Guide to Progressive Overload for Building Muscle

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Have you ever hit a fitness slump? Do you feel like your body has stopped showing tangible results despite intense workout sessions? Don’t panic! You’ve probably reached a fitness plateau, and might need to do a progressive overload to build muscle.

Now, if you have been working out for a while, you might have faced such stagnancy at multiple points and battled your way out of it. However, if you are new to the world of fitness, this sudden lack of results can leave you quite confused and unmotivated. 

This is a completely normal phenomenon to experience along your fitness arc, and it can be overcome with some effort and customization of your fitness routine.

We are here to help you figure out the ins and outs of fitness plateaus and how to overcome it with the help of Progressive Overload Principle. 

Hitting a Plateau: All You Need to Know

What’s a Fitness Plateau?

Our fitness journey usually kicks off with utmost devotion and commitment, until one day we’re stuck in a rut. A fitness plateau occurs when your body has fully adjusted to the demands of your fitness routine.

Simply put, the exercises that were initially challenging have now become a piece of cake for you. Once your body has adapted to your workout regime and you’re not pushing its limits, you’re less likely to see favorable results. When you hit a plateau, in a nutshell, your gym progress flatlines.

So, is there a solution? 

How to Overcome a Plateau?

The chances of hitting a roadblock in your fitness journey are more when you religiously follow the same workout routine without any variation for months. 

There are two things you need to keep in mind when such a situation arises. 

First, plateaus are pretty common and you shouldn’t be overtly intimidated by them. Whether you are a certified gym bro, or someone new to the world of fitness, anybody can go through a fitness rut. 

Second, when your body stops responding to your regular workout regimen, you simply need to break the monotony and make changes in your routine accordingly. Essentially, you need to offer your body a new and improved challenge (1).

Progressive Overload Principle

A progressive overload is exactly what you need to break through your plateau. 

This gym jargon, quite popular among fitness enthusiasts, is perfect for anyone looking to increase their strength or build a fitter body. Simply lifting weights for further gains is certainly not how the principle of progressive overload works. 

There are several ways to incorporate progressive overload in your training session. In this article, we’ll discuss everything about how you can apply it in your day-to-day resistance training program. 

What is Progressive Overload? 

what is progressive overload

Progressive Overload is the process where you keep levelling up the stress you put your body under. Like the term itself suggests, you ‘overload’ your body and increase the demands on your musculoskeletal system so that it adapts itself to those changes and shows positive growth (2).

Your body maintains ‘homeostasis’, that is, a steady state of internal, physical, and chemical conditions within your body. In other words, your body likes being stable and is not ready to change unless you force it to.

You need to constantly challenge your body for optimum growth. When you create a different environment for your body, it will push itself to adapt to the new changes. Progressive overload also works on this principle.  

You can maximize your growth only when you keep testing your body’s ability to perform exercises that it’s not accustomed to. 

How Does Progressive Overload Work? 

Building muscle mass and strength becomes easier when you increase your workout stimulus gradually over time. The goal is to impose additional tension on your muscles to disrupt the process of homeostasis. This way your muscles will respond to your training stimulus, thus fixing your fitness plateau. 

Good thing is, progressive overload is not limited to strength training but can also be applied to other forms of exercise, including cardio. However, putting too much pressure on your muscles can lead to severe injuries (3).

The amount of load you’re putting on your body must be gradual so that it gets time to successfully adapt itself to the ‘extras’. 

Benefits of Progressive Overload

Before we jump into further details of how to put it into practice, let’s take a quick look at the benefits of progressive overload:

1. Helps Gain Strength

Our body is designed to develop and evolve. All it needs is a little push. When your body is exposed to heavier weights, the contraction capacity of your muscles increases. High reps ensure muscle endurance, cutting out excess fat from specific areas.

Progressive overload will help your body meet the excess demands or stress you’ve placed on it through neural adaptation, where the muscle fibers increase in size to cope up with the stress. This helps build muscles naturally and gain more strength. 

2. Promotes Hypertrophy 

Muscular hypertrophy is a physiological adaptation to the stimuli the body is exposed to. It is an increase in the cross-sectional diameters of muscle fibers that results from enhanced muscle tension.

Just like heavier loads encourage muscle strength, hypertrophy also depends on overall training volume (usually consisting of sets and reps at a given weight). Micro-tearing is a part and parcel of progressive overload, which promotes hypertrophy through resistance training.

A micro tear is basically an inflammatory response to a greater stimulus applied to a muscle. When you force your body to perform an unaccustomed exercise, the muscle fibers experience ‘micro tear’ or self-induced damage, resulting in soreness.

This typically leads to a phenomenon called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Once your body has repaired these micro tears, they do not occur when the same stimulus is applied again. Hence, you need to apply a greater stimulus than the previous time for increasing hypertrophy. 

3. Breaks Plateau

The apprehensions that come with a plateau can leave you feeling flushed, mentally and physically. Luckily, progressive overloading can help you bust your fitness plateau by making some modifications in your workout program and nutrition plan.

Allowing these changes in your routine will kill monotony and force your body to show clear progress through the “adapt and grow” method. 

4. Makes Training Fun

You wouldn’t want your workout sessions to be boring or tedious, would you? Grinding it out for hours at the gym but not seeing any progress whatsoever, can be incredibly  demotivating. That’s when progressive overload is needed the most— to make your training session a real barn burner!

Pushing your limits with new training tactics can be challenging but equally exciting. Increasing the difficulty level of your session also ensures better performance if you are keen on achieving the goals set out. 

5. Keeps Your Body in Check

Progressively overloading your body has several other benefits. It increases resistance power, the ability to endure, and boosts cardio; making it an intense workout sesh.

When you stop demanding more from your body, you simply stop seeing progress. Thus, the principle of progressive overload actually works to keep your body fit and creates room for improvement. 

How to Put Progressive Overload Training into Practice?

Progressive overload is not as complicated as you may imagine. Consistently stepping up the rigour of your workout session can be draining when you start off, but once you get a hold of it, it can be super fun. Tweaking your fitness routine, however, can be tricky.

If you want to maximize your gains, incorporating this technique in the right way becomes necessary. 

Now that we’ve discussed the basics of progressive overload, let’s go through the ways you can put it into practice: 

1. Increase the Resistance

progressive overload training plan

Weight lifting is critical in strength training. One of the easiest ways to introduce progressive overload in resistance training is to increase the load you lift.

When you’re training for muscle mass, the ideal rep range is 8-12. To put it into perspective, you should be able to master lifting 8-12 reps before moving on to a heavier weight. Let’s assume you’re curling 85 pounds. When you’ve managed to lift 85 pounds without any hassle, you can add 5 more pounds on each side of the bar to make it challenging.

However, with the increased amount of load, your reps can fall to some extent, since reps and loads have an inverse relation. 

2. Increase the Reps

Just like heavier loads and medium reps help to gain muscle strength, increased reps with lighter weights ensure muscle endurance.

When lifting weights is not helping anymore and you’ve reached homeostasis, you can shift your focus onto increasing the repetitions. That way, you are bringing variations in your routine as well as saving yourself from another plateau.

Preferably you should do 8-12 reps in any particular set. So if you’re usually doing 2 sets of 10 reps, you can go for 2 sets of 12 reps next time. However, if you aim at increasing muscle mass instead of muscle endurance, you can switch to heavier loads again. 

3. Increase the Volume

Another way of progressive overload is to increase the volume, that is, sets multiplied by reps multiplied by resistance. 

This can be done in three ways:

  • Increase the Number of Sets of an Exercise: Increasing the number of sets, weekly or monthly, is the best possible way to increase total training volume. Let me give you a clearer picture. Suppose you performed 3 sets of 10 reps (3×10) for the first week. For the second week, you can add another set (4×10) and for the third week, increase another set (5×10). But here’s the twist- for the fourth week, you can go for only 2 sets of 10 reps (2×10). This ‘deloading’ will allow your body to recover from the accumulated fatigue. Remember, constantly increasing sets can push your body on the verge of a breakdown and you wouldn’t want that. 
  • Increase the Number of Reps: This is slightly ineffective as the total volume is increasing at a much slower rate when compared to the previous method. For instance, if you are performing 3 sets of 8 reps (3×8) for the first week, you can go for 9 reps the second week (3×9). In the third week, you can add another rep (3×10). In the final week, you can go for 2 sets of 10 reps (2×10). Why? Well, deloading. 
  • Add More Exercises: Adding more exercises, if not done right, can take a huge toll on your physical health. But on the other hand, adding a whole new bunch of exercises to your existing cycle can increase your muscle mass tremendously. Therefore, it’s crucial to chalk out the best-suited exercises for your body.
    Two similar types of exercise might not help much in this case. The main motive behind adding new exercise(s) is to improve your lagging body parts. A great progressive overload example is, if you feel your glutes are underdeveloped or not showing much progress, you can add in some hip thrusts, and so on and so forth.

4. Increase the Frequency

Your training frequency is also a vital factor that affects growth. It precisely refers to the number of times you work out (measured per week).

For instance, if you go up to 2 lifting sessions per week instead of 1, you’re increasing your training frequency; thus loading your body with more stress. 

5. Increase the Intensity

How can you increase the intensity of your workout? Easy-peasy! You just need to increase your pace, especially when you are lifting. If that becomes an issue, you can try lifting lighter weights to increase the tempo.

The most underrated tip I’d like to give you, is to decrease the resting time in between sets. This process will help you finish your entire fitness routine with less time taken, keep your heart rate up, and really feel that burn in your muscles, perfect method for progressive overload training plan.

Guidelines for Progressive Overload Weight Training

Like every other workout routine, progressive overload principle also has a couple of rules that you must adhere to, for substantial progress:

1. The Right Technique

You cannot simply keep adding weights and expect promising results. The ‘execution’ is actually what brings about the change. Perfecting your form and technique must be the primary concern before rushing into other alterations.

The stimulus must be applied to the targeted muscle group for muscle overload, so that you can avoid straining unnecessary areas. Only when you can inflict tension on your active muscles or the muscles you want to work on, the growth will show. 

2. Take it Step by Step

Starting with lighter weights can be more of a drag. The importance of lighter weights is often overlooked, but it’s always advisable to master them first so that your body is prepared for tougher sessions.

When it comes to progressive overload, compound exercises always pay off as compared to isolation exercises. Compound movements, such as squats, work for multiple muscle groups at the same time. A squat will not only help your quadriceps, but also your glutes and calves.

Similarly, compound lifts are beneficial for putting more pressure on your muscle fibers. 

3. Small Increments

You can’t transform your physique overnight. If you are new on this fitness journey, you must know that your progress will eventually slacken at some point.

Hence, it’s always a smart move to increase the weights in smaller amounts. Initially, our muscles are tender and need some time to grow and adapt.

Directly transitioning to heavier weights can cause serious injuries. Incremental progress also tends to help avoid plateaus for a prolonged time. 

4. Time to Recover

Too much of anything is harmful. The reason why most people are unable to see noticeable progress is overtraining. Just like progressive overload can be the holy grail of strength training, it can also lead to unwanted injuries and muscle soreness if not practised carefully.

Permitting your body to recover after heavy training sessions is the ideal way to keep away from injuries or overtraining (4). On the recovery day, you can go for gentle workouts that won’t put much stress on your muscles.

You can choose to take a walk or perform uncomplicated exercises so that your body gets ample time to heal. 

5. Avoid Burnout

Progressive overload workout definitely focuses on pushing your limits but not until you knock yourself out. Excessive load on your body can lead to fatigue and exhaustion. Again, your body needs time to adjust to the changes, otherwise it can reach the point of burnout.

Once you give it enough time to rest, it gets charged up so you can maximize your performance the next time you train. 

How to Avoid Overtraining? 

A variety of training techniques and styles have evolved with time. Surely, it provides us with countless options to choose from, but too many options can be overwhelming. Our bodies are different, so are its requirements.

Strength training is no joke, for it needs strategic planning and unparalleled dedication. In this case, ‘periodizing’ your workout works best for understanding your ideal training adaptation. 

What is Periodization? 

Simply put, periodization is a means to avoid overtraining. Periodization understands your body’s ability to adapt and then guides you with changing training variables. 

The concept of periodization is based upon Hans Selye’s ‘general adaptation syndrome’ (GAS) theory from the 1950s. According to this theory, our body experiences 3 phases from any new stimulus: 

  • Alarm: The initial stage is called ‘alarm’. Suppose you bench press 3 sets × 8 reps × 140lbs for the first time. The new stimulus shocks your system, since your body is not familiar with such a huge volume. Excessive soreness could be an example of this stage when you begin a new program. 
  • Resistance: Next comes ‘resistance’, a stage where your body slowly starts responding to the stimulus and tries adapting to it. You can start increasing the sets to 4 and eventually 5, to handle more training volume. It is at this stage we learn to deal with the workload and start showing improvements. 
  • Exhaustion: The final stage is ‘exhaustion’ where your body lags due to overstimulation. Overtraining perfectly justifies how your body can stop making progress when it doesn’t get enough time to recover. If you keep increasing your bench press volume every week, your body will stop showing any results. 

Periodization applies progressive overload workout to these training variables. Once your body completely adapts to the stress, periodization focuses on other training variables to prevent overtraining or plateauing. 

Considering the example I had given, 3 sets × 8 reps × 140lbs, you can decrease it to 2 sets and increase the load instead. Let’s say- 2 sets × 8 reps × 145 lbs. This helps to reduce the total training volume just to make sure your body gets time to recover from fatigue before you dial up the stress once again with progressive overload workout. 

The goal of the periodization method is to hang on to the first two stages, mainly the resistance phase, to ensure optimal performance and growth. 

Periodization Cycles

The GAS principle says high-intensity training should be followed by low-intensity training. 

Applying periodization to your workouts can be beneficial in planning more intense and frequent training cycles, as well as cycles of low intensity for rest and recovery

There are 3 types of cycles included in periodization:

  • Macrocycles: Macrocycles have the longest duration, lasting from 6 months to 1 year. Planning a macrocycle can be advantageous when you are prepping for bigger events, such as a fitness competition. 
  • Mesocycles: Mesocycles last for about a few weeks or a month. These cycles are specifically planned for smaller goals like a marathon. Mesocycles are also perfect for increasing strength or hypertrophy for lifting. 
  • Microcycles: Microcycles last up to one or two weeks. Given the time constraint, you need to focus on particularly targeted muscle groups, and have detailed workouts for achieving your goals faster. 

Safety Tips When Implementing Progressive Overload

progressive overload weight training

Being able to lift heavier loads can be a huge ego booster, but it all boils down to nothing if there’s no sign of progress. 

It is always recommended to progressively overload your muscles only after mastering an exercise. You should be following the same workout patterns for about 2 weeks before taking it a notch higher. 

Consulting a certified personal trainer is important for avoiding confusion and doubts. They can combine progressive overload with periodization to build you a training program or cycle which would bring out the best in you. 

Lastly, you should prioritize giving your body the time to rest and recover- or else it could cause pulls, strains, and unexpected injuries. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is progressive overload?

Progressive Overload is the process of challenging your body by increasing the volume, weight, frequency or intensity to ensure optimum muscle growth during your muscle building process.

How to progressive overload?

Progressive Overload can be done in several ways, including increasing the weights, reducing time under tension, increasing volume and intensity, or simply increasing the frequency of workouts.

How does progressive overload work?

Progressive Overload works by continually increasing the impact on your musculoskeletal system to ensure optimum muscle gains, without hitting a plateau.

Does progressive overload build muscle?

Progressive Overload does not directly build muscle, instead Hypertrophy is the process of building muscles. Progressive Overload ensures that your body is continuously challenged in order to see continuous muscle growth.

How often should you progressive overload?

Most people can use the Progressive Overload principle everyday, by continuously challenging their body during working in different ways. However, in order to avoid injuries, it is advised to take enough rest and have recovery days where the intensity and frequency should be comparatively low.

Concluding Thoughts

how to progressive overload

In a nutshell, progressive overload is one of the best possible methods to gain smarter. It is not only for pro athletes and weightlifters, but perfect for beginners too. 

If you are a newbie in the world of fitness, you should concentrate on the ‘basics’ first. This includes perfecting your form, strictly following a set or rep range, and going for less demanding exercises. Once you’ve gained that level of proficiency, you can add in the weights. 

If you are an advanced lifter or have been working out for years now, you can get creative with the process and experiment with your training routine. You can go for complex exercises to max out your gains, keeping in mind your form and range of motion. 

If you feel your progress is somehow hindered, a progressive overload workout plan is the solution! Whether you are aiming to bulk up and increase muscle mass, break the plateau, enhance your performance, or simply tone your body, it can give you surprisingly stellar results naturally.

If you are up for a heart-pumping and challenging fitness journey, progressive overload is exactly what you need. Let us know about your thoughts on this principle in the comments below!

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