Progressive overload is the fitness community’s secret weapon. When deployed correctly it’s a fail safe way to get fitter, stronger and faster. Are you lifting dumbbells every day, but not gaining any muscle? Try progressive overload. Regularly pounding those pavements, but never getting any faster? Guess what? Try progressive overload! But, what actually is it?
Progressive overload (PO) hinges around a common sense principle—the idea that we need to regularly and incrementally keep challenging ourselves in order to get stronger and fitter and avoid plateauing.
“PO is a simple but significant principle,” agrees personal trainer Lamorna Hollingsworth. “In order to grow muscle and increase your endurance, you must place greater demands on your muscles. Without it, your body will never get stronger beyond a certain point.”
Nevertheless, getting PO right can be a delicate balancing act. “We have to look at applying enough stress to our body so that we can create change, but an amount that we can still positively recover from,” says Laura Hoggins—personal trainer, author of Lift Yourself, and Director at The Foundry. “I like to try and apply the minimal effective dose—just enough training to make progress, but not too much that you can't recover and it becomes unsustainable.”
If you’re training from home, it might be useful to buy a pair of the best adjustable dumbbells, as you can increase your weight in small amounts as you build strength. But increasing your weights isn’t the only way to follow the progressive overload principle—you can apply the same rules whether you’re working out on one of the best rowing machines or simply going for a run.
How to approach progressive overload
For PO to work, you need to steadily increase or change various factors. This could mean raising resistance (for example, the heaviness of your weights or the setting on the rowing machine), doing more sets, working faster, reducing rest time, or increasing your number of repetitions.
While many people discover the concept of PO and instantly start simply reaching for heavier weights, getting it right is more of a delicate balancing act.
“Volume, weight, and frequency are all intertwined,” says Hollingsworth. “You can’t just add weight to the bar forever whilst doing the same amount of repetitions. If you train heavier you may not be able to train as often, and if you train too often you may not be recovered enough to train heavy.”
“Believe it or not, the last thing I consider is increasing the weight,” says Hoggins. “I would first look to move the same weight with more technical mastery.”
After you’ve conquered this, a coach might look at tweaking other areas. “Could I increase the reps, give you another set, or reduce the rest between sets?” Hoggins says. “I’d then ask you to pause at certain parts of the rep. All of this will progressively overload the movement, without even touching the weight. Earn the right to put extra weight on the bar, once you have explored 'moving better’!”
Furthermore, it’s really important to find a PO goal that works for you—there’s no one size fits all. “Every good PT in the land will tell you it depends on the individual and their goals,” says Hoggins. “There is no point, for example, trying to focus on developing Mo Farah's maximal strength on his deadlift—unless he enjoys it! But it’s not directly specific to his training goals.”
Jacob Holme, a trainer at boutique boxing gym KOBOX, suggests that it can be helpful to keep notes. “Don’t overcomplicate it, and record your sessions to help you keep track,” he advises. “Seeing steady, recorded improvements will help keep you motivated. It doesn’t have to be massive jumps!”
Still need a little more guidance? Have a look at our guide to beginner’s strength training, which features tips from PT Alice Liveing.
The practical stuff: How to do it
It all sounds sensible enough in theory. But how does starting PO actually look?
Hoggins suggests asking yourself how intense your usual reps of any movement feel out of ten. If you’re at a ‘comfy’ six or seven then it’s a sign you might be ready to apply PO to that movement. Taking goblet squats as an example, she suggests using the following training pattern.
Week 1: Three sets of eight 10kg goblet squats with a 3010 tempo (3 seconds to lower, 1 second to raise back up).
“This will increase the time you spend under tension, so you can reduce your reps slightly.”
Week 2: Four sets of 10 10kg goblet squats with a 1 second pause at the bottom. “You’re increasing the volume, the complexity, and the time under tension here.”
Week 3: Three sets of 10-12 12kg goblet squats.
“Reduce the volume, as you’re ready to increase the weight. And then you can start again!”
While PO is most often applied to strength training, there’s nothing to stop you from using it for all other types of fitness training.
“If you continuously ran 5k every weekend at the same pace, you would likely become more efficient at it, and in time your body would use less energy to complete the same run,” says Hoggins. “Therefore, what you could you do to progressively overload this challenge?” If you’ve been plodding the same jogging route it might be time to introduce sprints, hill climbs, longer runs or an overall boost in tempo.
Hollingsworth suggests inching up your running mileage by starting off running 20 minutes for two days a week, and ramping this up until you’re running 30 minutes twice a week in week three. By week five, you should try running 40 minutes for three days each week.
Common mistakes to avoid
PO may be great, but it can be a recipe for injury if you neglect proper form and technique.
“Working with a PT can help you meet your goals safely,” says Hollingsworth. “And don’t underestimate the power of rest. You need to scale back the intensity if you feel very sore or injured.”
It’s also important not to dive straight in without a little preparation. While PO is a simple concept in many ways, it requires some patience and planning.
Hoggins agrees that getting PO right is an “art”. “Having a professional to make these decisions for you is an excellent idea,” she says. “There is skill in finding and applying the minimal effective dose for you to make progress. Mainly, I want people to enjoy the process!”
Indeed, above all else, it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that PO should flex your spirits (and not just your biceps). "If you’re not a professional athlete,” says Holme, “Your best bet is always to keep it fun, and keep it consistent.”
Amy Dawson is a freelance journalist and copywriter specializing in all things health, fitness and lifestyle. She has worked as an editor and writer for a wide range of national publications, including Metro, The Sun on Sunday, The Daily Mail, Yahoo and The BBC. Since moving to sunny Norfolk in the UK, she’s also become the regional editor for Muddy Stilettos. A parkrun regular and a lover of spin classes, long walks and sea swimming, you’ll also find her running around after her very bouncy toddler (looking somewhat tired). You can find her on Instagram @amy.rose.dawson, where she documents her life by the sea.
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