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What is progressive overload?

An East Asian woman in a tank top works out in a gym. On her shoulders is a heavy barbell; she's squatting as she pushes herself back up to a standing position.
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What is progressive overload? According to a 2002 article in Current Sports Medicine Reports (opens in new tab), the term refers to a type of resistance training that works by gradually increasing the amount of stress placed on the body.

In the fitness world, to increase the amount of stress placed on your body you simply do more of something. You up the weight on your adjustable dumbbells (opens in new tab), increase the number of reps, or dial up the intensity of your workouts.

Before you add progressive overload into your workout programme, though, how does this form of strength training work? What’s the science behind it? Is there research to show it works? And how can you gradually, and safely, increase the amount of resistance?

Read on to discover the ins and outs of how progressive overload training could help you. We’ve done the research, checked the science and enlisted the help of a fitness expert to give you the advice you need.

What is progressive overload and how does it work?

To achieve progressive overload, you can gradually increase the stress placed on the body by increasing the duration, the number of reps, the frequency and/or increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting. You can apply this principle of training to aerobic (opens in new tab) and anaerobic forms of exercise, too, like running.

As with most forms of training, as you become fitter and stronger, your muscles acclimatize to the amount of resistance placed upon them – as outlined in Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine (opens in new tab). That’s because when you lift weights, you inflict “trauma” on your muscle fibers. And, as a result, the cells around the fibers knit together the damaged fibers, which strengthens them. This is called muscular hypertrophy.

But why is this a good thing? As Farren Morgan, head coach at The Tactical Athlete (opens in new tab) says, progressive overload helps to break down muscle fibers again (and again), increasing muscle mass, which in turn helps to push your musculoskeletal system to new extremes.

“Progressive overload is the perfect solution if you need to improve the difficulty of your training because your body has adapted to the resistance of your workouts, and is no longer experiencing the massive benefits that the exercise used to provide,” says Morgan.

An older man works out at home. He's sat on a rug, facing a laptop screen that's open. He uses a resistance band, looped around his feet, and is pulling against it. Near him is a small green dumbbell.

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What are the benefits of progressive overload?

According to the American Council on Exercise (opens in new tab), completing the same workouts again and again can lead to your body plateauing. An article in the NSCA’s Performance Training Journal (opens in new tab) says: “The principle of progressive overload suggests progressively placing greater-than-normal demands on the exercising musculature.” This enables for a training adaptation to take place and, the article adds, “Without overload, there is no adaptation by the body.”

A (opens in new tab)2017 study published in Sports Medicine (opens in new tab) concludes: “The principle of progressive overload must be adhered to for individuals to continually increase muscle size with resistance training.”

How fast should you ‘progressive overload’?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (opens in new tab), the progression of your progressive overload will depend on how well resistance trained you are. For novices (who have no resistance training experience or who have not trained for several years) the review states they should complete a maximum of 8-12 reps two to three days a week.

While for individuals with six months or more of consistent resistance training experience, it’s recommended that they complete 1 to 12 repetition maximums three to five days a week with “eventual emphasis on heavy loading”.

It’s important to stick to this, as according to Morgan, a drastic increase in weights or frequency of your training could be “very dangerous and result in a sustained injury”. He says: “While the results aren't immediately noticeable, it's important to follow through and be patient with the process as your fitness levels gradually increase.”

Before you start the progressive overload of your exercise routine, Morgan recommends making sure you properly master your workout while conducting it with proper form to prevent injuries, and to prevent applying additional stress on your body.

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Simple progressive overload plan

When it comes to progressive overload plans, no one size fits all. It depends on your fitness levels and whether you have strength trained before. However, generally speaking, for a resistance workout, Morgan recommends: 

Week 1
Two to three sets of 8-9 reps of Bicep Curls, Squats, and Deadlifts.

Week 2
Three to four sets of 8-9 reps of Bicep Curls, Squats, and Deadlifts.

Week 3
Three to four sets of 9-10 reps of Bicep Curls, Squats, and Deadlifts.

Week 4
Four to five sets of 10-12 reps of Bicep Curls, Squats, and Deadlifts.

While for those looking for cardio-based progressive overload workouts, Morgan says: 

Week 1
A 15-minute run 2 days per week at a moderate pace.

Week 2
A 25 minute run 2 days per week at a moderate pace.

Week 3
A 30-minute run 3 days per week at a moderate pace.

Week 4
A 30-40 minute run 3 days per week at a moderate pace.

What sort of weight should you start with?

As with most forms of fitness, slow and steady is best. Morgan says you should start off small with 5lb-10lb weights and gradually build upon this as the weeks progress.

“While the initial weights may not seem like much, once you start the progressive overload training you'll notice that the exercises will become more challenging to perform, especially as the reps and sets continue to expand,” says Morgan.

Then, when you’re ready to increase your strength training, the American College of Sports Medicine (opens in new tab) recommends that a “2%-10% increase in load be applied when the individual can perform the current workload for one to two repetitions over the desired number”.



Bibliography:

Kraemer, W.J., Ratamess, N.A. & French, D.N. Resistance training for health and performance. Curr Sports Med Rep 1, 165–171 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11932-002-0017-7

Hughes, D. C., Ellefsen, S., & Baar, K. (2018). Adaptations to Endurance and Strength Training. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 8(6), a029769. https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a029769

Dankel, S.J., Mattocks, K.T., Jessee, M.B. et al. Frequency: The Overlooked Resistance Training Variable for Inducing Muscle Hypertrophy?. Sports Med 47, 799–805 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0640-8

American College of Sports Medicine (2009). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 41(3), 687–708. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670

American College of Sports Medicine (2009). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 41(3), 687–708. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670

Becks is a freelance journalist and writer writing for a range of titles including Stylist, The Independent and LiveScience covering lifestyle topics such as health and fitness, homes and food. She also ghostwrites for a number of Physiotherapists and Osteopaths. When she’s not reading or writing, you’ll find her in the gym, learning new techniques and perfecting her form.