In order to make continual progress, we need to do more. This is as true when it comes to working out as it is in learning a new language. The term that we use to encapsulate this basic concept in the fitness world is “progressive overload.” But unless you are properly applying the concept of progressive overload, you will not make progress. In this article, we break down progressive overload so you can get the most out of it in your workouts.
- What is Progressive Overload?
- A Progressive Overload Principle Caution
- Progressive Overload Sample Routine
- Bottom Line
What is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload in resistance training refers to gradually increasing one or more of the following workout variables:
- The resistance
- The frequency
- The repetitions
The principle of adaptive stress tells us that the body will get bigger and stronger as a result of external stress. It does this in order to be able to meet that same level of stress in the future. So, the next time that we perform that same stressor movement, the muscle will be prepared to meet the challenge that it couldn’t meet the last time. If we are using the same level of stress (i.e. the same resistance, frequency, and reps), the muscle will have already been accommodated to that level. It will have no reason to respond by getting bigger or stronger!
When you apply the principle of progressive overload, you will be able to avoid workout plateaus where your progress stalls. That is because you will be constantly challenging your muscles with increasing levels of training intensity.
A 2011 study confirmed the value of progressive overload. The study involved eighty-three subjects who were given a twelve-week biceps training workout. The subjects were divided into two groups with the first group incorporating progressive overload into their workouts while the second group did not. The first group, who gradually increased the amount of weight and the number of reps performed, showed a significantly greater amount of muscle gain than the second group, who did not increase the reps or weight.
The concept of progressive overload dates back at least to the 6th century BCE. At that time, there was a guy by the name of Milo of Croton, who was the equivalent of our modern day WWE wrestlers. This particular wrestler gained fame for his ability to carry a fully grown bull around his family farm. According to legend, Milo began carrying the calf from the very first day of its birth and then every day thereafter. Because the changes in the animal’s weight were so minute, Milo didn’t notice them. However, every day his strength level adjusted to accommodate those tiny increments. Over a period of ten years, though, the weight—and his subsequent strength—improvements were dramatic!
A Progressive Overload Principle Caution
The key to success with progressive overload is that the increases in resistance need to be gradual. If you pile on too much weight, you will probably end up using improper exercise form and potentially injuring yourself. But when you add just a pound or two each week, you will be able to control the exercise, maintain proper form, and put increasing positive stress on your body.
Progressive Overload Sample Routine
Here is an example of a progressive overload workout for the chest and triceps over a period of three months. The resistances used are arbitrary. Start with weights that will allow you to perform your reps with good form, and challenge yourself on the last two or three reps.
Keep in mind that progressive overload also applies to a bodyweight workout plan. It also works well with such workout methodologies as the deck of pain workout.
Weeks One + Two
Decline dumbbell press—3 sets of 15/10/8 with 30 lbs, 32.5 lbs, 35 lbs
Cable flyes—3 sets of 12 reps with 20 lbs
Push ups—2 sets of 10 reps
Tricep pushdowns—3 sets of 15/10/8 reps with 20 lbs, 22.5 lbs, 25 lbs
Weeks Three + Four
Decline dumbbell press—3 sets of 15/10/8 with 32.5 lbs, 35 lbs, 37.5 lbs
Cable flyes—3 sets of 12 reps with 20, 20, 22.5 lbs
Push ups—2 sets of 12 reps
Tricep pushdowns—3 sets of 15/10/8 reps with 22.5 lbs, 25 lbs, 27.5 lbs
Weeks Five + Six
Decline dumbbell press—3 sets of 15/10/8 with 35 lbs, 37.5 lbs, 37.5 lbs
Cable flyes—3 sets of 12 reps with 22.5 lbs
Push ups—2 sets of 14 reps
Tricep pushdowns—3 sets of 15/10/8 reps with 25 lbs, 27.5 lbs, 27.5 lbs
Weeks Seven + Eight
Decline dumbbell press—3 sets of 15/10/8 with 37.5 lbs, 37.5 lbs, 40 lbs
Cable flyes—3 sets of 12 reps with 22.5 lbs, 25 lbs, 25 lbs
Push ups—2 sets of 16 reps
Tricep pushdowns—3 sets of 15/10/8 reps with 27.5 lbs, 27.5 lbs, 30 lbs
Weeks Nine + Ten
Decline dumbbell press—3 sets of 15/10/8 with 37.5 lbs, 40 lbs, 40 lbs
Cable flyes—3 sets of 12 reps with 25 lbs, 25 lbs, 27.5 lbs
Push ups—2 sets of 18 reps
Tricep pushdowns—3 sets of 15/10/8 reps with 27.5 lbs, 30 lbs, 30 lbs
Weeks Eleven + Twelve
Decline dumbbell press—3 sets of 15/10/8 with 40 lbs, 40 lbs, 42.5 lbs
Cable flyes—3 sets of 12 reps with 30 lbs, 30 lbs, 32.5 lbs
Push ups—2 sets of 20 reps
Tricep pushdowns—3 sets of 15/10/8 reps with 30 lbs, 32.5 lbs, 32.5 lbs
The key to successful progressive overload is to analyze each workout and specifically plan beforehand how to slightly increase one of the three variables—resistance, reps, or volume— in order to place increased levels of stress on your muscles. When you do that, your body will constantly remain challenged, which will force it to adapt by getting bigger and stronger. Ready to enhance your workouts and see impressive muscle gains? Try incorporating progressive overload into your routine!