Creating a Great Workout Program: The Progressive Overload Principle

Last week I introduced the specificity principle, and this week I will do the same with the progressive overload principle. What is it? Is it essential? How is it implemented? 

What is progressive overload?

Progressive – Happening or developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step

Overload – to load to excess; overburden

So, essentially, progressive overload is to gradually load to excess. That doesn’t sound safe, does it? Well, good thing the definition for exercise isn’t a directly literal one. Progressive overload is applied to all kinds of training. Essentially, you want to continue to make things harder. That’s the layman’s definition. And there are an infinite number of ways to accomplish that. More weight, more repetitions, more sets, less recovery time, less stability, and so on.

An Olympic sprinter wants to get as fast as possible. A hockey player wants to get as powerful as possible without adding too much mass. A sumo wrestler wants to add as much mass as possible without sacrificing strength. The average gym goer wants to build a healthy and aesthetically appealing body in a few hours a week. And each of them will train very differently. But all of them need to continually challenge themselves if they want to make consistent improvements over the medium-to-long-term.

Let’s say you start off lifting 50 pounds on a certain lift. Ideally, you won’t be lifting the same 50 pounds in a year (assuming you are consistent with your training). Your body adapts to that weight, and it becomes stronger and better able to move the weight. So next week you may be able to lift 55 pounds. And the week after, it might be 60. Many people get comfortable with their training and they fail to apply progressive overload – this isn’t the end of the world if you are just starting out with a fitness program, as your body will see improvements with almost anything you do. However, as you improve your strength or fitness level, it becomes harder to make improvements. The human body is very, very good at finding the path of least resistance. Once it becomes good at something, it finds the easiest way to complete the movement.

This is why marathon runners have much lower heart rates when running than the average person. Their cardiovascular systems are so much stronger and so much more efficient at processing oxygen during that type of exercise. But if you put a marathon runner outside of his or her comfort zone (power lifting, for example), they will struggle and get fatigued quite quickly.

Oh, and don’t forget to enjoy the gains you make in your first few months of training.

If you’re a beginner, sit back and enjoy the ride! Your rate of strength gain during your first three months of proper weight training will be higher than at any other time in your life. Each week you will slaughter personal records. Getting fifteen reps with something that you got for only ten reps the previous week is not an uncommon occurrence. This is mostly due to rapid gains in intermuscular coordination. Just don’t get spoiled, your rate of gain will slow dramatically and pretty soon you’ll be just like the rest of us – fighting like hell for those PR’s.

Is progressive overload essential?

In a word – no. Progressive overload isn’t essential. You won’t shrivel up into a muscleless ball if you don’t continually challenge yourself in the gym. You can do the same workout routine every single day, and you are still better off than the person doing nothing at all. But, at some point, you will plateau and improvements will slow considerably. The same applies to dieting, too. The first few pounds come off really easily, but as you get closer to your target weight, each pound becomes exponentially harder to shed than the last.

Your body is smart, and you need to continually find ways to surprise it.

How can I implement progressive overload?

Here are a few tips – some will be more relevant to you depending on your fitness level.

Start with body weight first 

If you can’t do 10-15 proper pushups, you shouldn’t be on the bench press. Period. Learning to control your body before applying external resistance is vital for injury prevention, proper muscular recruitment, and long term size and strength gains.

Pick up Kelly Starrett’s “How to Build the Supple Leopard” (review coming soon) and learn how to do a pushup, a pullup, a squat, and a deadlift. Once you have the bodyweight variations down pat, then start to add weight (progressive overload). You need the base/foundation in place first.

And yes, bodyweight exercises will build strength and muscle at the beginning. Once you can do 20-30 pushups (or 20-30 good squats), you won’t see the same gains any more (as, once again, your body has adapted to your bodyweight). Time to make things harder.

And never sacrifice quality of movement just to add more weight on the bar:

At any point in time, if you really want to set a PR, you can just be lax on your form and likely set a record. For example, you could round your back excessively during deadlifts, bounce the bar off your chest with bench press, or use a little more body English with curls. However, this is a slippery slope that’s best avoided. Progressive overload only works when you challenge the muscles to do more over time, and your muscles will not be forced to do more if your form gets sloppy. Moreover, you won’t be setting any personal records if you’re injured or constantly in pain.

Use free weights

I think this is pretty much common knowledge nowadays, but don’t use machines. They aren’t functional at all, and unless you are training for a bodybuilding show, you are going to see better strength gains using free weights (kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells).

Use a deload week (read this link for more)

Every four or five weeks, it is important to take a recovery week from your training. In the short term, this may seem counter-intuitive. More time in the gym means more gains, right? Well, not exactly. You don’t actually make any improvements in the gym – they come from your rest and recovery (adequate nutrition, recovery time, and proper sleep). Even if you are very out of shape, it is good to establish proper training habits early on.

For a recovery week, you don’t have to avoid the gym all week. Simply decrease the volume and/or intensity of your workouts. If you usually go three or four times a week, maybe drop it to two. This is a great time to work on mobility and any nagging injuries you may have, as well. And when you get back to the gym training hard again, you will be motivated, more energized, and surprised at the fact that you actually gained more strength and muscle during your week off.

Don’t fall victim to the dreaded “o” word – overtraining.

Add more volume

This one is pretty straightforward. Add more sets or reps to your workout routine. You can either choose to make your workouts longer, or you can concurrently cut down the rest/recovery time (more on that in a bit) and get more work done in the same amount of time (increasing training density).

If you start off doing two sets, add a third in. For strength/power training, your reps are generally between 1 and 6. Because of this, you will be doing at least three sets, and likely many more (to ensure sufficient volume). But if you are training for general fitness purposes and stick to a rep range of 6 to 12, you don’t need to do more than three sets of any given exercise. It won’t kill you to add a fourth set, but after three there tends to be diminishing returns. Here’s more on choosing the right number of sets and reps depending on your goal(s).

Add more resistance 

More weight on the bar. There are so many ways to do this. Linear periodization (a set increase from week to week), non-linear periodizaton, pyramid or reverse pyramid training (different ways to structure your sets and reps within a given workout), and so on. Again, don’t overcomplicate things. Find what works for you, and stick to it. Don’t change the set/rep scheme every week. Stick to something for at least six weeks, see how you have progressed, and make changes accordingly.

Decrease rest/recovery time 

This is a fantastic way to apply progressive overload if you don’t have access to a gym or you aren’t worrying too much about how much weight you lift or how big you get. This can even be applied to bodyweight training. Say, for example, you have a workout routine you really like. You go to the gym, you cycle through five or six exercises a few times, and you come home. You probably aren’t timing your rest/recovery periods, are you?

Well you should be. Unless you are working in the 1-8 rep range, you don’t need to be resting for more than 60 seconds between sets. If you are are working in low rep ranges to work on power and/or strength, you need to be resting two or three minutes between sets. Anyway, back to the original point. Say you start the first few weeks with 60 second rest times. Your body becomes better at adapting to that minute.

So when you want to make things more difficult, instead of upping the weight or difficulty of exercise, you drop that recovery time down to 45 or 30 seconds. I wouldn’t go shorter than 30 second rest intervals for weight lifting, as then it basically becomes cardio with weights.

Another way to apply progressive overload to this is to use a heart rate monitor (this is also a great tip for interval training). Say your heart rate gets up to 155 when you are doing a particular exercise. Instead of using a set time for your rest, wait until it drops to a particular number – 130, for example. You will notice that as you get stronger and fitter, your heart rate will drop a lot quicker (one of the many benefits to exercise). So the recovery periods will naturally decrease as you get fitter with this technique.

Here’s an exhaustive list from Bret Contreras on applying this principle:

  1. Lifting the same load for increased distance (range of motion)
  2. Lifting the same load and volume with better form, more control, and less effort (efficiency)
  3. Lifting the same load for more reps (volume)
  4. Lifting heavier loads (intensity of load)
  5. Lifting the same load and volume with less rest time in between sets (density)
  6. Lifting a load with more speed and acceleration (intensity of effort)
  7. Doing more work in the same amount of time (density)
  8. Doing the same work in less amount of time (density)
  9. Doing more sets with the same load and reps (volume)
  10. Lifting the same load and volume more often throughout the week (frequency)
  11. Doing the same work while losing body mass (increased relative volume)
  12. Lifting the same load and volume and then extending the set past technical failure with forced reps, negatives, drop sets, static holds, rest pause, partial reps, or post-exhaustion (intensity of effort)

In conclusion… 

This post was meant to be relatively comprehensive, but at the end of the day, don’t forget the overriding rule that applies to almost everything in fitness (and life) – K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid). Don’t waste your time writing up the most technically sound/perfect program ever. Life has a way of mucking up the best laid plans – so find out what works for you, be consistent, diligent, and smart with it, and make it harder once you find yourself adjusting to something. Not being able to use a certain piece of equipment or a certain set of dumbbells won’t be the end of the world – work around it. Keep the weight the same, and drop your recovery time (again, just one of many ways to increase difficulty).

You don’t need to set a record every time you step in the gym, and there are more ways to build a great body than to lift as much weight as you can as often as you can (and most of them start in the kitchen).  Spend some time and read the links that I have included throughout this post. This is an important principle to understand. And once you have it figured out, you can easily apply it to anything you do.

Consistency, simplicity, and hard work. The ingredients to getting (and staying) in great shape.

Good reads on program design: