What is Progressive Overload Training?

Benjamin J Marshall

What is progressive overload training?

Progressive overload training is exactly what it says on the tin, it is where you progressively overload the muscle causing it to have to grow to keep up with increasing weight.

In a simplistic nutshell when the body is given a stimulus it adapts to it. That is why you find you are able to cope with a weight now that you might have struggled with at the start of your training.

Almost all training revolves around progressive overload training in one way or another, either by increasing the weight or increasing the reps however there comes a point where increasing the reps isn’t as beneficial as increasing the weight.

A stronger muscle is a bigger muscle and a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle.

This isn’t necessarily 100% true all the time but as a general rule yes, your body adapts to a heavier weight by increasing the number and size of the muscle fibres causing the muscle to be big and also stronger.

In practice

Normally progressive overload is accomplished by dedicating a desired rep range for a number of sets. When you can achieve the top of this rep range for all sets you then up the weight.


Your target is: Dumbbell chest press of 20kg (45lbs) for five sets 8-12 reps

You might manage 12 reps your first set, 12 reps your second set and then 8 for the remaining sets when you first start off. However the next week you aim at completing 12 reps on your third set as well as your first and second set. And the week after aim for 12 reps on all sets. If you achieve this then you would up the weight to 22kg or the next increase available in dumbbells and start again aiming for at least 8 reps for five sets.

If you can achieve 12 reps for five sets on 20kg you should be able to reach 8 reps on 22kg, it is likely that you will be able to do more than this for the first few sets.

This is a high volume example and many people like to use a heavier weight for compound movements such as squat or dead lift with a rep range of 3 -5 reps. So your goal would be to eventually complete 5 reps of 5 sets with a weight and once this is achieved you increase the weight by a small percentage and repeat.

How it helps you?

If you’re going to the gym, it is a pretty safe bet that you are looking at building some muscle. Rather than going in there with no idea about the weight you can lift or what to do, the principal of progressive overload gives you a strategy to improve. It might take you a few weeks to find the correct weight as most people will choose a lighter weight to start with and find they can move up relatively quickly.

When you can’t progress?

If you are going to the gym and your weight isn’t going up or you are struggling with the same weights as when you started then there are three possible reasons:


 One reason is your nutrition isn’t right, if you are not getting adequate amounts of protein carbs and fat your body will struggle to change. As a general rule you do have to be in a caloric surplus to “grow” there are some exceptions to this general rule but as a base line you have to be in a positive energy balance (taking in more energy than expending) so that the excess calories, fat, protein and carbs can go into creating new cells and growth.

Nutrition is the number one reason why your weights won’t be improving.

2.You are not pushing yourself hard enough

It may be the case that you have become a little stagnant in your routine, been doing the same work out split for a number of months or even years and you are mentally not pushing yourself to progress.

To overcome this either switch up your training program or take a deload week, where you lower all the weights you would normally lift and just focus on correct form, or take a week off completely. It may sound counterproductive however if you take a week off from lifting by the time you get back you should be raring to go and it should be this energy that will push you to new limits.

 3.Progressive overload when losing weight.

If your weights are staying the same it is possible that you are still improving. You don’t necessarily have to increase the weight or reps of an exercise, you can also achieve progression by keeping the weight you use consistent if you are losing body weight. This is something people often forget.

Let me explain.

If you can squat 80kg (180lbs) for 5 reps and you weigh (for the sake of argument) 80kg and then go to weighing 75kg and still continue to squat 80kg for 5 reps you have still improved as your strength to weight ratio has become better. It is a progression even if it is slightly hidden, and would suggest if you then slowly increased your weight back up to 80kg that you would be able to lift more which would be … progressive overload.

I hope you can see that progressive overload is effectively the base of any exercise program, you are either gradually completing a movement, faster, for more reps or with a heavier weight. This can be applied to any program.

Applying this to your regime and I am sure you will see a huge difference very quickly.



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