Progressive Overload – Principles Of Strength Training


According to Wikipedia, progressive overload is "the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. It was developed by Thomas Delorme, M.D. while he rehabilitated soldiers after World War II." Full description here

And, principles of strength training; "involve a manipulation of the number of repetitions (reps), sets, tempo, exercises and force to cause desired changes in strength, endurance or size by overloading of a group of muscles". Full description here 

Progressive Overload - And why should you care about this? 

​Well, if you don't understand how to achieve progressive overload, through applying effective principles of strength training, then you are likely wasting most of the time that you're spending working out.

Your body will not change unless you force it to change.  

it doesn't change voluntarily, just because you wish it to.

Simply put, you need to make your body be able to do something which it before could not do.

​Then, your body will adapt by becoming stronger and building muscle, to cope with the new stresses it believes that you need to cope with in life.  

Reverse this process, by being less active, and your body will believe that it needs less muscle and reduce the amount of muscle you have, making it easier for fat to build up from any excess energy / calories which you consume.

progressive overload fatty

​Lots of people go to the gym five or more times a week, for an hour or more, but over the years their body doesn't really change much at all.  They are simply doing just enough training (application of stress to the body / muscles) to maintain their current physique.

If you are happy to just maintain your current physique, there is no problem with that, assuming you are in reasonable shape, but;

It might give you more free time to spend doing other things, if you understand how ensuring that you are applying progressive overload could achieve this result in fare less time.

two good quality training sessions per week, would normally be more than enough to achieve maintenance, presuming that you also have reasonable eating habits / nutrition planning.

​When you understand, and focus on achieving progressive overload, you can be sure that you are training properly, and can be sure of achieving results.

​If you're not doing that, then it's likely that at best you aren't achieving the results which you could be, and it's highly likely that you're not getting much result at all.

​So, if not doing this, pretty much guarantees you at best poor results, why isn't every one focused on achieving progressive overload with their training?  Well;

  • It involves effort, lots of people don't really like effort, and;
  • Most average trainers don't properly show people how to do this. No, doing three sets of ten reps with a weight that's easy for you to handle isn't proper training.

​One of the biggest problems that you face in achieving progressive overload is, how do you continue to increase the load without hitting plateaus, where you just can't seem to break through and increase your one rep max?

 Even using periodisation programming where you alternate higher reps with higher weights can eventually get difficult to make significant progress with. 

The other problem that particularly new lifters can find, is that it can be overly challenging for them both mentally and physically, to handle heavy loads.  This can also be a problem if you are recovering from an injury.

​So, let's look at different ways that you can achieve progressive overload, in strength training.

Nine ways to achieve progressive overload;​

  • Increase weight;

When you are physically able to increase the weight you can lift for a given number of reps, it's time to go heavier.  Staying with the same weight will simply maintain your current body.

​Depending on which muscle group you are working with the exercise, and how advanced a trainer you are, will determine what a reasonable increase in weight is. 

When you are just starting, it is relatively easy to increase weight, as your body adapts quite quickly, to cope with what is probably not initially a truly heavy weight.  A more advanced lifter will already be handling heavier weights, and so a smaller incremental increase will be possible.​

If you are training legs, with something like squats or leg press, then an increase of 10kg may be easily handled, but clearly your biceps won't handle this.  You need to be practical and consistent.

If you need to work out what kind of weight you should be capable of lifting for a given repetition range, then this handy calculator will help you do this;

  • Increased repetitions;

Increase the number of reps that you do for each set.

This is often used in alternate cycles with the increase in weight noted above, as periodisation.  where you perform higher reps in one training session, followed by higher weight in the next session, and then back to higher reps for the next session, usually on a week to week rotation.

​If you were to simply continually increase the number of reps for each set, you would start to get an out of control rep range.  It's a good place to start for a beginner, followed by an increase in weight, and then alternated.

  • Increase sets;

Increase the number of sets you complete.

If you are already pushing yourself to complete the most number of reps that you can with a given weight, it's not practical to achieve more reps.

Instead, add more sets to your program.  Instead of completing three sets, add another one to two sets.  Even if you can't complete the same number of reps for these sets as you did in the first three, you are moving more load, and so increasing the stress / overload on your muscles.​

  • Increase amount of exercises;

Add extra exercises, for a particular muscle group, into your program. 

You might have pushed yourself to complete the most sets and reps of squats possible in the session.  But you will be able to complete some extra sets of leg curls and leg extensions, to increase the workload, and thus overload on these muscles.

You could find that if you are giving it your all during a squat session, this might work better if you complete the extra sets of leg extensions and curls, before doing the squat sets.  This will obviously make completing your squat sets more challenging, but your quads, glutes and hamstrings ​will be well warmed up.

  • Increase training frequency;

Increase the number of sessions you are training a muscle group for.

We need to remember that we are focusing on overload of muscle groups, not simply increasing the workload that the whole body completes.  Although that would also produce the result of making you fitter, provided you don't over train.

So, if you were training legs, including quads, hamstrings, and glutes twice a week, you could add a third session into your program, including the same exercises.

​Women typically have faster recovery time than men, and so will need less time between working a particular muscle group, to allow it to recover.  Definitely an advantage to being a woman!

If you are going to use this method, you should also focus on recovery for these muscle groups between sessions.  Depending what level of training you've reached, this could include, massage, ice baths, active recovery such as walking, cycling, some running, stretching, foam rolling etc, between your strength sessions to ensure the muscles are ready to handle more stress again.

  • Increased intensity;

Increase the intensity with which you complete your sets.

This could be done by increasing the speed with which you complete each repetition.

If you complete each rep with a faster tempo, working on speed and power, you are exerting more effort.  

If you force yourself to complete each rep at a slower tempo, the time under tension is increased, and greater effort is required to complete the same number of reps for each set.​

  • Decreased rest time;

Try halving the amount of rest time that you have between sets.

Often you will see people around the gym chatting and socializing b​e-tween sets.  They are probably in the "exercising" zone, instead of "training", as there is clearly little or no focus on a set rest time.

Some people have a different view on this, believing that you need to take as long as you need to between sets, to recover fully before completing the next set, so that you can complete each set with greatest effort.  There is some merit to this thinking as well, particularly if you are already lifting very heavy weights​, or high reps.  But what every your recovery time, it should be spent breathing well to recover, and focusing mentally on the next set, not idly chatting. 

​Allocate your time in the gym for training, focus on that, to get results, and enjoy socializing after the works been done.

  • Change the exercise;

Change the exercise that you are using to focus on a particular muscle group.

For example if you have been doing body weight squats, you could do jump / plyometric squats instead.

​You could add something like this into your program as well.  Complete body weight or jump squats, or flying lunges between your bar bell squat sets.  Your legs will be dying after this workout, but the gains will be rewarding in time.

  • Shocking principle;

Add any of the following into how you complete your sets.

  • partial reps
  • drop sets
  • cheat reps
  • slow negatives
  • static contractions

Even just adding something like completing a few extra partial reps at the end of each set, is adding additional progressive overload to the muscle.  

​Try adding a different shocking principle technique to the end of every set, and really feel the burn! i.e;

  • Set 1 - 12 reps + 5 partial reps
  • Set 2 - 12 reps + hold for 30 seconds static contraction
  • set 3 - 12 reps + 5 slow negative reps

​With this knowledge, applied with the right amount of effort, you can't help but achieve gainz!

progressive overload - deadlift

​Progressive overload, applied to principles of strength training;

​We need to remember that progressive overload is only one principle of strength training, albeit a foundational one.

​If you were to blindly pursue this principle, without correct application of others, your training will still suffer.  So let's tie a few other strength training principles together.

  • Ground based activities

most sports, and in fact most things we do in life require force applied through your feet to the ground.  To move you in any direction, laterally or vertically standing up or jumping.

The more force you are able to apply through your feet, the better you will be able to perform.​

​so, training with exercises that include these moves, and require you to exert force through your feet is practical and provides bang for your buck, training wise.

​Exercises such as squat, dead lift, cleans, lunges and a range of plyometric moves are great for this.

  • Train with explosive force

​The more explosive force that is involved in a movement, the more motor units within the body, and the muscle fibers which they control and engaged. 

Again, plyometric moves, and major lifts such as the squat, deadlift and cleans will require explosive force to complete properly.  

The more explosive force which you apply to these moves, the heavier the weight you will be able to move​, and therefor better results are achieved during, and after, training. 

Remember that training with weights, is "all about the weight" and usually you should be aiming to train with a heavy load.  So even when applying explosive force, you won't be going too fast, or swinging the weights.  They will be too heavy for that, so if you find yourself doing this, stop and evaluate what you are doing, because it's wrong.

And if you are wondering how your strength compares to other lifters.  Well, I could tell you that we are all unique individuals, and so focus on your own performance, but that's just weak!

And I know that we all love some competition, so I'll share with you this strength level calculator, which I think is great to gauge yourself.​

And just in case you're wondering.  It rates me as advanced, and says that I'm stronger than 92% of women in my age group.  So considering that I'm not a power lifter, I'm pretty happy with that:)

And, if I continue to apply the progressive overload principle in my programs, then one day they might rate me as elite - Can't wait!​

  • Compound lifts, using multiple joints

​There aren't too many things that we do in life, that don't require multiple joint movements.  So training this way as well, is just good sense.  And you'll get better results, so why not do it:)

​These exercises again include squats, deadlifts, lunges, cleans, pull ups and plyometric moves.  All of which engage more total muscle fibers than isolation exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extensions etc.

It should be pretty clear, why the compound moves are foundational in most good training programs.  I just love them!

progressive overload strength training principles
Progressive overload pullups
  • Periodisation in strength training programming

​I touched on this above, when considering how to continually achieve progressive overload. 

There are a couple of important points;

  1. You can't train at 100% maximum effort for 12 months every year, or your body will not have sufficient rest and recovery.  
  2. It is extremely difficult to simply continue to increase the weight you are lifting, each and every training session.  

Therefore, most strength training programs will have an element of periodisation built into them.

​This can be, increasing the reps one week, followed by increasing the weight the next week.   splitting different body parts like upper and lower into different sessions, on season versus off season training for professional athletes, or a combination of these type of things. 

  • Training your different energy systems

​Depending on what sport, or other purpose you are training for, there will be a different focus to achieve the required result.

​The three main energy systems are;

  1. Anaerobic lactic system​ - generates force for medium intervals
  2. Anaerobic alactic system - generates maximum force for a short interval
  3. Aerobic system - moderate force for a long period.  Long distance running and the like

There is an element of progressive overload required to achieve results from most forms of training, but we have been mainly focused on strength training here, which when done properly will train the Anaerobic systems mainly.

​I hope that this will help you to be focused on the right things when you are training.  Most of all, focus on training, not just "working out".  

You need to have goals, measure your current performance, set proper programs to continually improve that performance, and your results will be unstoppable!​

And while we're talking about setting proper programs and measuring performance, make sure that your diet is optimised to help your body recover and perform as well.  I've written another post, about how to formulate your own sports nutrition plan, which can help you with that.

Please feel free to share this with anyone you know who needs some help shifting up from just "working out" to getting real results.  

Ana Maria

As a certified strength coach and nutritionist, with a passion for living life and continual improvement, Ana Maria believes that every woman should bring out her inner goddess. A healthy active lifestyle, commitment to training and good nutrition are the keys. As the creator of Sara Crave, Ana Maria shares her passions for fitness, fun and fashion with you.

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