Other than diet, the most important factor in building muscle and strength is this: Progressive Overload.
The key to progressive overload is to FIRST lay out the goals that you’re working towards.
If your goal is to build muscle and get stronger, then it’s progressive overload that will help you reach these goals.
So how do you know if you are on the right track? How do you know if you’re getting stronger and building muscle?
Well, you should be tracking your workout! This is pretty obvious. If you have a smart phone, you can record the frequency of your workouts, the intensity of your sessions, the sheer weight you are lifting, and the exercises you are doing — all on your phone.
There’s no excuse to not track your progression during every gym session. This is what separates the serious trainers from your average ones.
As long as you see the measures in all of those categories improving week after week, you are doing well. The gains will come!
This is also why it’s a bad idea to change your workout routine often. Most people make the mistake of changing their exercises every couple of weeks (or more).
How can you progress in the gym when you’re constantly changing up the exercises? It’s one of the major issues with people who struggle to build muscle.
Progressive overload is the crucial component that may be missing from your workout knowledge.
Keep reading to learn what exactly progressive overload means, what it does to your body, and how to use progressive overload to your advantage.
What is Progressive Overload?
Why define it myself when I can give you the wikipedia definition? Here’s what they say about progressive overload:
“Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.”
In other words, it’s your body’s instinct to adapt to its environment. Your muscles become accustomed to the work you do after a certain amount of time.
Many people who struggle with their training reach a point where they stop making progress. This is called “plateauing.”
There are several reasons why you may hit a plateau with the most common one being that you’re pushing yourself too fast.
Whatever the reason, you are struggling to improve your strength or stamina. This isn’t good when your goal is to build strength and muscle.
Do you feel stuck in a rut? You go to the gym, go through the motions, do the same exercises with the same weight you remember using last week.
Unless you’ve been hitting the gym for years and lifting incredible weights, you should never hit a plateau. There will always be room for progress as long as you know what you are doing.
Progressive overload is the practice of forcing your muscles to adjust and grow. It’s keeping yourself uncomfortable, which is one of the main points of the Warrior Philosophy.
By working your muscles just a tiny bit harder each week, your muscles will make consistent adjustments (that is, build strength) in order to adapt to the stress you’re putting it under.
Note how I said “tiny bit” above. That’s the key here. If you try to progress too quickly, you hit plateaus since your form will be crap. Then you get injured and you’re out for awhile. Your body looks the same after two years. Congrats.
Even if you add just one extra rep total in your workout, you made a very small, but important, step in your progress. If you were to add just one total rep in your entire workout, that’s 12 reps added in 12 workout sessions.
That’s a lot! That’s more progress than most people, trust me. In fact, I commonly recommend people to add reps instead of weight.
More weight often leads to worse form and injuries. It’s much better to lift with perfect form and light weights.
Only add weight to the bar when your form is perfect for all reps in all sets.
This is how you correctly overload your muscles. You will progress much more consistently this way and rarely, if ever, reach a plateau.
Why Progressive Overload Builds Muscle
Simply put, a muscle will not grow if it is not forced to do so. The same could be said about strength.
For strength to increase and performance to improve, the body must be forced to adapt and push itself outside of its comfort zone.
If you’re not challenging your muscles each and every work out, you’re going to find it difficult to make progress. You’ll either look the same for years and years, or never reach your goal of bench pressing 200 pounds.
This “rule” applies beyond the gym as well. If you’re not pushing yourself, challenging yourself be greater, what kind of life are you living? Probably one that is boring and stagnant one.
The same could be said for your muscles. They need to be challenged in order to grow. Until you push yourself and demand more out of them, they are not going to increase size or strength on their own.
You can increase your strength numbers while on a caloric deficit. It’s not that hard when you’re consistently pushing yourself in the gym. I’ve hit record bench pressing numbers while leaning down.
But for building muscle? You need to be eating enough food to gain weight. Only then can you build muscle through progressive overload.
What Are Some Examples of Progressive Overload?
I’m glad you asked. And, I’m going to write up another article with more examples than this one because it’s that important to understand.
Let’s try to understand progressive overload by comparing timelines. The first timeline will be a workout routine without using progressive overload. The other timeline with progressive overload.
1) Workout Routine #1- No Progressive Overload
Week 1: Squat 180 pounds 3×5
– Your leg muscles are sore and tense, learning the new motion with the weight.
Week 2: Squat 180 pounds 3×5
– A little less sore, but still learning how to master the exercise.
Week 10: Squat 180 pounds 3×5
– Feeling pretty confident with the weight and reps, not so sore.
Week 30: Squat 180 pounds 3×5
– Starting to feel you are going through the motions. Not feeling stronger.
This is might seem like an obvious overblown example, but you would be shocked at how many people lift the same weight week after week.
Of course, your legs will grow to adjust to the new weight if you’re a beginner. But, you’ll soon adjust and the gains will stall. This isn’t a plateau because this person could easily bump the weight up 5 more pounds, or add an extra rep, and that would count as progress.
If you attend a popular gym that caters to the commoners, you’ll notice people doing the same weight on exercises for months and months.
2) Now let’s see the progressive overload version:
Week 1: Shoulder Press 45 3×5
– The Shoulder Press is one of the hardest exercises. Starting with lifting just the olympic bar is good for most people. You’re learning this difficult move.
Week 2: Shoulder Press 45 3×6
– A little less sore, but still learning how to master the exercise. Added an additional rep to each set. Solid progress.
Week 3: Shoulder Press 45 3×7
– Still lifting the same weight, but again added one rep to each set. This brings you up to 21 total reps for this tough exercise. That’s 7 more than when you started.
Week 6: Shoulder Press 70 3×5
– Solid progress. You’ve increased the weight 25 pounds since you started six weeks ago. This is very doable and you’re going to start seeing the results from this.
Week 30: Shoulder Press 125 3×5
– You’ve been consistent with this lift, hitting it week in and week out. As a result, your strength has skyrockets and your shoulders are noticeably bigger. Good job, and keep it up.
The goal with progressive overload is to always be pushing yourself. Each week should involve some sort of change to make the exercise harder than it was, whether it’s adding reps or weight to the bar.
But, I don’t want you to obsess over rep numbers. There will be certain days where your body isn’t up for the challenge. That’s okay! You can keep the weight the same and push yourself until you’re fatigued.
An example of this would be dropping the weight by 20% and doing sets of 10-12 reps. It will change things up and give your muscles a different challenge.
Say you are benching 155 3×10 one week. You haven’t bench pressed in a long time. Your body will think “Woah! That was challenging. I better be prepare for next time.” When you hit the bench press again in 5 days, your body will be more prepared. Try 160 for 10 reps and see how it goes.
Progressive overload is key. Your goal should be setting new personal records (with good form) on a consistent basic. If you want to always lift 10-12 reps, then you should be adding weight each week to these sets as well.
Without demanding more from your body, it will not work any harder than it has to. It is human nature going back to survival instincts. A body does not want to expend more energy than necessary to survive.
If you do the same weight and reps and motions all the time, your body will adjust to it. If you introduce more weight, reps, or motions on a consistent basis, the magic of biology will tell your muscles to adapt and be ready. It is a reactive situation.
How to Use Progressive Overload to Your Advantage
When lifting correctly, you won’t experience any plateaus for quite some time. The common gym goer will never hit a point where he or she plateaus. They may think they do, but that’s because they never increase weight or reps.
Everyone has good days and bad days. A lot of factors go in to your strength at the moment, whether it be the time, your health, what you ate and when, your mind set, stress levels, etc.
Do not expect to consistently add 5 pounds to your lifts per week.
This is especially true with dumbbells and certain machines. It’s just not plausible to keep adding weight every workout to these exercises. This is why adding reps or cutting time off of your rest periods is key.
Dumbbells are amazing for this. Instead of resting 90 seconds in-between sets, rest for 80. If you can do all 3 sets with 80 second rest periods, then next time you rest for 70 seconds.
Keep cutting doing on your rest times until you can do all 3 sets with a rest period of 60 seconds. Once you accomplish this goal, you’re ready to move up in weight going back to 90 second rest periods.
I love dumbbells for progressive overload. However, you will struggle with them if you don’t approach them with the example I gave above. You’ll end up being one of those fools trying to dumbbell curl 45 pounds when you could be getting a better workout with the 25 pound dumbbells.
Why Some People Do Not Achieve Their Goals
People find it hard to reach their goals because they either push themselves too fast with too much weight, or they simply don’t really know their goal.
It’s easy to have a goal that says, “I want to lose weight,” or “I want to build a lot of muscle and get shredded, dood!”
But, those goals aren’t really specific. If you’re new to the gym, this is okay. You might not know what your goal is at the moment.
The more you workout, the more detailed your goal should become: “I want to add 50 pounds to my bench press,” or “I want to lose 2 pounds per week because I know that’s realistic unlike the morons trying to lose 5 pounds per week.”
As you get more detailed with your goals, you’ll find it easier to achieve them. Always be re-evaluating your goals week after week, but stick with the main theme of your goal.
The main themes are: burning fat, building strength, building muscle, increasing endurance.
From these four goals, you can get extremely detailed. Don’t fall into a routine that has you doing the same thing week in and week out. You’ll never make progress.
Without progressive overload, you are limiting yourself to achieving your goal.
To be successful with progressive overload, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. But, as long as you progress slowly and consistently, you’ll find that it’s much easier than you previously thought.
And, this clear mentality will be much easier on your mental well-being.
Final Thoughts On Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is a must if you take your fitness seriously. You will never reach your muscle building goals if you neglect the importance of it.
If you are new to the gym, then you will have no problem making progress. However, you’ll plateau sooner than later which will stall your progress.
My goal with this article was to help you avoid hitting plateaus. Through the correct way of progressive overload, you won’t be hitting plateaus any time soon.
As a newbie, your goal should be getting your form correct for the exercises that you’re going to do. Failure to perfect your form will lead to injury and plateaus.
Once you gain experience, you will need to increase your intensity. Otherwise, your muscles will settle in to the workouts they have grown accustomed to.
By surprising them with more reps, a change in tempo and more effort, your muscles will respond.
Focusing on progressive overload is the key to improving your fitness each time you enter a gym.