When it comes to either building or maintain muscle there is one thing that makes more of a difference than any other. This thing is the application of progressive overload in your workouts.
You can think of progressive overload as the opposite to complacency.
Complacency is turning up to the gym to do the same workout with the same weights repeatedly. Sure, you’ll gain a little strength and size, to begin with, but as soon as your body has adapted to that weight it’ll stop changing.
What you need to do is increase the stimulus over time to force your body to continue adapting. Does this mean you need to change your exercises?
No, it doesn’t. Using the same exercises for prolonged periods of time is actually a good idea. There are many ways of applying progressive overload and using any of them is how you build muscle and strength.
This is what we’ll explore today.
Progressive overload is best described as the intentional act of increasing the workout stimulus consistently over time to force your body to continue adapting by getting bigger, stronger or fitter.
Put simply, progressive overload is the act of doing more over time and is the reason your body changes. Without progressive overload, you will stagnate and remain the same.
As you can see it’s pretty damn important.
In no particular order here are 11 ways to apply progressive overload;
When it comes to applying progressive overload in a practical sense most people will benefit from doing a combination of increasing the weight lifted over time and varying the number of reps they do.
This is because both methods are easy to measure and to apply to your weightlifting workouts. For example, if over 4 weeks you can add 5kg to your bench press, or do 2 extra reps with the same weight, then you know you’re getting stronger.
Progressive overload is being successfully applied.
However, compare this to something like ‘lifting more explosively’ it gets a lot trickier. Metrics like the explosiveness of your lift are difficult to accurately measure making progressive overload harder to consistently apply.
Additionally, whilst adding sets to your existing workouts or simply doing more workouts can be effective methods of overload you also need to consider the amount of time they add to your current workouts as well as the increase in recovery needs as a result of the additional training.
When you consider all these factors it becomes clear that for most people, most of the time the combination of lifting more weight and doing more reps is the best way to apply progressive overload.
Ok, so let’s take a look at how this might play out in the gym.
If you can shoulder press 50kg for 3 sets of 8 reps and do this every time you go to the gym, you’ll soon find you don’t progress beyond the initial increase in strength needed to complete these sets.
This is because you’re not giving your body the signal that it needs to continue getting bigger and stronger. Instead, all you’re saying is “here’s the same weight, sets and reps again” to which your body responds “oh, cool I can do this already no need for me to change or get better”.
This isn’t what you want.
What you need to do is increase the weight on the bar and challenge your body. General recommendations are to increase the weight by 1.25kg – 5kg depending on the exercise.
Using our shoulder press example from above this would mean that in your next session you’d lift 52.5kg for 3 sets of 8 reps. However, chances are this time you’d only be able to do 3 sets of 6 reps because of the increased difficulty.
This is ok.
In fact, this is normal and a small decrease in performance is to be expected whilst your body adapts to the increase in stimulus.
What you’d need to do from here is build back up to 3 sets of 8 reps with 52.5kg, at which point you would increase the weight again. On and on you’d go like this, slowly increasing the weight, building up your reps and then increasing the weight again.
In your next session, you would increase the weight again to 55kg and aim to complete 3 sets of 6 – 8 reps.
Whilst the general concept of progressive overload is simple enough, increase your training stimulus over time to continually improve, the application can be a little less straight forward at times.
To help you navigate these sometimes murky waters, here are 6 things you need to know about progressive overload.
#1: It’s Harder to Apply Progressive Overload When Losing Weight
When you’re losing weight, you’re providing your body with less energy than it needs to function daily. This means your body will take longer to recover between workouts and any progress you make will be slower.
When it comes to progressive overload this translates into an increased difficulty to continue increasing the weightlifting or reps completed in each consecutive workout.
What you will notice happening is that some lifts may increase a little but mostly you’ll either maintain or lose strength the longer you’re in a calorie deficit. This effect is magnified the bigger your calorie deficit is and the more frequently you train.
#2: The Results of Progressive Overload Are Not Linear
In the same way that your weight jumps around when you’re losing fat, your strength will also progress is a non-linear fashion.
This means there’ll be some workouts you feel amazingly strong, others where you match previous performance and others still where you’re weaker than before. This is completely normal and to be expected.
What you should notice if you’re doing it correctly is that over longer periods of time, you’re getting stronger overall.
#3: Proper Form Is More Important Than the Application of Progressive Overload
If you built a building without digging the foundations first it, you might get a couple of floors up, but it would soon all come crashing down around you. Working out is the same way.
You first need to lay your foundations, in this case, your foundations are your lifting technique. You need to first learn excellent technique before you can start increasing the weight.
If you don’t do this you increase your risk of injury, muscle imbalances and set yourself up for trouble further down the line.
Related: 5 Ways to Correct A Muscle Imbalance
#4: You Need to Use the Same Exercises for Progressive Overload to Occur
Muscle confusion is not a thing. Your muscles cannot think, which means confusion is not a concept they understand. What they do understand is tension which is why progressive overload is so important.
To consistently apply progressive overload, you need to use the same exercises over a long period (months or years), as this allows you to incrementally build strength and in turn muscle. If you change your exercises every week or even month, you’ll struggle to ever build any meaningful strength.
Don’t worry about changing your exercises, unless you hit a workout plateau, just keep working on applying progressive overload and you’ll see results.
#5: Not All Exercises Will Progress at the Same Rates
In the same way that your overall progression won’t be linear, neither will the rate your different exercises improve at.
For example, you might find your deadlift and squat increase consistently month by month, but your shoulder press improves more sporadically and you have to work harder for the progress you make.
This is ok and completely normal. We all have our own preferences, strengths and weaknesses when it comes to weightlifting that will impact the rate at which certain exercises improve.
Remember as long as it is improving, you’ll be ok.
#6: Sometimes Adding 1 Rep is Evidence of Progressive Overload
Carrying on from the point above, as you move from beginner to intermediate and ultimately intermediate to advanced, you’ll reach a point where even adding one rep to one exercise in your workout is a sign of applying progressive overload.
Additionally, as all progress is non-linear you might find some workouts you can only equal your previous sessions performance apart from a couple of reps on one exercise. Again, this still counts as progressive overload.
Progressive overload is a key component of any workout plan. Whether you want to lose fat and maintain muscle or gain weight and build it, you need to apply the principle of progressive overload to do it.
This means increasing your training stimulus over time and this can be done it several ways. However, for most people most of the time the most effective ways are;
If you can do this consistently over time, then you will see fantastic results.