What is Progressive Overload & How to Apply It to Your Workouts?

If you’re not using it then you’re not making progress in the gym

Albert Einstein once said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

What has this got to do with fitness?

Well, everything really.

You see, if you want to maintain or build muscle and strength you need to increase your workout stimulus over time. Only by doing this do you force your body to adapt by getting bigger and stronger.

If you don’t, then your progress in the gym will stagnate and you’ll struggle to build the body of your dreams or in other words, if you keep doing the same thing over and over you’ll only ever get the same results.

It’s through the consistent application of progression to your workouts that you give your body the signal to change. This might mean doing more sets or reps, adding weight to the bar or reducing the amount of time you rest for.

Which should you use?

That depends.

It’s about finding the right method of overload specific to your training goal and then increasing this stimulus over time so you’re constantly in a position of pushing close to your limit, in order to increase it.

In this article, we’re going to look at 7 different ways of applying progressive overload before picking a couple and showing you how it would look in practice.

7 Ways to Apply Progressive Overload

Ok, so we know that progressive overload is the act of continually increasing the stimulus you put your body under when working out to force it to adapt, but how do you do this?

It’s a good question and there are a number of different methods. Today we’re going to look at 7 of them.

#1: Increase Your Reps

One way of applying progressive overload is to increase the number of reps you perform per set in your workouts. For example, if you do 3 sets of 6 reps on the flat bench press, then next time you’d aim to 3 sets of 7 reps.

You’d slowly progress in this fashion add a rep to each set every time you successfully hit your rep goal.

Whilst this is a viable method of progressive overload it also has its pitfalls:

  • The more reps you add the longer your workouts get
  • As you increase the number of reps you do, you’ll likely need to decrease the weight
  • Over time you drastically change the rep ranges you’re working which may not be appropriate for your goal

#2: Do More Exercises

Another option is to increase your workout stimulus by adding more exercises. For example, if your upper body workout currently has 2 chest exercises, 2 back exercises, 1 shoulder exercises and a couple of arm exercises you could add another shoulder exercise.

Again, this method of progression has a few issues:

  • The more exercises you add the longer your workout gets
  • Adding a shoulder exercise does nothing to apply overload to your back
  • It’s impossible to continue adding exercises past a certain point with it getting ridiculous

#3: Slow Down Your Reps

You could also try slowing down your reps so each one takes more time to complete, therefore increasing your time under tension and applying progressive overload.

For example, if you normally lift with a 2–1–2 tempo you could try a 3–1–3 tempo, then slowly increase the time as you adjust.

Things to be aware of when trying this are:

  • You can only slow down your reps so much before it gets too difficult
  • Staying focused enough to accurately time each portion of your rep is difficult
  • Slowing down your reps will see your reach failure quicker which may not be an efficient method of training depending on your goal
  • Due to the above issues, it will be hard to know if you accurately apply progressive overload or not

#4: Increase Your Sets

Just as increasing your reps is an option, so is increasing the number of sets you do. This means if you’re doing 3 sets of 8 reps on the barbell back squat, you would increase this to 4 sets. Depending on your training split you could do this one exercise at a time.

For example, if leg day had you doing squats, lunges, hip thrusts and calves raises you could increase the sets for just squats first, then lunges, then hip thrust before cycling back through.

However, you need to be aware that:

  • Like with add reps or exercises this method only works up until a point before your workouts get too long and your workout too much to handle
  • Additionally, depending on your workout split adding sets to one exercise won’t necessarily apply overload to the whole body

#5: Decrease Your Rest Time

It’s also possible to decrease the amount of time you rest for in order to increase the stimulus your workouts provide. You could do this by resting for less time between sets and/or between exercises.

Again, it has a few drawbacks:

  • You can only reduce your rest time so much before it becomes a redundant method and depending on how long you’re resting for, to begin with, this may happen very quickly
  • If you’re lifting heavy the reduction in rest time is not worth the trade-off in performance

#6: Add More Weight

An incremental increase in weight on the bar is a great way to apply progressive overload. This involves increasing the weight a little bit every time you hit your set and rep goal.

For example, if your aim was to do 3 sets of 12 reps with 30kg on the shoulder press, if you completed all 3 sets and did 12 reps in each you would increase the weight to 32.5kg in your next workout.

Whilst this one of the best ways to apply progressive overload, as with all the others it has a few potential issues:

  • You can only increase the weight for so long before you plateau
  • You will reach a point where 2.5kg total increase is too much to handle
  • Not all gyms have the equipment you need to incrementally increase the weight

#7: Train More Often

Finally, option number 7 is to train more often.

Pretty straightforward stuff here, if you’re currently training 3 times a week you would bump it up to 4 and if you’re already training 4 days then you’d add a fifth.

This is possibly one of the worst ways to apply progressive overload for a number of reasons:

  • As you begin training 4, 5 or 6 times a day you may notice an issue with your recovery and a decline in performance
  • Most people only have time to workout 3 times a week, adding more days is unrealistic
  • Adding more days is a big ask in terms of performance and recovery when progressive overload can be applied in a number of other ways

How to Apply Progressive Overload

As you can see each method of overload has a point of diminishing returns, where your workouts become too long, the training too demanding or the load unmanageable.

So, how do you apply progressive overload with crashing and burning?

Fortunately, it’s quite simple.

To successfully apply progressive overload, you want to use a combination of methods in an alternating fashion. Perhaps the most effective and common way of doing this is by increasing the weight you lift and the number of reps you do.

For example, 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.

  • Set 1: 50kg for 8 reps
  • Set 2: 50kg for 8 reps
  • Set 3: 50kg for 8 reps

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”.

This isn’t what you want.

What you need to do is increase the weight on the bar and challenge your body. With general recommendations being 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.

  • Set 1: 52.5kg for 6 reps
  • Set 2: 52.5kg for 6 reps
  • Set 3: 52.5kg for 6 reps

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 need to do from here is build back up to 3 sets of 8 reps with 52.5kg, at which point you’ll increase the weight again.

  • Set 1: 52.5kg for 8 reps
  • Set 2: 52.5kg for 8 reps
  • Set 3: 52.5kg for 8 reps

In your next session, you would increase the weight again to 55kg and aim to complete 3 sets of 6–8 reps. On and on you’d go like this, slowly increasing the weight, building up your reps and then increasing the weight again.

Now it’s important to note that all exercises progress at different rates. You can expect compound exercise to progress more quickly and smoothly that isolation exercises due to the fact you’re training more muscles and can generate more strength.

It’s also important to know that your progress will be non-linear meaning some days you’ll be weaker, others stronger and some the same. Look for a general overall upward trend in strength to know you’re getting it right.



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Theo Brenner-Roach

Simple, straightforward fitness advice that works. No fuss, no fads, no bullshit.