Progressive overload refers to making your workouts more challenging to stimulate your body to become bigger, stronger, faster, or fitter over time.
While this sounds humdrum, it’s the single most important principle of effective training. In fact, you could say that progressive overload is the key factor that separates “training” from “exercise.”
If you “exercise,” you’re simply doing workouts to stay active, burn some calories, and improve your health. If you train, you’re organizing your workouts so they build on one another over time to help you develop certain skills or abilities (such as strength, muscle mass, endurance, etc.).
Progressive overload is the north star around which all of your workouts are oriented—the first principle of training.
Apply progressive overload effectively, and you can gain muscle and strength as fast as humanly possible. Apply it incorrectly, though, and you’ll quickly find yourself in an intractable training rut.
At bottom, all weightlifting and muscle gain plateaus are the result of not properly implementing progressive overload, and all strength and muscle gains stem from implementing it properly.
You can do any exercise you like, use almost any rep range, and follow any number of workout routines, but if you don’t achieve progressive overload, you won’t see much in the way of results. Likewise, you can make almost every mistake in the book, but if you implement progressive overload properly, you can still make fantastic progress.
What makes progressive overload different from just “doing a hard workout,” is the gradual, deliberate nature of the process.
In the context of weightlifting, this generally means tracking your workouts and making a concerted effort to lift more weight or do more reps and/or sets in subsequent workouts (more on this in a moment).
That said, it’s important to know that the progressive overload principle extends far beyond just weightlifting—it applies to burnishing any skill or ability. In fact, progressive overload is essentially just the concept of deliberate practice applied to sports.
In case you aren’t familiar with the term, deliberate practice refers to practicing in a purposeful, focused, systematic manner with the goal of improving performance at a particular ability. In the case of, say, learning piano, this means challenging yourself to perform more complex scales, typically under the direction of a more experienced, skilled instructor. In the case of improving your 5K time, this means increasing the intensity, duration, and frequency of your running workouts to shave seconds off your 5K time.
And in the case of weightlifting, this means systematically increasing the intensity and/or volume of your workouts over time. To wit, what you’re really trying to do is to apply progressive tension overload, which is a specific kind of progressive overload that involves forcing your muscles to produce greater and greater levels of tension over time. This, in turn, leads to hypertrophy, which helps you grow bigger and stronger.
There are multiple ways to implement progressive tension overload in your training, with some being far more effective than others. What’s more, the way in which you should achieve progressive tension overload changes slightly as you become a more experienced weightlifter.
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The four best ways to implement progressive tension overload are, in this order:
- Increase how much weight you lift.
- Increase your rep range in each set.
- Increase the number of sets you do per week.
- Increase the number of workouts you do each week.
For most people, the best way to achieve progressive tension overload is to simply lift more weight.
If you bench pressed 135 pounds for 5 reps in your last workout, for instance, you’d try to bench press 145 pounds in your next workout. This is known as linear progression, and it’s the best way to implement progressive overload when you’re new to lifting weights.
Specifically, during your first 6-to-12 months of weightlifting, you should be able to add weight to almost every workout without changing your rep ranges, number of sets, or anything else about your workout routine. After this period of “newbie gains,” though, you’ll likely make better progress by also implementing using some of the other techniques in this article to apply progressive overload.
To illustrate why it’s so important to increase the weights you use in your workouts, it’s helpful to look at what happens when you don’t do so.
A salient example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at Ohio University, which had 9 men do 5 sets of 10 reps of leg extensions for 9 weeks with the same weight. Basically, they trained how most people do—doing the exact same workouts week-after-week.
After 9 weeks of this monotony, the participants’ quadriceps muscles grew about 5% thicker. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the participant’s quads were also activated significantly less during their workouts than were at the beginning of the study.
The reason for this is that as their leg muscle fibers grew, the weights that used to be difficult (and thus produced a lot of tension) were now easy, and no longer produced much tension.
In other words, building muscle is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you get bigger and stronger (yay!). On the other hand, because you’re bigger and stronger, the same weights that used to produce high levels of tension no longer make the grade, and thus you have to lift heavier weights to maintain the effectiveness of your workouts.
Some people simplify this by saying that “the stronger you get, the more muscle you’ll build,” and while strength and muscle gain are correlated, the relationship is actually backwards—you get stronger because you build muscle, not the other way around.
Getting stronger is a side effect of building muscle, which is the result of successfully achieving progressive tension overload.
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Around the 6-to-12-month mark, most people encounter their first real weightlifting plateau. In some cases this is caused by obvious blunders like undereating, lack of sleep, and so forth, but just as often it’s because linear progression is no longer working.
The primary reason for this relates to another side effect of building muscle. The more muscle you build, the more difficult it becomes to keep building muscle. The closer you get to your genetic potential for whole-body muscularity (and thus strength), the harder it is to keep the needle moving.
As a result, it becomes quite difficult to increase your weights without also slightly decreasing the number of reps you do in each set.
For example, let’s say you were able to squat 225 pounds for 5 reps in your last workout. You add 10 pounds to the bar, but only manage to get 3 reps. The next week, you add another 10 pounds, and only manage to get 1 rep.
At this point, simply trying to add more weight without changing anything else about your workouts is a fool’s errand. You’ll quickly begin taking every set to failure in a fruitless attempt to add weight, which pushes you into a state of overreaching, which reduces how much weight you can lift, thus spiking your ability to achieve progressive overload of any sort.
The reason for this period of rough sledding is that your muscles are no longer growing as fast as they used to, and thus you can’t keep adding weight as often.
The way out of this quagmire is known as double progression, and it’s the ideal way to implement progressive overload as you graduate from being a beginner to an intermediate weightlifter.
To implement double progression, you first pick a rep range for an exercise, such as 3-to-5, or 4-to-6, or 6-to-8 reps. A good place to start is to pick a rep range that’s one rep above and one rep below the rep target you’ve recently been using for a particular exercise. Then, you only add weight once you reach the top of your rep range for that exercise.
Going back to the squat example, instead of trying to add 10 pounds while doing 5 reps in every set, you could try adding weight in the 4-to-6-rep range. If you squat 225 pounds for 6 reps on your first set, you’d then add 10 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.
If, on the next set, you can squat at least 4 reps with 235 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can squat it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.
If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, this is a sign that you haven’t built enough muscle to warrant increasing your training weight by 10 pounds. Thus, you’d reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (230 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 reps or fewer, you’d reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load (225 pounds) and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase the weight on the bar.
In this way, you progress in a stair-step pattern—increasing the weight, giving your muscles time to adapt to the heavier load by growing larger and stronger—and then increasing the weight again to maintain the effectiveness of your workouts.
Double progression can help you build muscle for years, but eventually, your progress will slow substantially or stop altogether. This typically occurs after around 3-to-5 years of proper weightlifting, as you transition from being an intermediate to an advanced weightlifter.
At this stage, your next best move is usually to increase your training volume, or the number of sets you do for each muscle group per week. You can read this article to learn more how training volume impacts muscle growth, but the long story short is that there’s both a qualitative and quantitative aspect to progressive tension overload, and you need both to maximize your progress.
The qualitative aspect involves how much tension your muscles produce relative to their maximum capabilities. In other words, it’s how close you take each set to muscular failure, or your relative workout intensity. As you now know, if you don’t keep increasing your weights, the quality (intensity) of your workouts will soon decrease. (The best way to measure the relative intensity of your sets is to use a system called reps in reserve, which you can learn about in this article).
The quantitative aspect involves how many times you expose your muscles to high levels of tension per week. This is referred to as your training volume, and while there are many ways to quantify volume, research shows that the best way to do so for weightlifting is to count how many sets you do per muscle group per week.
To use a medical analogy, you can think of the intensity of your sets as the “potency” of tension in your workouts, and the number of sets per muscle group per week as the “dose” of that tension.
Research shows that most people can make outstanding progress with a relatively low dose of tension for their first few years of weightlifting, generally around ~10-to-15 sets per muscle group per week. As you approach your genetic potential for muscle gain, though, your muscles grow resistant to the effects of your training, and you need to up the “dose” of tension to keep getting bigger.
You need to be careful about how quickly you increase your training volume, though, as a little increase goes a long way. Add too much, and you’ll quickly outstrip your recovery abilities, and you may even begin to lose muscle and strength. Or, more likely, you’ll get injured, have to take time off, and lose a few weeks or months worth of progress.
Dr. Eric Helms, a researcher, natural bodybuilding coach, and member of Legion’s Scientific Advisory Board, describes it better than anyone: “A good way to think about volume over your career is to do enough volume to progress and only to increase it when progress has plateaued (assuming you are recovering normally). This is a much smarter choice than constantly putting yourself in the hole with fatigue by adding volume prematurely and having to drop volume back and taper all the time. Also remember, that if you are lifting heavier loads, even if reps and sets are the same, that is an indication that progressive overload has occurred and you are adapting.”
If you’re getting stronger, you probably don’t need to do more sets. If you aren’t getting stronger, and it’s probably because of some silly error on your part (usually not eating or sleeping enough), fix that first before doing more sets. If you are eating and sleeping enough but you still aren’t getting stronger, then you may need to increase your training volume to keep making progress.
A good rule of thumb is to increase your weekly training volume (sets) for a particular muscle group by no more than about 10% at a time.
For example, if you normally do 10 sets for your chest each week, you’d up this to 11 sets per week, and then reassess your progress after ~6-to-12 weeks of training with this higher volume.
You can only train a muscle group with so many sets per workout before the quality of those sets begins to sag.
When you’re a beginner, this isn’t much of an issue since you only need to do a handful of sets per week to maximize muscle growth. For example, you could do three sets of squats, three sets of leg extensions, and three sets of leg press in a single lower-body workout (9 sets) and keep adding weight to every set of every exercise for months without issue.
The calculus changes when you become an intermediate-to-advanced weightlifter, though.
First, by definition, you’re pushing, pulling, and squatting much heavier weights than you were when you were a greenhorn, which means every set is going to be significantly more fatiguing.
Thus, while you might have sailed through nine sets of leg exercises in a single workout a few years ago, you’ll probably drag anchor after just six (much heavier) sets as a more advanced weightlifter. (As a side note, this is also why you can rest just one or two minutes between sets as a weightlifting tyro, yet will probably need to rest 3-to-5 minutes between sets once you’re an old hand.)
Second, you’ll also likely be at the stage where you need to do a moderate-to-high number of weekly sets to keep gaining muscle (see point #3 above). If you try to cram all of these sets into a single workout, you’ll likely have to reduce the weights you use in each set, thus reducing the quality of your training overall.
The best solution in this case is to distribute those sets more evenly throughout the week, referred to as increasing your training frequency.
If you look at many articles on progressive overload online, they often write about training frequency as if it directly stimulates muscle growth, but this is incorrect. Instead, frequency is just a tool for maximizing your ability to do more high-quality (heavy) sets throughout the week.
That is, it’s an efficient way to increase the quality and quantity of progressive tension overload you rack up each week.
This is why increasing your workout frequency is the last step in implementing progressive overload—its benefits only become significant once you’re training with moderate-to-high volumes (generally at least 15-to-20+ sets per muscle group per week).
A good rule of thumb is that if you’ve been weightlifting for a year or less, you only need to train each muscle group once per week to maximize your progress. (You can train each muscle group more often than this, but it’s not going to noticeably impact your results).
Once you’ve been training for more than a year or so, though, you’ll probably make faster progress by training each muscle group at least twice per week. If you’d like to learn more about the pros and cons of high-frequency training and how to make it work for you, check out this article.
After implementing all four of these steps—lifting heavier weights, using rep ranges, doing more sets, and training more often—making further progress becomes a game of effective, consistent execution.
In the main, continuing to build muscle mostly boils down to finding more creative ways to apply these steps. The best way to do this is to incorporate periodization into your workout program, which is just a systematic way of organizing all of these variables to achieve greater progressive tension overload over time.
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Read these articles to learn more about periodization and proper workout programming for gaining muscle and strength:
+ Scientific References
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- Schoenfeld, B., Grgic, J., Haun, C., Itagaki, T., & Helms, E. (2019). Calculating Set-Volume for the Limb Muscles with the Performance of Multi-Joint Exercises: Implications for Resistance Training Prescription. Sports, 7(7), 177. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7070177
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- A L Goldberg, J D Etlinger, D F Goldspink, & C Jablecki. (n.d.). Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle - PubMed. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/128681/
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- Anders Ericsson, K., & Harwell, K. W. (2019). Deliberate practice and proposed limits on the effects of practice on the acquisition of expert performance: why the original definition matters and recommendations for future research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(OCT), 2396. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02396