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All you need to know about progressive overload

by Harry 9 minutes read

Last updated: 28 Jun, 2022

Now, you may have heard gym bros and 'fit-fluencers' all over the web preaching about progressive overload, but what exactly is it and why is it so important?

The basics

Progressive overload is a method of strength training that advocates for the gradual increase in weight, frequency, or number of repetitions in a given routine. The concept is to make your workouts more challenging over time, which places more stress on your musculoskeletal system, promoting more rapid increases to muscle strength, growth and endurance.

You can apply this idea to countless areas of exercise, from simply body weight workouts and dumbbell sessions, to swimming, running and cycling. It's as simple as pushing further, heavier, more often than you did last time.

The method was developed by Thomas Delorme, M.D. who rehabilitated soldiers after World War 2. While most doctors shunned weightlifting, Delorme believed that it could have many benefits. One encounter with an injured Sergeant Thaddeus Kawalek returned results that exceeded expectations. Kawalek recovered at a much faster rate than patience in similar conditions. Since then, the method has been proven time and time again.

The basic principle of the process is that when you place the body under greater demand than normal, it will begin to naturally adapt to those demands - in turn increasing its strength, endurance and the like.

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What are the benefits?

Progressive overload is hugely popular in strength training, where most people aim to increase physical strength using resistance training, but it will result in many changes to your body.

Studies found that with progressive overload you will see an increase in overall muscle mass and the strengthening of connective tissue - otherwise known as muscle hypertrophy. Besides this, it will also develop stronger and denser bones, ligaments, tendons and cartilage. [1]

It is also thought to incrementally increase blood flow to the parts of the body you exercise, while also stimulating more responsive brain-to-muscle nerve connections. Studies even suggest that the boost to muscular strength as a result of resistance training, occurs partially due to an increase in the responsiveness of the neural system. [2]

Other studies have found that progressive overload may also increase overall health and decrease the risk of all-cause mortality. [3]

What are the limitations?

One drawback of progressive overload training is that it will lead to injury if you try to skip stages or steps. The technique requires gradual increases in stress upon your body, regardless of what you're doing. This means the process can sometimes become tedious or slow. If you do try progressive overload, it must be done gradually - upping the weight or reps too quickly, may lead to injury.

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There are various ways to incorporate progressive overload into your exercises:

Increase resistance

This means adding additional stress to your muscles by using heavier weights, which will greatly promote muscle growth.

It is recommended that you become comfortable lifting one weight for 10-12 reps before moving up. You should also master the exercise, ensuring you use good form before you look to increase resistance.

When you do move up in weight, you should aim to lift to around 10 reps, but the last few reps of each set should be close to failure.

Increase frequency

Similar to the above, you can also increase the amount of times you work out.

If you are practising all other methods of progressive overload, but only training a muscle group once a month, you're unlikely to see much progress.

Increasing training frequency will undoubtedly increase the gains you see as a result. But be sure to not over-train as this may result in injury - you always need to allow your muscles to recover from the last session before training again.

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Increase endurance

Alongside or instead of increasing resistance, you could also increase the length of your sessions. As a result, you'll slowly start to see improvements to the endurance of your muscles, lasting for longer sets and longer sessions.

This can take two different forms:

  • increasing the number of repetitions in each set.

  • Increasing the number of exercises for each workout.

This applies to both strength and cardio training. If you slowly increase the length of time you go for a run your body adapts to you pushing the limits and you'll start to find it easier to run for longer.

Increase intensity

Increasing intensity in your training sessions can be done in two ways: either by increasing pace or allowing less rest time between sets.

Though this may sometimes be a good thing to do, especially for cardio training, we should note the importance of 'time under tension' for building muscle.

Time under tension (TUT) is the amount of time a muscle is held under strain during an exercise. The purpose of TUT is to ensure your muscles are working harder, which promotes muscular strength, endurance and growth. If you see someone lifting a light weight really really fast, this is likely to be far less beneficial than lifting a heavier weight more slowly. Try doing 10 press ups as slow as you can versus as quickly as you can and see which one is easier.

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You can add this principle of progression to a range of different exercises. Regardless of your experience, fitness level or training program, there a plenty of ways to use progressive overload. Below are a few examples of various techniques that should improve your abilities for each exercise.

Please note these are just examples, and the weights/times will not be tailored to you. If you'd like a personalised workout plan, designed for your ability and experience level, please consult a personal trainer. Otherwise, take time to ease into each exercise so you can get used to your your endurance and strength levels.

Running: Increasing distance

  • Week 1: Run continuously for 10 minutes,, 2 days per week.
  • Week 3: Run continuously for 15 minutes, 3 days per week.
  • Week 5: Run continuously for 25 minutes, 3 days per week.

Squats: Increasing repetitions

  • Week 1: Perform 8-10 squats
  • Week 3: Perform 10-12 squats with the same weight
  • Week 5: Perform 15 squats with the same weight

Biceps: Increasing weight

  • Week 1: Perform 8-10 bicep curls with 10kg weights.
  • Week 3: Perform 8-10 bicep curls with 12kg weights.
  • Week 5: Perform 8-10 bicep curls with 15kg weights.
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You should only begin to use progressive overload once you have mastered the exercise. The only way progressive overload can work is if you are performing the exercise correctly - completing the full range of motion with good form for a reasonable amount of reps without risk of injury.

You should familiarise yourself with the routine for a while before progressing to a higher weight or longer distance.

Remember the importance of rest days for recovery. You should always allow time for muscle groups to recover from the previous session before returning to the same routine. If you do feel excess strain or injury after a workout, allow more time than usual and ensure full recovery before you work out the muscle again.

Working with a personal training or using an online software can help you build an exercise plan specific to you. As such, you should avoid overworking muscle groups or jumping to a weight you aren't well prepared for.

Ideally you should always ease into each new exercise to familiarise yourself with your strength and endurance levels. This should ensure the risk of injury is minimal and also allow for more accurate weight and repetition progressions.

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