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7 Tips For Implementing Progressive Overload

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).

A young man in athleisure holds a loaded barbell on his back as he performs a back squat in a gym.

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!

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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.

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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).

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5) Mixing up the exercise

Mixing up the exercises you perform is another way to implement prog