the nutrition side of things, I would strongly encourage you to check out those two resources linked above.
Now, for the real reason you came here, what is progressive overload?
What Is Progressive Overload?
The definition of progressive overload straight from the Oxford Definition of Sports Science & Medicine reads as such
“According to this basic training principle, training must include overload and progression to be successful. The body must be overloaded so that it has to work harder than normal. As the body adapts to a particular workload, the person should progress to a higher work level. For example, to gain strength, the muscles must be loaded beyond the point at which they are normally loaded. As the muscles become stronger, the load has to be increased to stimulate further strength increases. The load should be increased gradually over a long period of training.”
If you want the Eric – simplified version,
Progressive Overload is simply just doing more over a period of time.
We will talk specifics about how this can happen but in the most simple terms, this is all it is.
If you are lifting the same weight, with the same reps, and the same form as you were 6 months ago, your body is not going to change.
Now, why is your body not going to change and why is this principle of progressive overload important?
Let’s continue finding out.
Why Is Progressive Overload Needed To Change Your Body?
The fact is that in order for your body to change, there needs to be a great enough reason to elicit this change.
This goes way back to our primal ways. The reason our bodies function the way they do right now is due to what happened 3 4 500 years ago.
We need to be able to survive the heat and cool our bodies down, so we sweat.
We had to go hunt for food and eat it, that is why we have our 4 canine teeth to bite into meats.
Point being, there was a stress that our body was under, so we adapted.
It was in fight or flight mode. Either we adapt to the conditions and survive or we die of heat stroke and starvation.
Changing your physique is no different, and this is why progressive overload is so important.
In order for your body to grow stronger, more defined muscles, it needs to have a stress put on it great enough your body has to respond and adapt to.
If the stress is not great enough then there will be no reason to change your current status.
Your body likes homeostasis, it doesn’t want to change. It doesn’t care if you want to see your body change. You want to see that not your body.
Your body only changes when it has to in order to keep you alive because that is it’s main job.
Progressive overload allows this because if you recall the definition of progressive overload it is simply doing more over a period of time.
Therefore, this means that over time you will continuously put a stress great enough on your body that your body has to respond to.
When you are working out it is basically saying “oh hell, there is this weight being placed on us, we better make sure we respond and are ready for this next time around to keep us alive”.
Your body doesn’t know the difference between a stress from a 20lb dumbbell or a stress from a 20lb boulder rock, it just knows there is a stress that it needs to be able to handle.
The way your body responds is by growing stronger, more defined muscles.
The caveat here is unless that stress is something your body is not used to or cannot fully handle at that moment in time, then there will be no reason to respond.
If your body can say “oh yes we have dealt with this kind of stress before, I can handle this, no need to change everything is good!” Then it will! Like I said earlier your body likes homeostasis, it will do everything it can to remain the same.
If you are lifting 15lbs for 10 reps and you do that everyday for the rest of your life, then no, your body has no reason to change because it is used to that. It can handle that. It has already adapted to that stress.
This is why progressive overload is the single most important piece of exercise information I can provide to you.
Without you, you simply will not change.
Now, obviously at some point your strength is going to tap out, or we would all be lifting houses and cars.
Yet there are multiple ways to achieve this progressive overload principle. Let’s talk about some now.
What Is Progressive Overload? 5 Methods
Have you ever heard the saying,
“Methods are many, principles are few”
Well that is exactly the case here.
The principle of progressive overload is something you have to have in order to create change in your body. Yet the methods you use to achieve this progressive overload can be one of many.
We will cover some now.
First Off, Master The Basics
Before we dive into the methods let me be abundantly clear.
The single most important thing that lies within this progressive overload principle is the understanding that you can have basic movement patterns and technique down first.
You understand how to do a body weight squat, a correct push up. You feel confident you can perform a body weight lunge.
Before you get into things like adding weight or reps to your exercises, if you don’t have a solid foundation built first it won’t matter.
Much like if you were to build a sky scraper on a foundation of feathers. Not going to last very long is it?
I would strongly encourage you to take some time and not just learn, but master the basics first.
Whether that means hiring a coach , whether that means taking some time to search the google machine for proper technique, or whether that means leaving your ego at the door and being okay with re learning proper technique.
In order to not only get the most out of these methods below, but also stay injury free so you can keep having progressive overload, make sure you are confident in the basics.
I will also add,
You should NEVER sacrifice more weight or reps for shi*tty form. Ever.
Now, that is not to say every rep is going to be picture perfect and beautiful. There will be times where you get deep into a set or the weight gets heavy and hey, maybe it isn’t 100% perfect, but it happens.
That is different than completing rounding your back to get up a deadlift, or using the same method you use on your spouse at home to get up a bicep curl.
For progressive overload to be applicable, form and technique need to remain consistent throughout any of these methods.
Once you have lost that, everything else falls apart.
Keep it in tact and you will succeed.
Now, when it comes to what is progressive overload, these 5 methods will give you some applicable information to input into your workouts.
Method 1 – Lifting more weight for the same reps
Let’s say on week one you are doing 100lbs on a back squat for 8 reps.
To apply the method of progressive overload, on week two you could do 105lbs for 8 reps.
Week 3, 110lb for 8 reps.
Week 4, 115lbs for 8 reps.
That is a very simple, basic, but not easy way of applying progressive overload.
Method 2 – Lifting the same weight for more reps
Conversely, the next method is lifting the same weight for more reps.
Let’s use our same 100lbs for 8 reps on squat example.
Week 1 you could do 100lbs for 8 reps.
Week 2, 100lbs for 9 reps.
Week 3, 100lbs for 10 reps.
Week 4, 100lbs for 11 reps.
Yet again, it isn’t sexy or super flashy, but this is how you change your body over a period of time.
Method 3 – Lift the same weight for the same reps with more range of motion
Sticking with our same squat example, let’s say you were squatting 100lbs for 8 reps but you were really only going down 1/4 of the way.
Then on week two you got a little lower down.
Then, week 3, you get 1/2 down into your squat.
By week 6, you are hitting 90 degrees on your squat with the same weight for the same reps.
This would be progressive overload because you would recruiting more muscle fibers the bigger range of motion you are able to achieve.
Therefore you are putting more stress on your body over a period of time.
Method 4 – Lifting the same weight for the same reps with less effort
Let’s say on the first week of you squatting 100lbs for 8 reps it was HARD.
Like you were had a car on your back and you were trying to squat.
By rep 6 your legs were shaking, you were winded and had a hard time catching your breath.
Then, week 2, it got a little easier.
Week 4 rolls around, you are noticing you aren’t struggling nearly as much and you aren’t getting out of breath.
Then by week 6 it is like you are repping this out with ease.
That would be one form of progressive overload, you are doing the same weight and reps but with way less effort.
Just be careful of this one because once you get to that point of using less effort, you need to make sure you increase the weight!
If you want to know when to increase the weight you are lifting, keep reading because at the end of this article I will give you practical ways how.
Method 5 – Doing more volume in the same amount of time
Something I use quite often with my online coaching clients is what is called an EDT.
This stands for Escalated Density Training.
Basically I give them 3 or 4 exercises, have them set a 15 minute timer, and see how many rounds they go through.
Now this isn’t an AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) because in an EDT, you are still looking to maintain proper form. You are looking to still push the weight you are lifting and it is less about going max out rounds, more just pushing the limits.
So let’s the EDT was
- bicep curls x10
- Tricep extensions x10
- Shoulder Presses x10
On week one, you got 4 rounds total in 15 minutes.
On week two, you got 4.5 rounds in 15 minutes.
Week three, you got 5 rounds in 15 minutes.
Then week 4 you got 5.5 rounds in 15 minutes.
Even if you kept the weight the same for everyone of those movements, you are still achieving progressive overload because you are doing more work over a period of time.
To piggy back off of this, you could also have done 4 rounds in 15 minutes each week.
Yet if you started with 10lbs on bicep curls, 10lbs on tricep extensions, and 10lbs on shoulder presses.
By week 4 if you were doing 15lbs across the board for each exercise, while still getting 4 rounds, that would be progressive overload as well.
What Is Progressive Overload NOT? Linear
In each scenario above I laid out what would happen in a perfect world.
As I am sure you know, everything does not always go according to plan.
Like we touched on earlier, progress will not always be linear.
If it were that easy to just a rep each time or add 5 lbs to the lift each time, in like 2 years you would be deadlifting cars.
There will be periods of times where you go into the gym and it is hard to progress or things may plateau a bit.
That is normal and to be expected. Every workout won’t be your best one ever.
In the same way that when you are losing body fat, the scale is gonna spike up or stall out sometimes, but as long as you keep going you will lose weight.
Same concept here. Sometimes progress will be great, other times it will feel like it is impossible.
My urge to you would be just don’t quit and keep pushing for more.
While also remembering that even done ONE more rep on ONE set of the day is progressive overload.
For example if you are doing 3×10 on bicep curls and they just feel heavy as anything.
Remember that if you go in the next day and you do one set of 11 then 2 sets of 10 again, you still did more than you did last time. That would still be considered progressive overload.
You don’t have to nor will you set the world on fire each time and that is okay. That is not what we want.
We want slow and steady progressions. That is what is most optimal for your joints, nervous system, and muscles anyhow.
This bleeds into my next point. One of the last ways I want to answer the question of what is progressive overload is by showing you some examples of what it can actually look like on a week to week basis.
Examples Of Progressive Overload
I usually split my progressive overload up into two main ways, using a linear progression and a double progression model.
Linear progression means you are simply adding say 5lbs to the bar each time for the same rep count.
If you start with 100lbs, next you go to 105, then 110, and so on.
I use this with my clients for compound movements normally. Movements like squat, bench, deadlift, etc.
An example of that can be below.
Linear Progression Scheme
As you can see, this individual started out at 4 x 8 for 30lbs on squat and finished with 4×8 with 40lbs. That is progressive overload.
Another model of progression is called a double progression model.
This is for either those of you who are a bit more advanced, or for movements that simply will not allow for linear progression like a bicep curl. You can’t just end up curling 100lbs.
Therefore what I do with my clients is I give them a rep range and tell them to progress within that rep range.
Let’s say you are doing bicep curls with 10 lbs and have a rep range of 10-12 reps.
Week 1 you do 10 reps.
Week 2 you do 11 reps.
Week 3 you do 12 reps.
Once you hit the top end of the rep range, you go UP in weight and DOWN in reps.
Therefore week 4 would be 12.5 lbs for 10 reps, then proceed to work your way back up in reps again.
An example of that can be looked at below.
As you can tell, it isn’t a massive change, but that is exactly what we want.
Slow and steady progression is what is going to lead to the greatest change in your body over time.
What Is Progressive Overload? Final Word
I hope this article helped answer the question of what is progressive overload.
I encourage you to go back and make some notes what you believe can help you the most.
While you were reading if any questions or concerns came up, feel free to drop them below and I would be happy to help.
If you are interested in working with me 1:1, I will link my coaching application form HERE to see if we may be a good fit together.
Other than that, thank you for reading, and we will talk soon.
4 Replies to “What Is Progressive Overload? The Workout Secret You Need”
Love it! Thank you for explaining EDT as well!
hey, have I ever told you you are f*cking amazing???? 😉 <3 <3
Mate, the way you explain and deliver content is bloody brilliant. I’m really new at this but have recently lost 30kgs , have about 10 to go but am starting to enjoy seeing some body muscle progress . since finding you on TikTok I find great inspiration and love your email . Really makes a difference, hope your business model is working well for you . Keep up the great work.
Chris in Aus 💪
Chris, you don’t know how happy this makes me man, seriously. Thank you for taking the time to read the article and write this comment. <3 Just know I am always here to help brother 🙂
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