What is Progressive Overload: A Beginner’s Guide

Christian Coulson
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Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced lifter, progressive overload is important to ensure the increase of muscle mass and strength over time.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a general advice I can give you on how to go about progressive overload.

There are just too many variables in play for me to tell you exactly how you should be progressing.

Saying that you should add 5 pounds to your lifts every week might be good advice for some, but terrible and unrealistic for others.

I would have to look at what you’re doing, how you’re recovering, how you’ve been progressing over time, your training age, and more.

In this article, we’ll go over all the ins and outs of the progressive overload principle so that you can see what’s best for you, specifically.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload in weight training refers to the process of gradually increasing the demand placed on your body to promote muscle growth, gain strength, and have more endurance. (1)

In other words, it means that you should workout harder than before to get bigger and stronger.

Milo of Croton Progressive Overload

Why is the Progressive Overload Principle Important?

To understand why progressive overload is important, you need to understand that your body doesn’t like change.

Your body loves being in a state of balance where it feels comfortable.

This means that it won’t grow muscle or get stronger if it doesn’t need to. Therefore, if your goal is to build muscle, you must encourage your body to do so.

Think about it, if you were to lift the same weight and do the same number of reps every workout, there would be no reason for your body to grow stronger.

Why is the progressive overload principle important

Let’s say that your 1 repetition maximum (1 RM) on the bench press is 135 lb.

Eventually, your 1 RM will become too easy for you.

When this happens, it means that your body has adapted to that stimulus.

To keep growing, you’ll need to add more weight to your bench press.

In a few weeks or months, your body will adapt to the new load and you’ll need to add more weight again.

Adding more weight to your lifts is just one of the many ways to achieve progressive overload.

I will go over different ways to implement progressive overload later in this article.

TAKEAWAY

Without implementing progressive overload, your muscle size, strength, and endurance would remain the same.

Progressive Overload Example

Let’s expand on our bench press example from above.

Let’s say that you can bench press 135 lb for 4 sets of 10 reps.

If you kept lifting 135 lb for 4 sets of 10 reps forever, you wouldn’t make any muscle or strength gains.

Since your body would have already adapted to this tension, it’d not need to get out of its comfort zone and make improvements.

It doesn’t matter if you decide to eat more protein or carbs, if you don’t implement the progressive overload principle, you won’t see any improvements.

To keep making gains, you’d need to add more tension that your body isn’t used to.

Progressive overload example

If you were to increase your bench press to 140 lb for 4 sets of 10 reps, you’d then be forcing your body to adapt to this new stimulus.

Your body will then grow bigger and stronger to be able to keep up with that demand of 140 lb.

However, it’ll eventually become adapted to that as well, and you’ll need to jump to 145 lb.

Other ways to increase the demand are to do more sets or reps.

For example, benching 135 lb for 4 sets of 12 reps (instead of 10) would also force your body to grow stronger and adapt to this new stimulus.

Now, you must keep this stimulus going or else you’ll start regressing. (2)

If your body doesn’t need to use that extra muscle you’ve put on, it will get rid of it.

This is referred to as muscle atrophy.

Ways You Can Apply the Progressive Overload Principle

I’ve talked a lot about adding more weight to make progressive overload happen, however, there are several other ways to do so. (3)

Here are 9 ways you can apply the progressive overload principle:

1. Increasing the weight of your lifts over time.

Lifting heavier loads is the most common way of applying progressive overload. (4)

If bench pressing 135 lb is too easy for you, try adding an extra 10 lb.

When adding weight to your lifts, you don’t need to make drastic jumps.

Depending on your training age, a few extra pounds should do the trick (more on training age later).

Keep in mind that when you increase the load of your lifts, your rep count might drop a little bit.

For example, you might be able to do 135 lb for 10 reps, but when you add two 5 lb plates on each side to go up to 145 lb, you might only be able to do 8 reps.

This is completely normal.

Your body will eventually grow stronger and be able to push 10 reps again at the new weight.

2. Lifting the same weight but adding more reps.

Another way to do progressive overload is to add more reps while keeping the same weight.

Now, you don’t want to keep adding an infinite amount of reps as this will cause endurance adaptations and prevent you from building muscle. (5)

You want to keep you rep count between the recommended rep range for the specific exercise you’re doing.

This typically ends up being between the 8-12 rep range.

Once you’ve reached the max amount of recommended reps, you should add more weight or do slower reps to increase time under tension instead.

3. Lifting the same weight and keeping the same reps, but doing more sets.

Instead of adding more weight or reps, you could add more working sets.

You could simply do 4 sets instead of 3 for all exercises in your workout plan or add a different exercise that targets the same muscle group.

4. Increasing the time under tension (TUT)

Time under tension (or tempo) refers to the amount of time your muscle is kept under stress during an exercise.

This is often achieved by slowing the eccentric portion of an exercise.

An eccentric contraction happens when the muscle lengthens as tension is produced.

Eccentric vs concentric contractions

For example, the lowering phase of a biceps curl would be an eccentric contraction.

So instead of doing 10 reps of bicep curls, you could do 8 reps but do the eccentric phase slower, maybe around 6 seconds down.

Interestingly, a study showed that people who increased the duration of the eccentric phase of a bench press rep increased muscle activation and blood flow to the area. (6)

This indicates that adding 2 seconds to the eccentric phase of a lift causes higher muscular demands, making the exercise more challenging and effective.

So, when increasing time under tension, you can add 2-6 seconds to each eccentric phase or just make it double the length of the concentric phase.

5. Resting less between sets

Resting less between sets will allow you to do the same amount of work in less time.

This will force your body to become more metabolically efficient when it comes to weight training.

Needless to say, you don’t want to rest only for 2 seconds between sets.

You still need some time to recover.

How long you rest between sets depends on the exercise you’re doing.

For example, exercises that involve more muscle groups, such as squats, bench press, and deadlifts, might require longer rest than bicep curls or calf raises (who even trains calf muscles?)

Here’s a good rule of thumb:

  • Rest 3-5 minutes for compound exercises
  • Rest 1-2 minutes for isolation exercises

Therefore, if you’re currently benching 135 lb and resting 5 minutes, try benching 135 lb but resting only 3 minutes.

Again, your rep count might drop, but that’s completely normal.

Once your body gets used to it, your rep count will be back to where it was.

Here’s an article I wrote about how much rest between sets for muscle growth if you’d like to explore more.

6. Being more explosive during lifts

Adding explosiveness to your lifts means reducing the tempo during the concentric contraction.

For example, if it normally takes you 2-3 seconds to finish the concentric phase of a bench press, you could lower it to 1 second.

During a study, researchers divided a group of men into two groups, an explosive group with a concentric phase of 1 second or faster, and a normal weight training group with a concentric phase of 2-3 seconds. (7)

They found no significant difference in strength between the groups, however, those in the explosive group showed an increase in muscle power.

When it came to building muscle, the explosive group had greater gains in arm muscle thickness than the normal group.

7. Using drop sets or partial reps after failure

Drop sets and partial reps are another great way to bring intensity into your workouts.

A drop set is a technique where you do an exercise for a given number of reps and then decrease the weight and keep doing more reps until you reach failure.

Going to failure means that you go until you can’t do any more reps.

Partial reps, often called half reps, are reps where you don’t perform the full range of motion of the exercise.

For example, a partial rep would be not going all the way to the bottom while doing bicep curls.

You can add some partial reps after doing your regular number of reps.

8. Increasing your range of motion

Many people forget to pay attention to their range of motion.

Another way to implement the overload principle is to make sure that you’re doing full reps.

For example, going all the way down on the squat or fully stretching your biceps during a curl.

9. Adding more training days

Another great way to add progressive overload is to increase frequency by adding more training days.

Needless to say, you don’t want to overdo this either as you can risk overtraining, which could hamper muscle growth. (8)

Adding more training days is also a great way to bring lagging body parts up.

Keep in mind that there’s more to it when it comes to bringing weak or lagging body parts up.

For example, if you’re not activating the muscle properly, it doesn’t matter how much you train it, it won’t grow much.

You need to find the root cause of your problem and then take the right approach to fix it.

TAKEAWAY

Ways you can do progressive overload include adding more weight, reps, or sets to your workouts, reducing the rest time between sets, increasing time under tension and range of motion, adding drop sets and partial reps, and adding more training days.

What is the Most Effective Way to Overload Your Muscles?

This will depend on several things, such as your training age, how much time you have, and your training split.

For example, someone who is pressed for time might not be able to add drop sets or an extra training day.

Instead, this person could lower the rest time between sets or lift heavier loads.

The 3 most common ways people overload their muscles are by:

  • Lifting heavier
  • Doing more reps
  • Resting less between sets

TAKEAWAY

The most effective way to overload muscles depends on the individual, however, the most common ways to do so are lifting heavier loads, adding more reps, and reducing rest between sets.

When Should I Do Progressive Overload?

If your goal is to build muscle and get stronger, you should progressive overload every time you can.

Every workout you do should be challenging and pushing you to do more than before.

That being said, you obviously won’t be able to increase weight or reps every week.

If that were the case, everyone would be benching 800 lb in a couple of years.

This is where training age comes into play.

The more advanced you are, the harder it becomes to put on muscle mass and increase strength.

Progressive Overload for Beginners

Chances are you’ve heard the phrase “beginner gains.”

Beginner gains refer to the fast increase in muscle mass that happens when people who have little to no previous experience in weightlifting start training.

Basically, if you’re a beginner, your gains will skyrocket the first few months of training.

You’ll find it easy to increase weight each week and will constantly break your personal records (PRs).

This often happens because of the improvement in intermuscular coordination.

Intermuscular coordination is the coordination between different muscles in your body. (9)

Let’s take a bicep curl for example.

During a bicep curl, one muscle should be contracting while the antagonist is relaxing.

If this connection is good, that it means that you have good intermuscular coordination.

Basically, this means that your muscles aren’t holding each other back when doing certain movements.

Progressive Overload for Advanced Lifters

After your first year of training, you must start getting smarter and pay more attention to your training.

Going to the gym and doing whatever exercise comes to mind and not tracking your progress are unlikely to lead to muscle growth.

You should keep a log of your lifts to make sure that you’re improving and applying progressive overload over time.

You must carefully design your program so that you’re recovering properly and not developing muscle imbalances.

Progressive Overload and Proper Form

You must not sacrifice proper form for the sake of progressive overload.

You should always aim to lift the heaviest weight that you can while keeping proper form.

For example, if you’re doing bicep curls and find yourself swinging and using your body to bring the weight up, it means that you should lower the weight.

Always focus on activating your muscles and keeping your form on point.

TAKEAWAY

You should always train for progressive overload. However, the more experienced you are, the more difficult it is to gain muscle and strength.

Progressive Overload During Weight Loss

Keep in mind that if you’re losing weight, you’ll likely get weaker and maybe lose some muscle mass.

You might see your lifts and rep count go down, however, this doesn’t mean that you’re not using progressive overload.

Since you have less bodyweight, your body will have to work harder to be able to lift the same amount of weight.

So if you see that your lifts are staying the same even though you’re losing weight, you’re applying progressive overload.

The drop will often be most noticeable on compound lifts, such as squats, bench press, and deadlifts rather than isolated ones like bicep curls or leg extensions.

If you do a lot of bodyweight exercises like dips and pullups, you’ll likely be able to do more reps since you’re not as heavy as before.

TAKEAWAY

You might be doing progressive overload during weight loss even if your lifts and reps are staying the same or decreasing. This is because it takes more work for your body to keep up with the demand at a lower bodyfat percentage.

Why Do I Sometimes Feel Weak at the Gym?

It’s normal to have some weeks or days where you feel weak at the gym.

The problem, however, comes when you’re constantly feeling tired and fatigued.

If you’ve been feeling weak at the gym for a few weeks, it might be because you’re overtraining and are due a good break.

When this happens, you should take a week completely off or add a deload week.

Deload means reducing your training volume and intensity so that you can recover properly.

The goal of a deload is that you can prevent injuries and come back stronger.

When doing a deload week, all your sets should be done at 40-60% of your one repetition maximum (1 RM).

You’d also want to do some mobility and tissue work.

Here’s why and how to warm up before a workout.

TAKEAWAY

If you’ve been feeling weak at the gym for a few weeks, it might be due to overtraining. Consider adding a deload week where you lift at 40-60% of your 1RM for every exercise.

Other FAQ About Progressive Overload

1. Should You Progressive Overload on a Cut?

Absolutely, as mentioned before, you want to always implement the progressive overload principle.

However, during a cut, you might feel weaker and lift lighter weights due to your bodyweight going down.

This doesn’t mean that you’re not using progressive overload, as it still takes work to lift the same load with less bodyfat.

2. Can You Do Progressive Overload Every Day?

In a perfect world, the answer would be yes.

However, it’s often not possible to do progressive overload every day.

Beginners tend to do progressive overload every week while more experienced lifters tend to do it every few months.

Basically, the more advanced you are, the harder it is to do progressive overload.

3. How Do You Do Progressive Overload at Home?

Chances are you don’t have that many dumbbells or plates sitting at home so you might have to get creative.

Here are a few ways you can do progressive overload at home:

  • Wrap some resistance bands to a set of dumbbells for extra tension
  • Fill a backpack with books and put it on your back while doing exercises like squats, lunges, pullups, or pushups
  • Increase your rep count instead of adding more weight
  • Do more sets
  • Increase the time under tension and range of motion
  • Add partial reps

4. How Do You Progressive Overload Abs?

Here are a few ways you can progressive overload abs:

  • Do medicine ball crunches
  • Find a place you can hang from (or buy a pullup bar) and do hanging leg raises
  • Increase time under tension when doing hanging leg raises
  • Hold a weight between your legs for extra tension when doing hanging leg raises or leg up crunches
  • Rest less between sets

Key Takeaways

  • You must do progressive overload if your goal is to increase muscle mass, strength, and endurance.
  • Without progressive overload, your body wouldn’t have a reason to grow bigger and stronger.
  • If you stop doing progressive overload, you’ll lose muscle mass.
  • Ways to do progressive overload include lifting heavier loads, doing more reps or sets, reducing rest between sets, adding more training days, increasing time under tension and range of motion, and adding drop sets and partial reps.
  • The more experienced you are, the more difficult it is to progressive overload.

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6 thoughts on “What is Progressive Overload: A Beginner’s Guide”

  1. This article has helped me grow mentally and physically. Thank you for educating me about the various ways of how to pack on muscle.

    Reply
  2. This is a really informative article! I really appreciate how you broke everything down and explained it so well. I feel like I’m going to be so much better prepared when my gym reopens, thanks!

    Reply

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