The Ultimate Guide Of Progressive Overload (7 Proven Strategies)

The Ultimate Guide Of Progressive Overload

(7 Proven Strategies)

By Ash May

The Ultimate Guide Of Progressive Overload (7 Proven Strategies)

Progressive overload might just be that missing piece in your workout programme. 

The one thing stopping you from making progress. 

Or maybe you are applying progressive overload, but not seeing great results? 

This massive guide (seriously, this is huge) will help you to unlock your full potential for sustaining long term progress in muscle and strength. 

Contents 

  • What Is Progressive Overload? 
  • Why You Should Focus On Progressively Overloading 
  • Where Most People Go Wrong 
  • How To Do It Right 
  • Types Of Progressive Overload 
  • When to use each type of progressive overload 
  • How Often Should I See Progress? 
  • Should This Be Done On Every Exercise? 
  • Pros Of Progressive Overload 
  • Cons Of Progressive Overload 
  • When You Should NOT Progressively Overload 
  • BONUS SECTION: Technique For Advanced Lifters 
  • Conclusion

If you’re struggling to lose weight, and serious about your goal, click here for professional help.

What Is Progressive Overload?

If you don’t understand progressive overload then you don’t understand the one and only absolutely fundamental part of building both muscle and strength. 

Did you hear that? Absolute fundamental. 

Without progressively overloading your workouts, you will be doing the same thing every session and expecting change. 

Do you know that that is? That is Einstein‘s definition of insanity. 😉 

Cool… So, what is it? 

According to Wikapedia: ‘progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.’ 

This is actually a pretty simple definition, and very accurate. 

In order for your body to adapt in any way, whether that be muscle growth, strength gain, or performance increase, it must be forced to adapt to a stimulus that is consistent and beyond what it has previously experienced. 

So, progressive overload is increasing the stimulus placed on your muscles over time. This stimulus can be a number of things, increasing weight lifted, for example.  

I will go into all the ways to apply this stress on a muscle in a lot of detail further down the page. 

By slowly increasing the stimulus on your muscles, they will slowly adapt to combat that stimulus better. This results in getting stronger, bigger muscles.  

So yes, this really is absolutely fundamental to building muscle. 

Progressive Overload Bar Graphic Chart

Why You Should Focus On Progressive Overload

As mentioned, progressive overload is the absolute key to making strength and muscle size progress. 

When anybody first starts weight training, strength and muscle gains will seemingly appear just by walking through the gym doors. 

This is known as ‘newbie gains’. 

Unfortunately, these begin to die off within the first few months, and continue to get slower and slower. Forever. Depressing right? 

So because of this, you need to start introducing a more strategic approach into your training in order to keep the progress coming in order to hit your personal genetic potential. 

Progressive overload is this strategic approach. 

Most people lifting weights do try to apply progressive overload. However, there are two issues with how they do it; 

It isn’t programmed – if you aren’t aware of what you are doing with a set plan, then you cant be sure that your progress is going to be optimal, or even noticeable. 

By having a strategically programmed approach, you are securing your place in the gains hall of fame. 

Having a plan, but doing it wrong – see the next heading. 

Where Most People Go Wrong

When trying to apply progressive overload, there are several key steps where many people go wrong. 

I don’t want you to get this wrong, so make sure you read these carefully.

Too heavy 

The first area where people often go wrong is by trying to go too heavy on their progressive overload, too soon. 

This will affect you because:

You will fail with the new weight/reps/etc and think that you are not strong enough for this new muscle stress.  

This will then lead you to keeping with the same weight for longer than you should be, greatly reducing, or eliminating your workouts progressive overload potential. 

In reality, you may have been able to do a heavier weight. However, many people forget about the little 1.25kg plates and let their ego only allow them to make bigger jumps of 5kg. 

You have to make small changes over time to see big changes when looking back. 

Another way this could affect you is that you will end up placing too much stress too regularly on your muscles.

If you overdo this, rather than adapting to the small and consistent increases in stimulus, your muscles will be in a constant battle to just heal. 

This will eliminate any positive adaption. 

More on how to do this part correctly will come soon.

Male tracking his gym progress on the phone

Not tracking weekly lifts 

The next area where many people go wrong is extremely easy to fix.  

You can change it instantly. 

Track your lifts. 

If you bench press 80kg for 4 sets of 5 reps, make a note of that on your phone. It is that simple. 

This is so important because next week, you know what you did and can do that as a minimum, possibly pushing for more of it is appropriate. 

The majority of people who don’t do this think they can remember it a week later. 

Guess what? They can’t. 

Furthermore, strength progress becomes very slow as you become a more experienced lifter. Therefore, remembering all your sets and weights or all your lifts is not just near impossible, but also very unnecessary when we all have phones in our pocket. 

Personally, I have years’ worth of workouts tracked right on my phones’ notes. 

This allows me to look back and see how far I’ve come over the years which is extremely motivating and also provides a lot of information on what works for my body and what doesn’t. 

Wouldn’t you want this same advantage?

Bad form 

Bad form or “improper exercise technique” is probably the worst offender on this list.  

Many people will get overexcited and too eager to keep increasing the weight each week, which will result in them attempting lifts which are too heavy for them. 

This then results in them cheating their form through unconscious techniques such as swinging the lower back, thrusting glutes, moving shoulders, etc.  

All of these give you extra momentum, making it easier to move the weight.

The reason it becomes easier is because you are taking work away from the target muscle, and spreading it onto the other muscles which are compensating. 

This is not a good thing at all.

You will be putting less stress on the target muscle than if you were losing lighter weight with proper and controlled form, meaning in doing this, you are actually taking away from your progressive overload, rather than adding to it. 

On top of this, these methods also greatly increase your risk of injury while working out, as suddenly shifting a heavy load onto delicate areas such as your lower back and shoulders could easily damage them. 

Jeff Nippard puts this well – you are progressively cheating, not progressively overloading.

Not following a set workout programme  

You should already know by now the importance of following a structured workout programme which is tailored to you. 

This is absolutely key for sustaining strength and muscle gain as progressive overload relies on you increasing stress placed on your muscles week by week. 

Without a structured workout programme, you won’t know if each week you’re actually doing more, less, or the same overall workout volume. 

Total Workout Volume = Weight Lifted x Reps x Sets 

With a structured workout programme, you will be able to see the previous week and 100% know how much volume you need to do in order to progressively overload this week. 

Also, a good structured workout programme will likely have progressive overload mechanisms built into it. 

This is something I have found very successful for my clients, as it is one less variable for you to focus on, and forces overload even on those days you wouldn’t be motivated to do it yourself. 

Follow a proper workout programme that is specific to you. 

How To Do It Right

Now, most people are aware of at least 1 or 2 forms of progressive overload. 

However, most people will be surprised to hear that there a minimum of 7 ways you can apply progressive overload at any stage. 

Once you become more advanced (see end of the post for bonus advanced section) in your weight training, there are many, many more. This is through using a double progression model. 

The next few sections will help you understand how to apply progressive overload in your workouts the right way.

With knowledge of all 7 different ways you can achieve overload, along with when and how to use each one, you will be increasing your chance of succeeding with muscle and strength goals in the gym massively. 

Increasing weights on dumbbell rack

7 Progressive Overload Strategies

Increase The Weight

The first and main form of progressive overload is to increase weight. 

I know to the majority of people, this will sound like a no-brainer, and that’s a good thing. If you aren’t trying to increase the weight you are using on weight lifting exercises, then I don’t know what you are doing. 

However, it does need to be discussed for two reasons. 

You will be surprised at how many people I personally see (and I bet you see too) who come into the gym every week, every month.. Doing the same 80kg bench press, the same 14kg bicep curls, the same 40kg overhead press. 

Too many people don’t actually try to increase the weight they use! This is the first form of progressive overload you should go to, as it will have the most carryover to continuing your strength and muscle size progression.  

Only once this stops being affective should you move onto the next one. 

So that is the first reason. 

The second reason it needs to be discussed is that yes, many people are aware to try and increase weight and do try to. 

However, they aren’t able to do it nearly enough, because they aren’t structuring their nutrition, workout programme, and progressive overload in the most effective way. 

You should regularly be able to add weight to the bar to start with. When you can’t, you go through the next forms of progressive overload. 

How? 

The correct way to be adding more weight to your exercises is by keeping within a rep range, and using a weight where you can maintain proper form. 

If you increase weight but reduce the quality of your form, then you were better off not increasing the weight. Proper form trumps heavier weight. 

An example of this would be bench pressing. 

This could look like 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps. You start with 80kg for 3 sets of 6 reps.

If you are able to do this with correct form, then next session you try 82.5kg where you may get 2 sets of 6, and 1 set of 4. 

You should then continue with 82.5kg until all 3 sets are back to 6 reps, then increase the weight. 

This is slow, but it is consistent. It works. 

Increase The Reps

When you can no longer increase the weight you are lifting, increasing reps is the next place to go for progressive overload. 

This is why tracking your workouts is so important. If your target rep range for a set of bench press is 6 – 8 reps, and on 4 sets last week you got 8 reps on the 1st and 2nd sets, 7 reps on the third, and 6 reps on the fourth – write this down! 

The reason for this is when you aren’t at the top of your target rep range, you shouldn’t be increasing the weight lifted. 

Therefore, in this situation of 8,8,7,6 reps, you should aim to increase the reps, not the weight. 

This may only be getting that last set up to 7 reps rather than 6, but that added stress will provide enough of a stimulus to keep your body trying to adapt and grow. 

How? 

The correct way to increase reps for progressive overload is to follow your workout programmes rep range, while noting down where you get in this. 

Following the example just given, it could look like this: 

Bench press:
Week 1: 80kg

Set 1 – 8 reps

Set 2 – 8 reps

Set 3 – 7 reps

Set 4 – 6 reps
 

Because not all your sets managed to reach the upper limit of the rep range (8 reps) then you should not move that weight up to 82.5kg. 

Instead, your next workout should aim to look like this: 

Week 2: 80kg 
Set 1 – 8 reps 
Set 2 – 8 reps 
Set 3 – 7 reps
Set 4 –
7 reps 

Of course, this is slow, because building muscle and strength is slow. 

You should focus on taking pride in these small personal progressions rather than comparing the weight you are lifting to those around you, and you will progress faster than you realise. 

If you are able to increase the reps faster than this, don’t hold back. 

Extra reps will not be as taxing on your recovery as additional exercises, sets, or weight in your workout. Therefore, if you are able to skip from the week 1 example to lifting 4 sets of 8 reps the next week – that is a good thing! 

Don’t be afraid to push yourself, but do it logically and sensibly. 

tracking weekly sets on a note pad

Increase The Sets

Be careful when increasing sets. 

This is not something you should freely add in yourself – it should be a part of progressive overload that is strategically programmed into your workout plan. 

This is because increasing sets is one of the fastest ways to increase your sessions training volume, and without these being systematically implemented, you can very easily over-do it. 

This could lead to reduced performance in the following weeks workouts due to lack of recovery. 

Or worse, could lead to overtraining – resulting in you losing progress, struggling to sleep, having unbalanced hormones, and more.

How 

Although the above reasons may put you off from implementing this, increasing sets can actually be very effective for maintaining progressive overload when used correctly. 

This is because when you can’t always get the same reps with increased weight, or even another rep out – with proper rest between sets, you can likely get out another set to the bottom of the target rep range. 

This will help to accumulate a lot more overall volume on the muscle being worked, meaning it will sooner adapt to the weight which you are using so that you will quickly be able to use more weight to do the same thing. 

This could look like: 

Deadlift: 3 – 5 reps target: 

Week 1:
Set 1 – 5 reps 
Set 2 – 5 reps 
Set 3 5 reps 

Week 2: Increase weight but fail 
Set 1 – 3 Reps 
Set 2 – 3 Reps 
Set 3 – 2 Reps 

Week 3: Reduce weight back but add an extra set 
Set 1 – 5 reps 
Set 2 – 5 reps 
Set 3 – 5 reps 
Set 4 – 3 reps 

As you can see, this is a great way to go when you can no longer add extra sets or weight.  

If you have hit the top of your programmes target rep range and are unable to lift the next weight up – do this. 

In the example given, 3 extra reps on an extra set may not seem like much, but if you are deadlifting 120kg, look at this as an extra 360kg training volume on the deadlift and you will see how this adds up and is so effective. 

How to properly lean bulk ripped abs six pack biceps chest

Increase The Set Intensity

One of my favourite and lesser known types of progressive overload is increasing the intensity of your workout. 

The reason this is so effective is because it forces a greater recovery response from your body. 

However, due to the greater recovery stress to your body, this is a progressive overload strategy which should not be used indefinitely. 

In short, pre-programmed cycles, this can be highly effective.  

If you are always pushing the set intensity in this way then it will end up having a detrimental effect on your workouts as you will not have the energy to lift as much weight as you should be capable of. 

This is true for following workouts in the week, and for the next exercises within that same workout. 

So what do I mean when I say to increase intensity? 

Intensity within a set is how close you are pushing yourself to muscular failure. 

This is where you are no longer able to complete a movement with correct technique due to muscle fatigue. 

This is commonly known as an RPE scale – rate of perceived exertion. 

Many people will generally lift with an rpe of 7 – 8, meaning they could push out another 2 – 3 reps if they really, really tried. 

Increasing the intensity of a set would be bumping this up to an rpe of 9, or even 10. 

So due to this, approach intensity with care and follow the next steps on how to implement this method of progressive overload. 

How? 

Dumbbell Chest Press: 

Week 1: 
Set 1 – rpe 8 
Set 2 – rpe 8 
Set 3 – rpe 8 
Set 4 – rpe 8 

Week 2: 
Set 1 – rpe 9 
Set 2 – rpe 9 
Set 3 – rpe 9 
Set 4 – rpe 9 

Week 3: 
Set 1 – rpe 9 
Set 2 – rpe 9 
Set 3 – rpe 10 
Set 4 – rpe 10 

Week 4: 
Set 1 – rpe 9 
Set 2 – rpe 9 
Set 3 – rpe 10  
Set 4 – rpe 10 + dropset 

Week 5: 
Set 1 – rpe 8 
Set 2 – rpe 8 
Set 3 – rpe 8 
Set 4 – rpe 8 

With this method, you will need to use the same weight consistently, while being very aware of the RPE you are following within your workouts. 

Week 5 is when your RPE resets back to the ‘beginning’ of the cycle. This is when you should increase weight to continue the progressive overload.  

From here, you can use another method of progressive overload, or repeat the intensity cycle to continue progressing. 

I know its tempting to screw the programming and do week 4 every week, or even RPE 10 + Drop Sets on every set, every week. 

Because more intensity means more progressive overload, right? 

If you don’t properly cycle your intensity in a logical way then your increased intensity will halt your progress in the future, and likely make you regress. 

Stick to the programme. 😉 

Lateral raises to built side shoulders

Increase The Time Under Tension

Time under tension is a huge part of every rep you perform which is widely forgotten by nearly every person in the gym. 

This is the actually time where tension is being placed on the muscle. 

If your set took 20 seconds and you performed 10 reps, you have a time under tension of 2 seconds per rep. 

Having an awareness of this part of your lifts gives you a huge amount of control and potential when it comes to progressively overloading in order to get stronger and bigger muscles, for a long time in the future. 

The reason time under tension (TUT) is so important is that it dictates how hard your muscles are working during a set. 

If your standard bench press max is 100kg, do you think you’d be able to do this as easily – or at all – if you had to slow this to 10 seconds lowering the bar and 10 seconds pushing? 

No. It would be incredibly hard to support a heavy load for 20 seconds with constant tension on the muscle at all times. 

However, this is a good thing. 

Where there is weakness, there is opportunity to grow. 

By correctly implimenting time under tension into your progressive overload, you can use this weakness to quite literally force your muscles to adapt from the shock. 

How? 

Incline Bench Press 

Week 1: 
Set 1 – 5 reps 1 seconds down, 1 seconds up 
Set 2 – 5 reps 1 seconds down, 1 seconds up 
Set 3 – 5 reps 1 seconds down, 1 seconds up 
Set 4 – 5 reps 1 seconds down, 1 seconds up 

Week 2: 
Set 1 – 5 reps 2 seconds down, 2 seconds up 
Set 2 – 5 reps 2 seconds down, 2 seconds up 
Set 3 – 5 reps 2 seconds down, 2 seconds up 
Set 4 – 5 reps 2 seconds down, 2 seconds up 

Week 3: 
Set 1 – 5 reps 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up 
Set 2 – 5 reps 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up 
Set 3 – 5 reps 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up 
Set 4 – 5 reps 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up 

Week 4: 
Set 1 – 5 reps 1 seconds down, 1 seconds up 
Set 2 – 5 reps 1 seconds down, 1 seconds up 
Set 3 – 5 reps 1 seconds down, 1 seconds up 
Set 4 – 5 reps 1 seconds down, 1 seconds up  

As with all the previous alternative progressive overload methods, the weight you lift will not change weeks 1 to 3. 

Instead, you will be spending more time with that weight applying tension to your muscles. 

Then on week 4 your time under tension resets to 2 seconds per rep, and you can then increase the weight. 

If, like most lifters, you have been stuck using the exact same rep tempo, then I guarantee you this will blow up both your muscle size and strength. 

Like everything in this guide, in practice it may not be as linear as the week by week example provided. 

Don’t underestimate how much more difficult seconds on each rep can be. 

If you aren’t able to hit a time under tension goal for that week, repeat last weeks and then try again next week. 

If this three week cycle takes you 3 months to complete – it doesn’t matter. 

As long as you are progressing, you are heading in the right direction. 

How Long To Rest Between Sets

Reduce The Rest Time

Rest time is a subtle, yet underestimated variable within your workouts. 

This is an incredibly useful variable to play with when you are feeling really stuck at a certain strength level and just cannot seem to progress. 

How long your rest times are between sets can play an absolutely massive role in how much weight you are lifting, what signals you’re sending to your muscles, how many calories you’re burning, and way more during your workout. 

So, your rest times really are important. 

But how does this help with progressive overload? 

Well: 

If one week you manage to bench press 80kg for: 

Set 1 – 8 reps 
Set 2 – 6 reps 
Set 3 – 5 reps

And have rest periods of 60 seconds between each set. 

And then the next week you manage to bench press the same weight for: 

Set 1 – 8 reps 
Set 2 – 8 reps 
Set 3 – 7 reps 

With rest periods of 3 minutes between each set. 

You’ve got stronger right? 

Well, on paper and in your head it seems absolutely clear that you have gotten stronger. 

However, you don’t actually know this. 

You might have gotten stronger, but due to the changing rest times, you don’t know if you would have been able to do this the previous week with the same rest times. 

So, you might have actually just stayed the same 

This demonstrates the importance on rest times on a consistent progressive overload plan, which means it is a variable which can be controlled in order to further enforce progress. 

How? 

In order to manipulate set rest times for progressive overload, they will gradually be reduced in order to make the sets harder due to less recovery time for both your muscles, and your cardiovascular system. 

This works well for lower risk compound movements such as barbell rows and pull ups, compared to higher risk movements such as squats and deadlifts. 

This could look like: 

Pull Ups: 

Week 1: 
Set 1 – 10 reps 90 seconds rest 
Set 2 – 10 reps 90 seconds rest 
Set 3 – 10 reps 90 seconds rest 

Week 2: 
Set 1 – 10 reps 75 seconds rest 
Set 2 – 10 reps 75 seconds rest 
Set 3 – 10 reps 75 seconds rest 

Week 3: 
Set 1 – 10 reps 60 seconds rest 
Set 2 – 10 reps 60 seconds rest 
Set 3 – 10 reps 60 seconds rest 

Week 4: 
Set 1 – 10 reps 45 seconds rest 
Set 2 – 10 reps 45 seconds rest 
Set 3 – 10 reps 45 seconds rest 

You should start this with a load which is challenging, however does not bring you to complete failure. You should be able to complete the same amount of reps for each set. 

As with all of the strategies outlined in this post, if you are not able to meet the rest time set that week, you can either regress and repeat the last week, or you can taper it in a way like this: 

Week 3: 
Set 1 – 60 seconds 
Set 2 – 70 seconds 
Set 3: – 75 seconds 

This will ensure you are still making progress, even if you are not hitting the main goal. 

As the majority of gymgoers have never manipulated or timed their rest periods, this will hit you a lot harder than you expect. 

Do not underestimate the potential that rest periods can have on increasing the difficulty of your workouts. 

Timing rest periods between sets

Increase The Exercise Difficulty

In order to make long term progress in strength and muscle gain, you will need to experiment with many different exercise variations. 

However, what most people don’t do, is us these variations as a way to progressively overload their workout routines. 

Everybody knows that a decline bench press, flat bench press, and incline bench press are main variations of the bench press and essentially work the same muscles. 

However, not everybody realises that these are tiers of difficulty to the exercise. 

Decline is your strongest position, and incline is your weakest.  

When you are able to look at exercise variations in this way, you can use them as an incredibly powerful tool to progress further in the gym. 

There are more ways than you can imagine to make exercises more or less difficult.  

However, you will mainly see this being done for bodyweight exercises such as push ups and dips, or compound movements such as the bench press, or squat. 

How? 

Weighted Push Up 

Week 1: 
4 sets of 8 reps – Standard Push Up 

Week 2: 
4 sets of 8 reps – Decline Push Up 

Week 3: 
4 sets of 8 reps – Diamond Push Up 

Week 4:
4 sets of 8 reps – Medicine Ball Push Up

 

As you can see, throughout this 4 week cycle, the sets and reps are staying the same, it is the actual exercise itself which changes and adapts to match your progression.

Then at the end of this cycle, you go back to the easiest form of the exercise but increase weights, sets, or reps. 

This is a unique strategy which is fantastic to implement when you are an experienced lifter whose body is used to a high frequency and volume of weight training already.

Although, due to lending itself so well to bodyweight movements – it is also extremely beneficial for beginners.

For example, a beginner lifter could use this to increase their strength and build muscle on the push up.

Or, an experienced lifter could use this to add weight onto their max bench press – taking a heavy weight on decline, through to flat bench, through to flat paused bench, through to incline bench.

These cycles will hit your muscles with a unique stimulus which is sure to create strength and muscle gain, keeping you making progress for as long as possible. 

When To Use Each Type Of Progressive Overload

With so many proven options for progressive overload, it can be hard and overwhelming to know what to use and when. 

Although your individual situation, goals, and experience will dictate this, below is a brief explanation of when may be a good time to implement these different factors into your training. 

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When To Increase The Weight

Increasing the weight is the most important and hardest hitting type of progressive overload. 

It is difficult to consistently do with smaller, single muscle movements and therefore should be primarily targeted with compound movements. 

Use a weight increase as your first and primary form of progressive overload, and do so until the results really start to slow down. 

When To Increase The Reps

Increasing the reps is the next step from increasing the weight.  

When your weight increases have dramatically slowed, you can increase reps to give your muscles a larger workload, without the added weight. 

This will prepare them for the increased weight. When you max out your target rep range in this method, you can then try to increase the weight again. 

When To Increase The Sets

Increasing the sets can be used when your target rep range is maxed out, but you are still not strong enough to increase the weight on the bar. 

When adding an extra set, start by hitting the bottom of the target rep range, and build it up so that all of your original sets, and the newly added set are at the upper limit (10 reps of an 8-10 rep target, for example). 

Then try to increase the weight with the original amount of sets – not the newly added set. 

The sets should reset to the original level when the next step of progressive overload is taken, and can then be reintroduced later with the new weight once that, and reps, are maxed out. 

When To Increase The Set Intensity

Increasing the set intensity is great to use when really at a sticking point with a certain weight. 

Implement this when you have already taken the above steps, or feel like mixing things up – which is always good to do sometimes. 

With this, you should focus on controlling the negative portion of the rep, and explode on the positive as if it is your one rep max on the bar. Continue this until you are reaching that week’s RPE level of intensity. 

Again, once your intensity cycle is finished, reset the intensity to original levels and try to increase the weight. 

When To Increase The Time Under Tension

Increasing time under tension should be used similarly to set intensity. 

This is great for mixing things up, or when really at a sticking point at your current strength level and muscle size. 

The reason it is so good for this is because it is so often forgotten about.  

When you begin your time under tension cycle, be sure to keep the same weight on the bar and only try increasing it at the end. 

Be careful not to get in the habit of the longer TUT reps, as using the technique for too long will lead to your body becoming adapted to it, as it was previously to your regular lifting tempo. 

This is a negative in your training as it will reduce the effectiveness of this progressive overload method in the future when you come back to it. 

When To Reduce The Rest Time

Reducing the rest time is similar to increasing set intensity. It will increase the intensity of your workout as whole, rather than during specific sets. 

Because of this, it is a great method of progressive overload to incorporate if you’re somebody who has limited time in the gym. 

Manipulating sets, reps, etc. Are all great, but they will mess with the length of your period. 

Some people need to get in and out of the gym as quickly as possible sometimes, so what better way to speed up your workouts (less time doing nothing between sets) and also encouraging your body to adapt and progress? 

However, as mentioned above, be careful not to stay in the same rest time intensity for extended amounts of time as it will become less of a shock stimulus to your body. 

This means it will be less effective when you come to do it again further down the line.  

When To Increase The Exercise Difficulty

When trying to build muscle and get stronger, sometimes it seems that you are stuck, and unable to progress. 

No matter what you do. 

This is when varying exercise difficulty is a great method of progressive overload to use. 

The mechanical difficulty and increase in tension this will cause is a huge reason for why it is very effective. 

But it actually goes further than that. 

Many people in the gym get stuck into habits of doing exercises they like a lot, or see other people doing a lot. 

By using variations of exercises, you’re likely to end up doing movements you wouldn’t normally do for progression (when was the last time you had archer push ups, or towel pull ups in your training programme?). 

This is often what leads to progression and sustained strength and muscle gains, more than the mechanical tension side of things. 

The movements you do the least will encourage the most response. 

Barbell Bench Press With A Spotter

How Often Should I see Progress?

If you aren’t seeing progress, then you either aren’t doing this correctly, or something is wrong in another key area such as sleep or nutrition.

Of course, the whole purpose of this guide is to ensure you continually see progress, and if you’re doing everything else right and following the plans laid out here, you will be.

That being said, sometimes, progress can be so slow that it feels like you aren’t going anywhere.

This raises the question, how often should you be seeing progress?

This will be very individual to you, based on things such as your training experience, genetic potential, nutrition, workout programming, and lots, lots more.

But as always, there are some benchmarks which you can put in place and keep in mind when measuring your own rate of progress.

Compound movements such as deadlifts, squat, and bench press are where you will be seeing the most frequent gains in terms of strength.

For these movements, you should focus on the higher tier progression methods mentioned. This will include adding weight, sets and reps, or increasing intensity.

Due to a large group of muscles working together to generate the force required in these movements, you can expect to see the fastest progression for these exercises.

It is not uncommon to see weekly strength progress of reps or weight for beginner to intermediate lifters on compound lifts.

More experienced lifters should aim to increase reps or weight once per month as a minimum.

When you are unable to do this, you should then manipulate the lower level progressions such as rest times and time under tension in order to keep your overload consistent.

Isolation exercises such as bicep curls or tricep extensions will such much, much slower strength progression due to the weight being moved by one small muscle, rather than a large group of muscles as in a compound exercise.

Because of this, it is not uncommon to see progress as slow as every few months.

However, this is just when considering adding weight to the bar.

It is very realistic to add a rep to your bicep curls once every 4 weeks, adding increased time under tension every week, and the same for reduced rest times.

With isolation exercises, you should focus on small gains on the more subtle methods of progressive overload, and the big rocks (adding weight to the bar) will come with time.

As mentioned, if other important aspects aren’t properly in place, then you won’t be seeing progress nearly as frequently as you’d like.

For help on creating the perfect meal plan tailored to your strength and muscle gain, click here.

Should You Progressively Overload Every Exercise?

Without doubt, every weight training workout you do should be based on progressive overload.

However, should every exercise, or every set focus on pogressive overload?

Not necessarily.

Regardless of how you look at it, some exercises lend themselves to progressive overload.

Out of all 8 overload techniques outlined above, it is easy to apply these relatively consistently to movements such as the Bench Press or Squat.

However, do they transfer as well to a lateral raise? Reverse Pec Dec Fly?

Unfortunately, not.

If you are trying to consistently add weight to your lateral raises, you’re either going to injure yourself, or your form is going to get progressively worse.

Worse form means less stress on the muscle, regardless of the weight being used. This is detrimental to progressive overload.

Furthermore, a breakdown in your weight lifting form/mechanics greatly increases your injury potential.

There is nothing more catabolic than being injured, unable to workout.

Therefore, for movements which isolate small muscles such as the lateral and rear delts, or put you into a weaker/more compromised position, you should be looking towards some of the other overload techniques.

You should be progressively overloading all exercises, but you should look at them in different ways.

They goal isn’t to get really strong on these small movements, but it is to perfect your form and put as much tension on the muscle as possible during them.

This means that the overload techniques of increasing time under tension, and increasing sets/reps are perfect.

Look at these small isolation movements as volume builders to pad out your workout, and compound movements as your strength builders.

Cons Of Progressive Overload

There aren’t really many cons to progressive overload.

That’s kind of why I’ve written a ~8,000-word guide on it.

However, there are some cons to this which will now be discussed.

There is one main downside – the potential for overtraining when consistently applying progressive overload to your workouts.

It is for this reason that programming effective progressive overload into your workout routine Is often more complicated than it may seem.

On paper, your body can carry on going forever.

In reality, things slow down, get worn out, start to ache, and get damaged/painful.

Read on to the next heading for when not to use progressive overload, in order to avoid over training.

Another con of progressive overload is the physical focus it puts on your training.

When putting a huge focus on progressive overload, you are looking at your gym progressive in tunnel vision with strength progression as the only consideration.

Unfortunately, this can lead to a deterioration in health and other important factors for one main reason.

If you gain weight, you will get stronger. This is purely down to physics… Leverage.

This is why you see 400lb weight lifters being miles stronger than the 220lb competitors.

Of course, that is an extreme example, but it applies to the everyday person too.

If you are gaining 1lb per week of weight (that speed of weight gain is NOT going to be muscle for a natural lifter) then you will very quickly be progressing in strength as well.

However, your weight to strength ratio will not be improving.

You will be gaining bodyfat and likely be less happy with how you look.

Your cardio and general health will likely decline.

So yes, it is hugely important to focus on progressive overload, but don’t become so tunnel vision on it that you use fat gain to ‘hack’ the system.

The last downside to progressive overload isn’t actually an issue with progressive overload itself.

(come to think about it, neither are the others)

The issue is that progressive overload places huge importance on the workout section of your health and fitness.

This time is hugely important without doubt and you definitely should look at it with importance.

However, a one hour workout is 4% of your day… What about the other 96%?

You have to fuel progressive overload with an optimal sleep routine which allows for fully recuperative, long sleep every night.

Alongside this, you will not be able to sustain strength and muscle gains in the way this guide promises if your nutrition in the 96% isn’t geared towards achieving progress.

Sure, at the start you may be able to get away with eating as much of anything as you like, but as time goes on and your training becomes more advanced, your nutrition must follow suit.

Grilled chicken salad healthy eating plate macro ratios

When You Shouldn't Progressively Overload

Sick of being told that you need to start using this strategy right away?

Good. That means it’s in your head.

Now it’s time to learn when NOT to use the progressive overload model.

When you are consistently pushing your limits in terms of strength and volume, it is inevitable that the constant strain is going to have its effects on you.

This will usually show as a reduced ability to recover, joint pain, and a drastic slowdown in progression (potentially even regression).

As scary as it sounds, it is completely normal. Now is the time for a deload week.

There are many different forms of deloading from weight training, and it really does deserve it’s own guide.

However, for the sake of right now:

A deload week is a period of time where volume, intensity, frequency, or all three are reduced or eliminated.

This is to allow full recovery and ‘reset’ your body.

During your deload week, you definitely should not be trying to progressively overload.

That completely defeats the purpose of having one.

This is the time to take it easy and view it as restorative. You won’t lose all your gains, you won’t get fat, and you won’t be weak.

Due to the recovery made in this period, you may even find that you’re stronger on your return!

So don’t forget to include deloads.

You should not always be using progressive overload (just most of the time).

Bonus Section: Technique For Advanced Lifters

As mentioned earlier, double progression is a progressive overload model which advanced individuals can use in order to fully optimise their progress.

This really comes into play at an advanced stage due to how slow progress unfortunately becomes – double progression helps to sustain progress.

That being said, if implemented and controlled properly, this will have amazing affects for beginner and intermediate lifters also.

What does the double progression model look like?

Double progression takes 2 methods of progressive overload and combines them into one strategy specific to an exercise which you are focusing on.

This is optimal for advanced lifters as the changes between ‘progressions’ are smaller, and therefore will be achieved more regularly and consistently.

This helps to keep motivation and enjoyment in the gym, while also improving your strength and muscle size when it may normally hit a plateau.

To understand this model, we will look at two variations, using two different exercises.

The first of these combines progressive overload of reps and weight.

The second combines sets and weight.

Increasing Reps And Weight

For increasing reps and weight, the bench press will be used as an example as I have found it to work well for this.

This is what your double progression strategy would look like:

Bench press:
Week 1 – 4 sets of 3 reps
Week 2 – 4 sets of 4 reps
Week 3 – 4 sets of 5 reps
Week 4 – 4 sets of 3 reps (add weight)

As you can see, for weeks 1 – 3 you are not increasing the weight on the bar. Instead, you are adding an extra rep.

For this, you will need to use a weight which is challenging at 3 reps, but realistic that you could struggle out a 4th the week after.

Then on the 4th week you go back to 3 reps, but with more weight than week 1.

This works incredibly well for improving your bench press strength as you are pushing your body to improve and adapt in two areas.

Also, it is easier to add an extra rep than it is to add more weight, but by combining these you will have a much better chance of doing these consistently, as you are making small steps each week.

If you fail one week – say you go back to 4 sets of 3 but can’t manage the added weight, then go back to the previous weight 4 sets of 5 and try again the week after.

It will not always be as clear cut as in the example, however it shows the principle enough to understand why this way of programming your workouts will streamline your progress in the gym.

Increasing Sets And Weight

The second variation of double progression tends to work well for deadlifts, so that will be used for the example. However, you can see great results using this on nearly any exercise.

This involves keeping the reps the same throughout your training, but progressing in terms of reps and weight.

This tends to work well for high skill exercises such as the deadlift, as the consistent rep range allows you to practice and perfect the technique of performing the exercise within your chosen rep range.

This in itself will aid your progression, so when combined with overloading weight and sets – you are guaranteed to see progress.

This is what your deadlift double progression could look like:

Deadlift:
Week 1 – 2 sets of 5 reps
Week 2 – 3 sets of 5 reps
Week 3 – 4 sets of 5 reps
Week 4 – 2 sets of 5 reps (add weight)

With this programming, you will be keeping the reps performed in each set consistent at all times.

However, every week for the first 3 weeks you will be adding a set. This increases the volume you are lifting a set weight at, allowing your body to adapt and get stronger with that weight.

In these 3 weeks you need to keep the same weight on the bar throughout.

On the 4th week, you drop the sets back down to 2 sets while increasing the amount of weight used, meaning that every 4th week you should be lifting more, and therefore will be progressing in strength and muscle size.

As previously discussed, your experience may not be as linear as this, especially as you become closer to your genetic potential.

However, this technique guarantees you will sustain strength and muscle gain in the most optimal way possible.

Muscular Male Doing Compound Exercise Bench Press

Conclusion

There are lots of misconceptions about progressive overload and how to correctly apply it within an effective workout programme. 

As your training experience increases, you need to scale your training appropriately with strategies which will encourage sustained strength and muscle gain. 

It is important to go into this with a plan to avoid the nasty side effects of over training. 

Follow the steps outlined in this guide and everything else will get easier. Remember that there are 6 ways to progressively overload other than adding weight to the bar. 

Routinely implement these proven strategies into your training and watch your body respond immediately. 

Keep this guide as a reference, and be sure to use the strategies listed to ensure your personal long-term progress.

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