Build Muscle

Progressive Overload: What Is It and How Is It Done?

Low section view of woman adding weights to the barbell at gym. Athlete preparing weights for exercising at fitness club.

Have you been "working out" for a while and wondering why you're not getting the desired results (even if your diet has been on point)?

It’s not because of your pre-workout supplements.

It’s not because you forgot to have a post-workout protein shake.

It’s not because you’re not using the right supplements to build muscle.

So, what is the reason?

Well, pay attention because we'll give you the "secret" to getting results from your diet and training program. 

It’s called progressive overload, and if you don’t implement it into your fitness routine, you’ll continue to miss out on the best results possible.

Now that we've got your attention let's get down to business!

What is Progressive Overload?

The simplest explanation of progressive overload is “do more.”

That’s all there is to it (mostly).

A more formal definition of progressive overload is “the gradual increase of the stress placed upon the musculoskeletal and nervous system.”

Why is Progressive Overload Important?

The human body is a fascinating entity. It's built for survival and highly adaptable. While this bodes well for extending lifespan and navigating all manner of illnesses, injuries, etc., it also means you have to work hard to get results from your time in the gym.

It adapts as the body is exposed to a particular stressor (such as curling a dumbbell). Initially, that dumbbell is challenging for your biceps to lift and lower. However, with each subsequent workout (provided your nutrition and sleep are on point), your body gains strength, and what was once challenging for your body no longer is. 

So, if you want to keep gaining strength (and/or building muscle), you need to force your body to do more work.

You will hit a plateau in your training and your results without forcing your muscles to do more work (we'll explain more about what that means in a moment). 

So, how does progressive overload “work”?

How Does Overload Work in Fitness?

The most common progressive overload method is adding weight to the bar.

For example, let’s say that you can bench press 185 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps.

To institute progressive overload, add 2.5 pounds to each side of the bar, bringing the total weight to 190 pounds, and stay at that weight until you can perform 3 sets of 10 reps.

Repeat this process over and over, and you'll gain muscle and strength.

However, while adding weight to the bar may be the most commonly recommended method for progressive overload, it is by no means the only way to force your muscles to do more work. 

You see, you can't simply keep adding weight to the bar at a certain point. Each of us has a natural limit. Otherwise, some people would be bench pressing bulldozers and skyscrapers.

So, what other means of achieving progressive overload in your training?

  • Adding reps
  • Adding sets
  • Increasing range of motion
  • Increase time under tension (tempo)
  • Increase training frequency
  • Decrease rest periods

Each of these techniques can help you create overload in your training and prevent plateaus.

Which progressive overload technique you choose will depend on a few factors, including equipment availability, exercise you're performing, and personal preference.

Certain exercises make more sense to increase reps before increasing weight since smaller muscle groups have a smaller bandwidth for total load than larger muscle groups.

For instance, increasing from 60-pound dumbbells to 65-pound dumbbells on a chest press isn't nearly as challenging as jumping from 30-pound dumbbells to 35-pound dumbbells for bicep curls.

The Benefits Of Progressive Overload Training

Shatter Plateaus

The most apparent benefit of progressive overload training is that you prevent plateaus and continue to get results from your workout. 

Remember, continually exposing your muscles to the same amount of work each workout leads to stagnation. The body (and mind) need to be pushed beyond their comfort zone to get the amazing results you want.

Builds Mental Toughness

Following the previous point, doing the same old thing every workout is easy. It's not that challenging mentally or physically. You show up, make a modest effort, and feel better for doing something physically active. 

But, that's not what's going to deliver the results you're seeking.

Progressive overload, by definition, means that you’re going to be pushing past your “safe space” and forcing your mind and body to achieve a higher level of athletic prowess and mental fortitude.

Weeks, months, and years spent progressively overloading your training build a finer physique and forge a tenacious mindset that is not easily disrupted. 

Progressive overload training makes you a badass physically and mentally.

Increase Muscle and Strength

Lifting more weight for more reps improves athleticism, and it also helps increase muscle and strength.

No matter which method of progressive overload technique you choose, by systematically applying them to your training, you will become more prominent, stronger, and faster!

Progressive Overload Techniques

As we mentioned above, there are a number of progressive overload techniques you can implement into your training, including:

  • Adding weight to the bar
  • Adding reps
  • Increasing frequency
  • Increasing range of motion while lifting the same weight
  • Increasing time under tension by manipulating lifting tempo (eccentrics, 1.5 reps, isometric holds, etc.)
  • Performing more reps in the same amount of time (i.e., increasing training density)
  • Lifting the same weight for the same amount of reps while decreasing rest between sets (which again increases training density)
  • Lifting the same weight with more incredible speed and acceleration
  • Reducing perceived exertion (i.e., lifting the same weight for the same number of sets and reps while feeling less exhausted after a set is finished)
  • Lifting the same amount of weight while decreasing body fat (which increases your relative strength-to-weight ratio)

Still a bit confused about how to progressively overload your workouts?

Here’s an example for adding reps:

Let’s say that you're currently squatting 225-pounds for three sets. The last workout you performed:

  • Set #1: 10 reps
  • Set #2: 9 reps
  • Set #3: 8 reps

The next time you perform squats, you will keep the same weight (225 pounds) and attempt to increase the number of reps on your second and/or third set.

So, let's stay the next leg day workout you performed:

  • Set #1: 10 reps
  • Set #2: 10 reps
  • Set #3: 9 reps

You’ve increased the number of reps completed!


That is progressive overload.

Keep sets #1 and #2 at 10 reps for the next squat workout and push set #3 for as many quality reps as possible.

If you perform 10 or more reps on your 3rd set, you will add 5 pounds to the bar the following workout.

Taking this methodological approach to your resistance training workouts ensures that you always have a plan of attack. There's no guesswork, excuses, or any other nonsense. Track your performance, and you'll always know what you need to do the next workout to continue improving and getting results.


Progressive overload lies at the very heart of improving fitness.

With proper diet, exercise, and the right supplements, progressive overload training will help you take your athleticism, physique, and overall health to truly stunning heights.

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