Muscle building is a process that requires dedication, hard work, and an understanding of the science behind it. While there are many different factors that contribute to building muscle, one of the most important concepts to understand is progressive overload.
Progressive overload refers to gradually increasing the resistance or weight that you use during a workout over time. The idea behind this principle is that your muscles will adapt to the level of resistance they are exposed to, so in order to continue making progress, you need to increase the resistance over time (1,2,3,4).
Why progressive overload is important
The human body is incredibly adaptable, and our muscles are no exception. When we perform resistance training exercises, our muscles are exposed to a certain level of stress and strain. The body responds to this stress by repairing and rebuilding the muscle fibers that have been damaged. As the muscle fibers grow and repair, they become stronger and more resilient, which allows us to handle more resistance during our next workout (1,2,3).
Now, although it is impossible to continually improve at the same rate over time, changing up and progressing your training can limit training plateaus and maximize results. This is because, in reality, you will only continue to see continued progress in your training if you continue to challenge the body to exert a greater amount of effort. There are three major principles of progression, and it is the purpose of this blog post to expand on progressive overload and how to implement and correctly apply it in your training to get the best results possible!
How to apply progressive overload to your workouts
The key to applying progressive overload is to make gradual increases in “resistance”, where resistance is a progressively harder stimulus applied. This can be accomplished not just by increasing weight, but also by adding repetitions (reps), increasing sets, decreasing rest times, and changing up the exercise. Let's discuss these points and how you can incorporate them into your training.
1) Increasing weight
The most straightforward way to implement progressive overload is to simply increase the weight you are lifting. Research consistently indicates that increasing the weight by 2.5-5% when all the sets and reps can be completed, increasing the weight by 2.5% for single joint exercises (i.e. a bicep curl) and 5% for multiple joint movements (i.e. a back squat) is ideal (1,3).
2) Increasing reps
Another way to implement progressive overload is to increase the number of reps you are performing. For example, if you are currently performing 3 sets of 8 reps, you could aim to perform 3 sets of 9 reps next week.
Keep in mind, in general, lower reps of less than 6 are better for strength gains, while higher reps of 20 and over are more advantageous for muscle endurance (1,2). However, it's important to understand that rep ranges within 6-20 reps are all able to grow muscle, provided they are heavy enough to be challenging (4).
3) Increasing sets
You can also implement progressive overload by increasing the number of sets you are performing. For example, if you are currently performing 3 sets of 8 reps, you could aim to perform 4 sets of 8 reps next week. As a general rule of thumb, multiplying the sets by reps is often referred to as training volume, where training volume is the total work done during a workout.
Sets x Reps = Training Volume (total work)
This is important because several body systems, like the nervous, metabolic, hormonal, and muscular systems work in concert to modulate an environment for adapting to exercise and positively adapt with greater training volume (1,3).
4) Decreasing rest time
Additionally, you can implement progressive overload by decreasing the amount of rest time between sets. By decreasing the rest time, you are increasing the intensity of the workout, which can lead to increased muscle growth.
This can have a profound effect on strength adaptations, where it has been shown that force and power production reduce with less than 1 minute of rest. For example, in a study comparing 3- versus 1-minute rest intervals, only the 3-minute rest group was able to complete 3 sets of 10 repetitions (1).
5) Mixing up the exercise
Mixing up the exercises you perform is another way to implement progressive overload. For example, you could switch from barbell squats to dumbbell squats, or from bicep curls to hammer curls. New exercises will target different muscle fibers, which will help to trigger muscle growth. For instance, exercises stressing multiple muscle groups produce a greater anabolic environment for building muscle.
Deadlifts, squat jumps and Olympic lifts produce greater testosterone and growth hormone responses compared even with other multiple-joint movements like the bench press (1,2,3,4). The takeaway here is to include mostly multiple joint exercises with some single joint exercises after, changing up these basic movements by adopting different stances or equipment for example.
Tips for implementing progressive overload
It’s important to start with a weight that is challenging yet manageable. You want to avoid using a weight that is too heavy, as this can lead to injury and limit your ability to make progress.
The key to progressive overload is to make gradual increases in resistance (weight). It’s more effective to make small increases each week rather than making large jumps in weight.
Keeping a workout journal is a great way to track your progress and make sure you are consistently making gradual increases in resistance. If you're not a fan of paper journals, there are plenty of apps out there!
It’s important to listen to your body and not push yourself too hard. If you experience pain or discomfort during a workout, it’s a sign that you may need to back off a bit or adjust your form. Over time, you will learn what you are capable of and what your limits are.
Good form is essential for maximizing the benefits of progressive overload. Make sure to focus on proper form and technique for each exercise, as this will help to minimize the risk of injury and maximize the benefits of the workout.
It’s also important to allow for adequate recovery time between workouts. This will give your muscles time to repair and rebuild, which is essential for muscle growth.
If you are new to weightlifting or progressive overload, it’s a good idea to seek help from a personal trainer or experienced weightlifter. They can help you to learn proper form, provide advice on weight selection, and ensure that you are making the most of your workouts.
Progressive overload is a key principle in muscle building and is essential for anyone who wants to make gains in strength and muscle mass. By gradually increasing the resistance over time, you are continually challenging your muscles, which triggers the body to continue building and repairing muscle fibers.
Remember to start with a weight that is challenging but manageable, increase the weight gradually, and focus on proper form and technique. With time, patience, and dedication, you can achieve your muscle building goals and see the results you’ve been working for.
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Kraemer, W. J., & Ratamess, N. A. (2004). Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription. Medicine & science in sports & exercise, 36(4), 674-688.
Ratamess, N. A., Alvar, B. A., Evetoch, T. E., Housh, T. J., Ben Kibler, W., Kraemer, W. J., & Triplett, N. T. (2009). Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 41(3), 687-708.
Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
Schoenfeld, B., Fisher, J., Grgic, J., Haun, C., Helms, E., Phillips, S., ... & Vigotsky, A. (2021). Resistance training recommendations to maximize muscle hypertrophy in an athletic population: Position stand of the IUSCA. International Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 1(1).