Progressive Overload - What it is & why it's important


What is progressive overload? Why is it important? And how can you apply it to your own workouts?

That will be the topic of today’s article. So, let’s go!

What is progressive overload, & why is it important?

Progressive overload is the “gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise” (American College of Sports Medicine, 2009). Which is basically a fancy way of saying that your workouts are getting more intense over time. But why do you need to do that? Why should your workouts get more intense? Well, because progressive overload is the only way you can build muscle and get stronger.

And why is that?

It’s because your body eventually gets used to and adapts to the “stress” of lifting weights. Meaning that if you always lift the same weight for the same number of reps, your body will respond by making you just as strong and building just as much muscle mass as you need to lift said weight for said number of reps.

But that’s about it. Your body doesn’t want to indefinitely add muscle mass, because it is energy-costly to build and maintain. And if you don’t need it, why build it? That’s why you need to increase the stress that you place on your body over time. Or in other words: You try to do a little bit more each time you work out. This signals your body that you’re not done yet with adding more muscle mass or becoming stronger.

Forms of progressive overload

But what does that mean, in practical terms, to “do a little bit more each workout”? To understand this, we quickly need to look at training volume. Training volume is defined as #reps x #sets x weight lifted, and research has repeatedly shown that more training volume will lead to more muscle growth. And so to progressively overload, you can modify each of these three factors:

  • you can lift a heavier weight
  • do more reps
  • or add another set

When should you progressively overload?

Okay, so far so good. But how do you know when you should progress?

As a beginner in your 1st year of training, you are probably able to progress each workout by adding more reps or more weight. And when adding weight, I recommend increasing the load by 2.5-5%.

But as you get more advanced, you probably can’t overload each & every workout. And that’s where intensity comes in. Briefly, if you want to build muscle mass, you shouldn’t leave more than 3-4 reps in the tank at the end of each set. Which means that if you approach the end of your set and feel like this is too easy (= you could still do 5+ reps), then you know it’s time to add more reps, more weight or another set.

But one very important thing to consider before you progressively overload is to make sure that your technique is good to prevent injuries. So, but that was it, everything you need to know about progressive overload!

Nina is a virologist, aspiring bodybuilder and science communicator.

Need Help?