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Progressive Overload: The Concept You Must Know To Grow!

Without PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD your body does not need to adapt and therefore
will never get bigger or stronger beyond a certain point.
Introduction
As a fitness professional who spends many of his waking hours in a fitness facility either
training others or training himself, I tend to see many habits or hear discussions between
members that make me cringe or bite my tongue.
One of my biggest irritations is the gym member who comes in 5 to 7 times a week for
more than an hour at a time (usually mostly socialization), does the same exact full body
workout with the same exact weight, sets, repetitions and lackluster effort for years and
years. And of course their body never changes in appearance.
From my experience it seems that these individuals either mistakenly tell themselves that it
takes years to notice any change from weight training and accept it as the way it is, while
others on the other hand get discouraged at seeing no results and quit all together.
Granted there are also those that workout merely to maintain their current physical
condition by maintaining what lean muscle tissue they have and by keeping the bodyfat off,
but it definitely shouldn't take 5-7 hours a week to achieve this goal unless anything
resembling a nutrition plan is nonexistent.
For those individuals whose efforts are to change the appearance of their bodies, the main
reason for failure is EFFORT, or lack thereof. Instead of creating progressive overload or
forcing the body to do more than it's accustomed to, they simply go through the motions
and maintain what they have.
The human body will not change unless you force it to. As with all things in life, you get
back what you put in and if you're not putting in the effort to your training that is needed
then you don't stand a chance at reaping the body changing rewards of resistance training.
What Is Progressive Overload?
This principal refers to continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system
in order to continually make gains in muscle size, strength and endurance. In simplest terms
- In order to get bigger and stronger you must continually lift more and more and make

your muscles work harder than they are used to. If you don't, your muscles will not become
any stronger or bigger than they currently are.
Conversely, if the demands on your muscles are not at least maintained and are actually
decreased, your muscles will become smaller and weaker. Progressive overload is a very
simple concept but it is crucial - it lays the foundation upon which resistance training is
built.
The progressive overload principal doesn't just apply to resistance training and increasing
muscle growth and strength, it can also be applied to increasing bone and connective tissue
strength (through resistance training) as well as cardiovascular fitness and the associated
physiological changes that take place through a progressive cardiovascular exercise
program.
An Example Of Progressive Overload
Say you perform 1 set of the biceps barbell curl for 20 pounds at 8RM (8 repetitions
maximum), but as your training progresses 1 set of 20 pounds for 8 repetitions becomes
easier and easier and your biceps size have grown since you first started but they have
reached a plateau and stopped getting bigger.

What has happened is your biceps muscles have adapted to the demands you placed on
them but there is no longer a need for them to try to get bigger and stronger because the
demands are no longer sufficient enough. Even if you continued performing 1 set of 20
pounds for 8 repetitions for the rest of your life, your strength and muscle size would never
improve beyond a certain point.
In order for your biceps muscles to get even bigger and stronger than they presently are you
need to place even more demands on them. And so on and so on until you've reached your
genetic potential.
7 Ways To Create Progressive Overload

#1-6 are ways to increase training "volume" or make the muscle(s) do more total
work.
#7 is a way to make your muscle(s) do more work in less time.
1 - Increase Resistance
Progressively increase the weight you lift as you become stronger and the weight becomes
easier. A good indicator of when to increase the resistance is when you are able to perform
more than your target repetitions (e.g. your lifting program calls for sets of 10 repetitions
but you are able to get 11).
2 - Increase Sets
Increase the number of sets you perform for a given exercise. Instead of 2 or 3 sets maybe
you'll want to increase to 3 or 4 in order to really fatigue the muscle(s).
3 - Increase Repetitions
Increase the number of repetitions you perform for a given exercise. Don't stop yourself at
some magical number - Push yourself to do 1 or 2 more reps with the aid of a spotter if
necessary. If you are able to get those extra reps completely by yourself and it is higher than
your target rep range then you know it's time to increase the resistance.
4 - Increase Frequency
Increase how often you train a certain muscle or muscle group. This technique is most
useful for improving lagging or weak muscles or muscle groups. The traditional approach
to training a muscle or muscle group only once a week may not be sufficient enough for
every individual to make continual gains.
Learn to listen to your body and make sure that muscles have had enough time to
recuperate between training sessions before increasing frequency. Every once in a while
though it could be useful to train muscles even if they haven't fully recovered in order to
shock them and keep them guessing.
5 - Increase Exercises
Increase the number of exercises you perform for a certain muscle or muscle group with the
addition of a new one to your current program.
This technique works well if you are trying to add symmetry to a muscle group by
increasing the size of individual muscles or parts of muscles within a muscle group (e.g. if
the long head of your triceps is smaller than it should be in proportion to the lateral and
medial head you may want to include an additional exercise to your triceps routine that
targets the long head)

6 - Increase Intensity
Increase your perceived exertion or how much effort you put into every set.
This is the most important factor for creating progressive overload.
Increased effort and intensity for every single set translates into more weight lifted and/or
more repetitions performed and thus a more productive workout because your muscles have
been pushed beyond what they are used to. The help of a good training partner, or at the
very least a trusted spotter, may be crucial for you to achieve this.
A good training partner will serve to push you harder and keep you on task if you are not
easily internally motivated.
A spotter will serve to prevent injury, help you with an extra rep or two, as well as eliminate
any subconscious thoughts of getting stuck with a heavy weight on your chest or throat or
falling with a crashing thud in the squat rack.
7 - Decrease Rest Time
Decreasing the rest time between consecutive sets will force your body to adapt
metabolically by removing toxins and other byproducts of anaerobic exercise (weight
lifting) faster and more efficiently over time. Eventually you will be able to lift more in less
time.
Making Progressive Overload Work For You
You need to take a good look at your current fitness program and fitness goals and
determine which of the 7 ways described above are going to be best for you to create
progressive overload. You may want to incorporate all of these methods into your program
at one time or another to see how your body responds and see which works best for you.
Incorporating various methods at various times will also serve to keep your body confused
and growing.
While factors such as increasing total volume will be important to a bodybuilder,
decreasing the rest time between sets coupled with higher repetitions may be more
beneficial for endurance athletes or individuals concerned with muscular endurance and
cardiovascular fitness rather than gains in strength and power. The technique(s) you use
should fit in line with your fitness goals.
If you're an endurance athlete and muscular endurance is important to you, then maybe
you'll want to increase the repetitions first rather than increasing the resistance. If your
strength is important to you, then maybe you'll want to increase the resistance first instead
of the repetitions. Prioritize what is important to you.

If you increase your overall intensity be sure to listen to your body and know when its time
to back off. Training less frequently may help with your intensity - your rest days will allow
both your body and your mind to rest.
Whatever progressive overload technique(s) you incorporate make sure it fits in line with
your fitness goals, your program is designed correctly so as to avoid overtraining, and you
enjoy what you do.

Progressive Overload Is the Holy Grail of


Building Muscle and Strength

The Principle of Progressive Overload is crucial for building muscle and gaining strength.
The concept is simple: you must continually increase the demand placed on your body
over time.
If you implement this principle, muscle and strength gains are guaranteed. Period.
Whether you are struggling to gain muscle mass, want to increase your bench press or
squat, or if you simply want to build muscle and strength faster, this article is for you.

Why and How Does Progressive Overload Work?


Your body is lazy. It wont change unless it thinks it has to. Your job is to make it do just
that.
By continuously increasing the demand placed on the body during training, your muscles
adapt by growing bigger and stronger so that you can handle this type of intense stimulus
if/when it occurs again.
This isnt a one-time thing, though. Its an ongoing process. If you stop challenging your
body for just a short period of time, your gains will plateau. Remember, your body is lazy,
so you gotta keep pushing it.
Note: It is impossible to follow the principle of progressive overload if youre not adhering
to a sound bodybuilding diet or if you fail to get enough rest at night and between
workouts.
Before I discuss how to apply the principle of progressive overload to your routine, Ill list
out its benefits in the section below.

Benefits of Progressive Overload


Why You Need Progressive Overload. Ill continue by going over the many benefits of
progressive overload to underline why everyone should want to know about and use this
essential training principle:

Muscle Memory. The body and the mind is always being challenged. When
doing new or varying exercises, neural circuits are being formed and strengthened.
This is because while new movements stress the muscles in a new way, they are also
connected to the spine and brain, which have to learn the movements as well. The
neural circuits formed are a large part of the workout. They are the reaction to a
movement you want the muscle to do, while the muscle simply moves the load.
Build Muscle and Strength. Simply, by pushing and stressing the muscle to move
more, it will do what it must to meet the demands placed on it. The muscle fibers
will grow in size and will have the increased contraction capacity needed for serious
strength.
Hypertrophy. This is the proper term for physical growth of the muscle.
Physiologically, the muscle will grow in size only under certain conditions. While
strength can be improved fairly easily, hypertrophy is dependent upon the number
of sets, reps, and each individuals muscular structure.
Rapid Improvement. By setting yourself up for a challenging and ever changing
routine, you are also setting yourself up for great results.
Keeping it Interesting. Getting out to the gym 4 or 5 or 6 days a week can become
boring, especially if its always the same, predictable workout. The same predictable
workout gets tedious, easy, and unfortunately, boring. A part of progressive
overloading is not only to change reps and sets, but also to use as many different
exercises to challenge the same muscles in a variety of ways.

How to Implement the Principle of Progressive Overload


The Big Picture: Intensity, Volume and Frequency
There are three major variables involved in progressive overload: Intensity, volume and
frequency, which constitute the core of all weight lifing routines. In case you need a
review
1. Intensity is the heaviness of the weight used to train a muscle group (Intensity can
also refer to your perceived effort, or how close to failure you go)
2. Volume is the total work (sets x reps) done when training a muscle group
3. Frequency is the number of times a muscle group is trained per week
Implementing progressive overload is fundamentally a matter of increasing one or more of
these three variables. However, these variables are not independent of one another. If you
increase one, youll probably have to decrease one or both of the other variables. Or, in
other words

If you increase intensity, then you must decrease volume and/or frequency.
If you increase volume, then you must decrease intensity and/or frequency.
If you increase frequency, then you must decrease intensity and/or volume.

Over time, all three variables should increase as you become more experienced and build
overall strength and work capacity.

Specific Tactics for Applying the Principle of Progressive Overload


Okay, now you understand the big picture of how to manipulate your routine to achieve
progressive overload.
Now, Ill provide you some practical tactics for manipulating intensity, volume and
frequency to implement progressive overload in your routine. Try one or two of these tricks
at a time to jump start your gains:
1. Add More Weight. This is the most obvious way of practicing progressive
overload. Add more weight once you are ready for a particular exercise. You can do
it when, for example, whatever you are currently lifting becomes easy. A good way
to determine if you are ready is if you are able to do an extra rep or two. (For All
Levels of Experience)
2. Do More Reps. Adding one or two reps to whatever exercise youre doing is also a
good way to test yourself. You can use a spotter and if you are able to add 2 reps on
your own, youll know that it is time to up the resistance for that particular exercise.
(For All Levels of Experience)
3. Do More Sets. Increasing the number of sets you perform is also a great way to
improve muscle endurance. You can add one set which will essentially fatigue the
muscle completely. (For All Levels of Experience)
4. Train More Frequently. Be careful with this one; ensure that your body is ready to
increase from the usual once a week to slightly more frequently. Truthfully, every
individual is different and you know your body best, and what works best for you.
(For Advanced Lifters)
5. Add More Exercises. Adding exercises to the program that target the same muscle
groups can be useful, especially if you are trying to improve the size of a particular
muscle or improve proportionality. (For Intermediate and Advanced Lifters)
6. Increase Your Intensity of Effort. This is a psychological factor that really works.
It means increasing your perception of the effort you have to put into each set. (For
All Levels of Experience)
7. Reduce Your Rest Time Between Sets. This refers to the time you take between
sets usually rest time is 90 seconds, and this can be shortened which forces the
muscles to do more work in less time. (For Advanced Lifters)
Note: You only need to resort to these techniques once your progress slows down or stalls
completely. If youre still making good gains with your current program, then you shouldnt
change a thing. In other words, If it aint broke, dont fix it.

How Training to Failure Relates to Progressive Overload


There is a distinction I must make when it comes to training to failure and progressive
overload:
Training to failure is merely one tool that you can use to achieve progress overload. It is
best when used in moderation, yet many people use it like its their only tool.
Going to failure on most if not all of your sets wont provide the best results, over the long
term. Sure, it can work very well for a while (see Max OT), but your progress will
eventually slow to a crawl. This happens for two reasons:
1. It is far too taxing on the body for most lifters. It is the equivalent of maxing out
every single session. Symptoms of overtraining/overreaching are common with this
approach because youre more likely to get insufficient recovery between training
sessions of the same muscle groups.
2. Even if you have enough recovery time before hitting the same muscles again, the
fact remains that your training frequency is low. Generally, the most efficient way to
build strength and muscle in the long term is to work your muscles as frequently as
you can while still allowing for sufficient stimulation and recovery (usually
2x/week for intermediates/advanced; 3x/week for beginners).

An Idiot's Guide to Progressive Strength


Workouts
Tom Kelso

In the previous installment I addressed conditioning progression and gave examples of


programs. When it comes to strength training, progression is many times shoved aside.
I believe if more people paid attention to strength training progression there would be more
muscle roaming the planet. Its pretty simple: force your muscles to do more over time.

The following bit of advice will take ANYONE a long, long way to achieving goals:

Lift the resistance for as many good repetitions possible. Record the number of repetitions
achieved. Attempt to do more in the next workout.

How difficult is that to comprehend? It isnt, however due to the information overload that
exists out there, it can become over-complicated, especially with progression plans that use
the antiquated percentage system. The percentage system uses various percentages of a
one-repetition maximum (1RM) for a specific number of repetitions (reps). In short,
you determine the maximum amount of resistance you can lift one time (1RM), then you
use that figure to base your future workouts on. Examples:

3 x 10 @ 75% - Three sets of 10 reps at 75% of the 1RM


8/80%, 6/85%, 6/85%, 4/90% - Eight reps at 80%, two sets of six reps at 85%, and
four reps at 90% of the 1RM

These examples at least offer some type of guidelines for lifting. The percentage system,
however, has major flaws for these reasons:

1. Genetic differences. Due to a host of genetic differences between people, there is


no accurate way to determine a perfect number of repetitions for a specific
percentage. That is, if 80% of a 1RM for eight reps is the prescription, it could be
unattainable for one person, dead-on for another, and not challenging for a third
person. A number of studies (1, 2, and 3, to note a few) have shown the variance in

rep possibilities with various percentages of a 1RM. Can you see the confusion this
can create, especially in multiple-set protocols?
2. Intensity interpretation. Proponents of the percentage system consider low
intensity to mean percentages around 60% of the 1RM and high intensity to mean
around 90% of the 1RM. Not to go into a diatribe here, but this is too subjective and
arbitrary. Please understand a variety of resistances can be used to overload muscle.
60% of a 1RM can be effective if it challenges (fatigues) the muscles. And if it
indeed challenges the muscles that is, is used intensely to create an overload
would this not be considered high intensity? So, toss out the ridiculous intensity
labeling of percentages of a 1RM. Heavy resistance can be high intensity and
relatively lighter resistance can be high intensity. It all depends on how hard you
work with them.
3. There is no place for low intensity in the iron game. If a plan suggests a loweffort day as a back off or recovery day, then just take a day off and let the body
heal. Training half-assed is un-measurable. It is a subjective and a wasted activity
based on some pseudo-gurus opinion. To stimulate muscle tissue one must work
hard. A wide spectrum of resistances can be used to fatigue and overload muscle
provided objective, measurable effort is exuded.
4. Rep speed. Real-life example: the objective is 82.5% for eight reps. Joe Schmoe
uses poor form bouncing, jerking, heaving, and squirming and gets the eight rep
goal. John Doe uses impeccable form a slower controlled movement, no
momentum, optimized muscle activation but only obtains six reps. What data do
they record? What about the next set or next workout goal based on the result of this
set? Should John Doe then use lousy form to get the required reps? Do you see a
problem here?

5.

Periodization nonsense. Many have been sucked into the embarrassingly complicated
verbiage of periodization. Periodization originated in former Eastern
Bloc (and drug assisted) Soviet Union and East Germany in the 1970s. Periodization is
essentially a sexy word for variation. Periodization is characterized by train
ing periods broken down into microcycles, megacycles, and mesocycles. Within the
se cycles is the anticipated development of strength, speed-strength, starting-s
trength, strength endurance, speed endurance, power, power endurance, blah, blah
, blah. These qualities are purportedly attained via various exercise prescrip
tions based on specific set/rep/% scripts. Understand most of this is unsupported by
legitimate science, primarily due to the variance of the percentages of a 1RM,
ones genetic make-u p,

Okay, rant mode off. Its time to make you happy with a progression tool that is simple
to understand, very productive, but highly underused: the repetition range. As
opposed to the unpredictable and inaccurate percentages of a 1RM, rep ranges use a range
of reps to provide reasonable progression. In example, a 10-14 rep range would entail the
selection of a resistance where at least 10 repetitions could be performed but no more than
14 when the exercise is taken to the point of volitional muscular fatigue (VMF).

In example, if 150 pounds where used and 12 reps were perform to VMF, that is, a 13th rep
was unable to be performed, 150 x 12 would be documented. Because the 12 reps fall
within the 10-14 range, the goal in the next workout would be to obtain at least 13
repetitions with the 150 pounds. If a 13th rep (or more) is obtained, it would represent
improvement. Remember, strength increases occur in small increments at a time, and a
one-rep improvement is how they are accrued. When the upper end of the range is
obtained, the goal in the next workout would be to increase the resistance reasonably (i.e.,
five to ten pounds - 155 or 160) and attempt to achieve at least the 10-rep minimum in the
10-14 range.

Rep ranges are a no-brainer. Let me explain why:

1. Rep ranges account for variations in genetic variability due to the wide range
of repetitions possible with different percentages of a 1RM. It does not matter
what the exact percentage is with rep ranges. Using 80% of a 1RM may result in 8,
9, 10, or 11 reps. The only thing that matters is what was obtained at that point in
time.
2. Rep ranges can be varied for different cycles such as heavy, moderate or light
resistance exercise protocols. This can mirror traditional periodization plans if one

seeks that route. Heavy could be rep ranges of 2-6 or 4-8, moderate might be 6-10
or 8-12, and light could be 10-14 or 12-16 reps.
3. Rep ranges are objective. They show you exactly what to do in forthcoming
workouts to assure progression. Perform 150 x 13 in a 10-14 reps range? The goal
would be 150 x 14 or more in the forthcoming workout. If 14 reps were achieved,
the resistance would then be increased and the goal would be the minimum of 10
reps in the next workout. Very objective and simple to understand.
4. Rep ranges do not require exasperating thought when creating a training plan,
even when using multiple sets. Here is an example over four workouts:

Remember, if youre increasing your ability in resistance and/or repetitions over time,
you are increasing your strength, power, and endurance. If you do not believe me, reread any legitimate physiology textbook. I will expound on this in a future article if you
seek more legitimate science on this topic. Happy training to all of you!

Progressive Overload Is The Most


Important Exercise Concept

If you dont learn anything else from SteadyStrength, I beg you to remember this.
Progressive overload is the most important exercise concept. It applies to all aspects of
training including cardio, and weight lifting. Understanding this concept and applying to
your training will get you results in the most efficient and safest way possible.

Progressive What??
This isnt as complicated as the word makes it sound. This is actually a really simple
concept to comprehend. The hard part is applying it. So lets break it down:
Progressive Something that happens gradually in stages. It proceeds step by step.
Overload This is when something is holding excessive load, or there is a heavy burden.
As you can see, we can come to the conclusion that this concept basically means to place a
heavy burden on something (ourselves), gradually over time.
If you go to the gym everyday and do the same exact thing that you did yesterday, youre
not applying this concept to your workout. That also means that youre probably not going
to see the results that you should.
In order for muscles to grow, they need stressors to adapt to. There are all kinds of ways to
put additional stresses on your body. Once your body adjusts to that, then you can add
more. A stressor doesnt only include weight. Its much more than that. Ill get to that in a
second though.

Where To Begin
Applying this concept doesnt mean that you have to grab the biggest weight that you see
and start throwing it around. Also, in a cardio sense, it doesnt mean that you have to start
off running 3 miles on your first day either.
Progressive overload is actually the opposite of that. In fact, you should be starting from the
bare minimums. You need to be able to move your own body weight efficiently, in the
proper range of motions. Then we can work our way up from there.
To progressively overload your muscles, there are various stressors that you can adjust to
make your workouts tougher. These stressors will dictate how your muscles adapt. The
results can include hypertrophy, strength, power, and endurance.
To keep the progression of your workout organized you may need to write stuff down. A
journal to keep track of your exercises, weights, rest time, etc. might not be a bad idea.
Especially if your just starting out, it might be hard to remember where youre at with all
your workouts.
Now lets get into the various types of stressors that you can use to progressively overload
yourself:

Distance
Im starting off with distance because its your first priority as far as progression goes. In a
weight training atmosphere, distance refers to range of motion. You need to start with your
body weight.
Can you lower yourself into a full squat with proper technique? If not then you probably
need to start with partial range lifts. The first stressor that you should ever think about
placing on yourself is increasing the range of motion in which your body can function.
For example, if you cant squat all the way down, then go as far as you can with good form.
Set up a platform, like a chair or bench, that you can lower yourself onto (these are called
box squats). The next week try to go a few inches lower. Keep going until you can go all
the way down past parallel.
The same concept goes for all your exercises. Moving your own body weight for the entire
distance of a lift is the number one priority before you every touch a single weight.
From a cardio stand point this one is pretty self explanatory. You need to start off taking
baby steps. Then gradually increase the distance. If you have been sedentary for a while,
start off by going for a short walk. The next day increase the distance. Keep doing that until
you feel ready to meet the next stressor head on.

Efficiency
This stressor goes almost hand in hand with distance. Efficiency has everything to do with
technique. Using this stressor involves pushing your body to improve the technique of a
movement so that it becomes second nature.
This could involve sitting your hips back farther on the squat, or keeping your chest up at
the bottom of a squat.
Even when you start to use weight, you can still use this as a stressor. For example, instead
of adding weight to a certain lift, use the same weight and push yourself harder to be more
efficient. You will know when your efficiency is improving because the lift will become
more effortless.
As far as cardio goes, this means running or swimming with better technique. Do you land
on your heels and stomp the pavement with every step? Try running more on the balls of
your feet.
When you swim do you use your legs at all, or do they just drag behind you? Concentrate
on kicking your legs more to take some work off of your arms. (The next overload principle
for cardio is SPEED)

Volume
Volume refers to the number of total reps that you do in a workout. You can increase this
number two different ways.
You can either increase the number of sets or reps. You can even do a combination of both.

Intensity
This basically dictates how hard youre working on every repetition of a lift. To increase
intensity you have to add weight. Before you do this, make sure that you have good
distance and efficiency. Adding weight is not the first priority by any means.
If your technique or range of motion starts to suffer after increasing the intensity, you need
to take some weight off.

Density
You can overload with density by decreasing the amount of rest in between sets of work.
This is a great way to build up stamina and endurance. There are two ways to do this. Either
do more work in a set amount of time, or do the same amount of work in less time.
You can time your workouts to see how fast you get done. Then the next time you do the
same workout, try to get it done faster.
You can also just keep track of rest time. Start off by giving yourself a minute to recover in
between sets. Gradually reduce it to 30 seconds.

Speed
This one is pretty self explanatory. You can overload your muscles by doing a lift at a faster
speed that usual. This stressor will promote power, especially if you can do this with heavy
resistance.
Remember, dont let your technique suffer! If so, then slow down a little bit. Technique and
range of motion are the most important!!!
When it comes to cardio, a good way to add speed to your workouts is by doing sprints.
You can do sprints while running, biking, or even swimming.

Frequency
This increases the number of times per week that you do a certain lift with the same amount
of weight. Be careful to not get too repetitive. You also need to take rest time into
consideration. If you go crazy with too much frequency you can overtrain your muscles.
The same goes with cardio. For example, if you start running once a week, gradually
increase it two twice the next week. When you feel comfortable increase it to three times
per week.