New lifters often spin their wheels because they don’t understand one of the most important principles of building muscle: progressive overload.
I hear from so many beginners who say “I’ve been working out for months but I’m not seeing any changes.” Leaving aside other factors–for example, sometimes not eating enough protein–a big reason for this when we start digging into their routine is a lack of progressive overload.
What is progressive overload and why does it matter?
Progressive overload is the principle of increasing the work you do in training over time, and it’s absolutely essential in building muscle.
Our bodies are designed to use available energy as efficiently as possible, because food is our energy source, and for all of human history (until the very recent past) food was scarce. Energy was precious, so we evolved to use as much as necessary to survive, and no more.
So, our bodies do not prioritize building muscle (or bone) beyond what we need to function. Any excess energy is used for other tasks. A lot of the energy we consume actually powers our brains, but beyond that we need it to either stay warm or cool, get and digest food, keep our hearts pumping, gestate babies, and all the other things that enable us to survive.
Pretty much anything left over gets stored as fat, creating an energy reserve to protect against starvation in lean times, which is a completely sensible biological maneuver.
We obviously need to move our own weight around to survive, so our body will build and maintain enough muscle to support that burden. Plus a little extra, perhaps. But left to its own devices, it won’t add more than that.
Progressive overload forces adaptation
Now, let’s say we start wearing a 20-pound weight vest. The task of moving around just got more difficult and we need additional muscle and bone to handle the added weight.
The beauty of our bodies is that they constantly adapt to the environment and stressors to which we expose them. Our body will recognize the additional work being demanded of it and respond by adding the necessary tissue (assuming we are providing the proper resources it needs—nutrition and recovery time—to make those adaptations).
In short, we’ll build muscle and bone, and we’ll get stronger.
However, if we continue wearing that 20-pound vest for a long enough time, our body will eventually adapt to the additional weight. At that point it will stop using precious energy to construct more tissue. That wouldn’t be efficient; we no longer need the extra.
At that point, our progress will stall.
Adaptation can also take us backwards. Astronauts who spend a long time in space lose bone because they’re not having to work against gravity. And if you’ve ever had a long illness or injury, you’re probably familiar with muscle atrophy. When you stop moving around, your body figures you don’t need all that muscle, so you end up losing some. (By the way, this also happens when you diet but don’t strength train – but that’s a topic for another day.) “Use it or lose it” absolutely applies to our bodies.
When you look at it this way, it becomes very clear that the only way to get our bodies to add more muscle is to require them to do more work over time. We must create more and more difficult demands to force that process of adaptation to continue.
That’s progressive overload, and it’s absolutely critical to making gains from strength training.
You may be thinking, “Yes, but I’m not trying to get stronger or larger. I just want to stay where I am. I just want to maintain the muscle and bone I have now.”
The problem here is that our bodies process protein and build muscle less and less well as we age. A young active person who doesn’t use progressive overload will generally neither gain nor lose muscle. But an older person is already in a net loss situation when they wake up in the morning. Even as young as 35, you’re already losing muscle if you’re doing nothing to prevent it.
So, if you’ve already adapted to a particular workload and stay there, you’re not actually going to maintain what you have, because all things are not equal. Your older body is biased toward losing the muscle you’ve already got, and muscles only grow in response to harder work.
Many roads to progressive overload
Earlier, I said, “the only way to get our bodies to add more muscle is to require them to do more work over time.”
Notice I said “require them to do more work.” I didn’t say “require them to lift more
This is important. Without a doubt, there will come a point when we will be unable to add more weight to a particular exercise, because we’re just not strong enough.
Luckily, adding more weight is not the only way to go about achieving progressive overload.
This brings us to the concept of volume. I apologize in advance, but give me your attention for a bit of math.
The volume equation
In strength training, we express volume as a simple equation: weight x sets x reps.
If you do one set of 10 bicep curls with a 20-pound dumbbell, 20 pounds x 1 set × 10 reps = 200 pounds.
OR…. you could do one set of 20 bicep curls with a 10-pound dumbbell (10 x 1 x 20), two sets of two curls with a 50-pound dumbbell (50 x 2 x 2), or even one set of 200 curls with a one-pound dumbbell (1 x 1 x 200) to achieve the same volume: 200 pounds.
In all of these cases, the amount of work is equivalent. So, if you can’t add weight, add volume.
Add a rep. The next time, add two reps.
If you can’t do two additional reps, stick with one additional rep, but add another set. Get the idea?
You can keep going like this, adding work through additional repetitions or sets, until you eventually get strong enough to be able to use more weight. That additional weight could come in the form of fractional plates because you can’t make a jump to the next largest dumbbell size, but that’s fine. It’s still progressive overload because even though it’s a small increase in work, it’s still an increase.
Progress is not linear
You can’t—and shouldn’t—try to progressively overload every single exercise every single training session. That’s not realistic, especially once you get beyond the beginner phase of strength training. Bodies take time to adapt.
In fact, when you increase the weight on an exercise, you’ll often need to reduce the number of reps and sets, perhaps even to the point where the total volume drops temporarily.
That’s fine; progressive overload typically isn’t linear (you can briefly go backwards in order to go forwards). The idea is to increase the workload over time.
Let’s talk about other ways to achieve progressive overload.
The amount of time that you make your muscles work is called “time under tension.” You will work harder doing a slow, three-second Romanian deadlift (RDL) than doing a normal-speed RDL at the same weight, because your muscles have to support the weight for a longer period of time.
That’s why slow—also called “tempo”—reps are a terrific way to progressively overload without changing anything else. Tempo exercises also make it easier to work on technique and form for many exercises.
You can slow down during the contraction phase of an exercise (concentric) or the stretch phase (eccentric), or both. In the video above, I’m doing a 4:2:0 tempo. That means I’m taking four counts for the concentric, pausing for two counts, and then not slowing down the eccentric.
Note that pause. Adding pauses is another way to slow down to increase the workload. Again, pauses increase the time under tension. You’ll be amazed how hard just stopping for a second or two at the bottom of a squat or holding and squeezing a tricep extension can be.
Take shorter rests.
Yet another way to achieve progressive overload is to decrease the rest time between sets. Like the other methods, this makes the muscle work harder because it gets less time to recover.
Use this one carefully, however. The physiology of muscle growth and recovery is too complex for this post—here’s one good overview if you’d like to delve. However, one important takeaway is that the heavier and more complex the lift, the longer the rest needs to be.
With heavy compound lifts like squats, bench press or deadlifts, give your body enough time to rest between sets. Typically that would be 2-5 minutes unless the weight is very light. Insufficient rest in this situation can actually limit strength gains and also make injury more likely.
But recovery is faster with isolation/single joint exercises. That includes most of what we do on machines or with lighter dumbbells (think bicep curls, leg press, hamstring curls). So, if you’ve been resting for 90 seconds and want to use this method to achieve progressive overload, drop that rest time to 60 seconds.
The bottom line is that, if you care about building muscle, as well as increasing bone density, you need to track what you do and build over time. In short, you need a consistent program.
Without one, you’re doing the equivalent of running in place, with weights. You will never reach your destination, assuming your destination is increased strength, health, and/or a change in your physique.
Hopefully you can see why progressive overload is absolutely key to building muscle and staying healthy and strong.
If you’re serious about making gains from strength training, find a way to get started that includes progressive overload. This should be baked in if you use a trainer, coach, or strength program from an online source or book. But if you’re putting together your own program, make sure it is consistent and requires more work over time.
Got questions about progressive overload or anything else pertaining to beginning a strength training program? Drop them in the comments!