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by Truth Fry December 21, 2022 6 min read

One of the most common things that holds people back in life is fear. If you don't know what's coming, then you don't know what to expect.

We only know what we've personally experienced in life. So when something new pops up, it's natural to feel scared.

Without the knowledge of what to expect, you never know if you’ll be in some form of danger. Which is a great thing, right?! In some cases, yes ... but not always.

If you only stick to what you know, then you'll be comfortable. It's through this comfort and complacency that people limit their growth and potential.

Getting outside of your comfort zone to try new things can benefit you greatly. This can lead to more experience, knowledge, and growth for your skill set.

This is the exact same way your body responds to the way you train in your workouts. This is also the same basic principle of progressive overload.

Once your body experiences a new demand placed on it, your body will try to adapt to make it easier for next time. Once your body adapts to that new stress though, you need to apply even more stress next time to create new adaptations.

If you apply the same amount of stress consistently over time, your body already knows how to handle it. In this scenario, your body doesn't need to adapt because it already has the strength it needs.

This lack of progress is known as a plateau, and it happens to all of us at some point in time.

In this article, I’m going to teach you what progressive overload is, and how to implement it properly.

What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is the concept of consistently increasing the demands placed on your body over time. This forces your body to continuously adapt. When the body makes adaptations in this way, that’s when we make progress.

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Let's say you do push-ups until you can't lift your arms anymore. This puts a lot of stress on the body that it doesn't want. The only option for your body is to adapt to that stress by increasing strength, muscle tissue, and endurance in the muscles involved.

This will make it easier to do more pushups for longer.

So ... how can you overload the muscle to help it grow, adapt, and get stronger? Well, there are plenty of variables you can adjust to achieve progressive overload:

• Increasing the weight
• Increasing the number of repetitions
• Increasing the number of sets
• Increase the duration of the set or run
• Decrease the amount of rest between sets
• Increase the training frequency
• Incorporate drop sets (when you fatigue, lower the weight, and keep going)
• Increase the speed of the movement (aka tempo training)

There are other ways you can get creative to progressively overload the muscle, but this covers quite a few options.

I'll explain this a little further so you know which ways to go about progressive overload in your workouts...

Progressive Overload Examples

Generally, most people know the kind of changes they want to make to their body, but that doesn’t mean everyone knows exactly how to make them.

In fact, most people don’t. They just go into their workouts blindly, doing various exercises in an attempt to see results. Trust me on this ... it's much better to have an understanding of how to make specific changes.

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I’m going to cover just a few of the most common ways you can achieve progressive overload...

Increase the Resistance

If your main goal is to gain strength, then the variable you would most likely want to change is the weight you use. By this, I mean increasing the resistance in your exercises over time.

That way, your body is forced to adapt to the heavier weight by getting stronger. As a result, your body becomes better equipped to handle the stress next time.

Let’s say you are barely able to bench press 200 pounds for 8 reps. After a few weeks of using that weight, it becomes much easier and eventually, you can do more reps.

If you want to keep getting stronger, the best thing you can do is increase weight. Just be careful ... you don't want to add weight too quickly.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine suggests that any increases in time, weight, or intensity should be kept at or under 10% per week to allow for adaptations while minimizing risk for injury [2].

When that weight gets easy to hit for 8 reps, bump up the weight incrementally and do it again. Over time, and as long as you are dialed in with your nutrition, you’ll continue to gain strength if you keep increasing the weight.

I will say this though ... the more strength you gain, the harder it gets to keep gaining strength. The body learns to adapt better over time.

Increasing the Number of Sets or Reps

If your main goal is to build muscle, the key is to keep increasing the volume over time. Volume in exercise terms is calculated using sets x reps x resistance.

Technically, you'll build muscle by increasing resistance. However, based on that equation, increasing the weight by 5 to 10 pounds won't increase the volume like the number of sets or reps can.

How Long Does it Take to Build Muscle?

Allow me to demonstrate my math skills to show you what I mean...

Let’s say you are doing 3 sets of 10 reps with 225 pounds on bench press. 3 x 10 x 225 = 6750 total pounds lifted.

Maybe you get strong enough to do 225 for 3 sets of 12 reps, so you add in more reps. 3 x 12 x 225 = 8100 pounds lifted.

With this increase in strength, you could choose to try increasing the weight instead of the reps, but it won’t increase the volume as much. 3 x 10 x 235 = 7050 pounds lifted.

Or, if you just add in 1 more set instead. 4 x 10 x 225 = 9000 pounds lifted.

You see what I’m saying?

Any of those increases over time will likely lead to more muscle growth ... but in this scenario, you’ll get the most bang for your buck by adding in another set.

Now, you don’t want to just keep adding sets until your workout ends up being 15 sets of the same exercise. Some programs might have you do as many as 10 sets of your main exercise, and that’s okay, but I don’t recommend making that the standard.

A good way to play it safe would be working up to 4-5 sets of an exercise. Then, work on changing reps and weight after that.

The thing that matters most is that your volume increases over time. The best recipe to accomplish this will likely come from a mix of all 3 variables (reps, sets, and weight).

Increasing the Duration of the Set/Run

If your main goal for utilizing progressive overload is to build muscular or cardiovascular endurance ... you have to train in a way that stresses your endurance. This is all about the amount of time your body is under stress.

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Let’s say you want to increase your muscular endurance to beat the world record plank time. According to Guinness World Records [1] the longest plank recorded in history was 9 hours 30 minutes and 1 second done by Daniel Scali.

The human body is capable of amazing things ... obviously! He couldn’t have possibly done that without gradually increasing the amount of time in a plank.

Let’s say you begin with the ability to hold a 1-minute plank before your muscles give out. Increasing other variables, like more sets or increasing the frequency at which you do them, will help to an extent ... but those changes alone will never get you to plank for over 9 ½ hours.

You must gradually increase the duration of your sets over time to get you there. You must plank for 2 minutes before you can do a plank for 3 minutes, and so on.

Right now, a 3-minute plank might seem impossible to you ... but if you keep gradually increasing the time in your sets, it becomes possible over time. At some point, if you can get to plank for 9 ½ hours, 3 minutes will seem like a joke rather than a challenge.

Need Any Help?

We all want to see progress in our workouts. Whether you want to build muscle, increase your strength, or run a faster marathon ... progressive overload can help you get there.

The key is slow and gradual progression, but progression nonetheless. If you never change your workouts, at some point, you’ll stop making progress.

It’s harder than it sounds though. The more progress you make, the more difficult it becomes to keep seeing similar progress ... although not impossible.

If you told me someone broke a 9 ½ hour plank a year ago, I would have said it was impossible, but Daniel Scali proved me wrong. I’m sure it took a lot of time and effort implementing these principles to reach that goal.

If you really want to make progress, and consistent progress, you may benefit from some help. Most people do. Reach out to us!

Our team of NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Nutrition Coaches is happy to help ... and our help is FREE. Our job is to give you the education, support, and tools you need to crush it...

Your job is to go out and do the work. So let's get after it!

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Truth Fry
Truth Fry

BS Exercise Science NASM Certified Personal Trainer NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist