Progressive Overload: What it is and How to Incorporate it

Progressive Overload

You want to get stronger? Well you came to the right place. 

Today we are discussing the number one way to get stronger. 

Progressive overload - the continual increase in workload during training stimulating muscle size, strength and endurance.  

In simple terms, the body will adapt to the increased demands that are put on it. 

If you are not increasing any of the options listed below it is likely your body will not adapt.  If you simply follow the same program and perform the same weights for all your sets and reps your muscle growth/gains will likely plateau.  All of these factors do not need to be in play at once. 


Progressive Overload Methods

Increasing Load

The most common method is to increase the resistance.  The increase does not need to be dramatic adding an additional 2.5-5lbs per week could be upwards of a 260lb total increase in weight over the course of a year.  Obviously that is unlikely to happen, but with a relatively young training age you may be able to make some big strides in the beginning.  Those who are more advanced lifters sometimes work for months to make 5-10lb increases. 


Increasing the number of sets

Adding additional sets is another great way to add to the total volume you are performing.  Instead of doing 3 sets of 8, you bump it to 4 sets of 8.  Depending upon your training style you may perform up to 10 sets or as little as 2 sets.  


Week 1: 2 sets of 8 DB Bench

Week 2: 3 Sets of 8 DB Bench

Week 3. 4 Sets of 8 DB Bench


Increasing the Number of Reps 

Another variation of progressive overload is adding additional reps each week to your exercise selections.  Similar to increasing the number of sets, by increasing the number of reps you will also be increasing the total volume.  Volume = Sets x Reps x Resistance.  Depending on which training effect you are looking for could help determine which rep range you would be aiming for.  A great reference to gain a better understanding of this concept is Prilepin’s chart which is pictured below.  


Week 1: 3 sets of 6 reps DB Bench

Week 2: 3 sets of 8 reps DB Bench

Week 3: 3 set of 10 reps DB Bench



Increasing Time Under Tension

This is not a concept you see as often in programming, but can be very effective.  Think of time under tension as the amount of total time the muscle is under stress.  I first heard of this concept from Cal Dietz at the University of Minnesota.  Cal releases Tri-phasic training breaking the exercises down into three phases: eccentric (lowering portion), Isometric (Phase between eccentric and concentric) and concentric (raising portion).  Increasing the amount of time under tension creates more stress for the muscle fibers and is a great way to add muscle control/stabilization to an exercise.


Week 1: 3 sets of 5 reps DB Bench Tempo (3-1-X) (3 second lower, 1 second iso, X - fast concentric)

Week 2: 3 sets of 5 reps DB Bench Tempo (5-1-X) (5 second lower, 1 second iso, X - fast concentric)

Week 3: 3 sets of 5 reps DB Bench Tempo (1-3-X) (1 second lower, 3 second iso, X - fast concentric)


Decreasing the rest time between sets

By decreasing the time between sets you are not allowing as much time for the muscle to recover.  Essentially this allows you to perform the same amount of work in less time. Again when working with higher reps and lighter weight it is safe to play around with recovery times.  Anywhere from 1:00 to :45 or even :30 seconds can still allow you to perform the necessary reps in a safe manner.  If you are working toward the 1-3 rep Max Strength range I would HIGHLY encourage you to take longer rest periods of 2-5 minutes in between sets.  


Increasing training frequency

Lastly you can progressively overload your training by increasing the frequency that you are training.  Maybe you are a beginner and start with 2 days a week.  You start out with two total body training days.  After four weeks you feel you can add in another day of training.  By increasing your frequency in the amount of times you are training your muscles you are being overloaded from the additional stress/work.

If you are working to progressive overload do not try to increase each of these options at once.  If I were to give you any advice I would not recommend picking more than two progressive overload variations at once.  

Common misconceptions

Some common misconceptions would be adding weight too fast.  Slow and steady progressions win the race. “Movement over maxes” @ZachDechant.  Remember as we are laying the foundation proper movement quality is most important. Do not sacrifice technique for weights. That is a quick way to get injured.  Finally, people don’t track their numbers.  Don't be most people, track your progress!  Do not just guess week to week. Find a spot in either a note on your phone, notepad or an excel file to record your weights.  Nothing worse as a coach than seeing players do someone else's weight because they didn’t feel like making the switch and not being able to perform the prescribed sets/reps.  Continuing to track consistent progressive overload will have you moving well, looking good and staying healthy.  Often the difference between poison and medicine is dosage.  Always air on the side of safety.   

If you have any further questions on progressive overload feel free to follow/DM me on Instagram @CM1_Performance.

Colin Masterson

Sports Performance Coach at Villanova University 

Follow along for more content on IG @CM1_performance

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