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September 7, 2023

How To Achieve Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is a phrase used really commonly by trainers and trainees, and yet it’s still one of the most searched topics online. This makes sense because when I googled progressive overload, there were many different answers available. 

My name is Annie Miller, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and I help you learn as you train and enjoy your lifts. 

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In today’s blog, we are going to answer: 

What is progressive overload and how can you actually apply/attain it for yourself or your clients?

The overarching theme that things need to get harder within a program or a workout is the basis of the principle that is Progressive Overload.

We are going to talk about why that needs to happen a little bit later. Most of the Google answers I found rely on load as the driver of progressive overload. Just increase your weights each week and that’s progressive overload. 

If that was the case, then what happens when you’re doing lateral raises three months into your training using the same five pounds? Have you plateaued in your training? Speaking about progressive overload as restricted to load is not helpful and honestly, it’s quite misleading. 

Thus, I would like to provide a clearer and perhaps deeper definition or a picture of what progressive overload is and why load is only one possible factor within it. 

For coaches wondering how you program in progressive overload, you should have that answer by the end of this blog. For trainees wondering if you are doing enough in the gym, you will have that answer as well.

In my previous blog on How To Write A Workout Program, I discussed the different factors and aspects of training. Things that we can keep the same or manipulate within a program to get the desired result. 

The same thing goes with progressive overload. 

My Definition of Progressive Overload:

I would define progressive overload as the planning, execution, and adaptation from increasing demand on muscle fibers through factors like training frequency, load time under tension and overall intensity during resistance training. 

Take it or leave it. That would be my definition. 

The main point I want to drive home here is that load is just one factor that we can manipulate, yet it is the main answer when you search this on Google. Perhaps yes, this is the easiest to see and feel as a new trainee, but we don’t want to send the message that the ability to increase load rapidly or the need to increase load is the only way that we measure your results from training.

That simply leads to disappointment when there are many other gains being made through performing more volume at the same weight or better control at a slower tempo resulting in more overall time under tension. 

These factors of overall work volume and higher time under tension are absolutely increasing that musculoskeletal demand that you want from your strength or hypertrophy training.

In the simplest terms, Progressive Overload is the act and the result of requiring a muscle to do what it hasn’t done before or what it hasn’t done in the recent past. 

(i.e. reaching a new range of motion with load, performing more reps, lifting more weight, moving the same weight significantly faster or slower, so on and so forth)

Why We Need Progressive Overload In Our Strength Or Hypertrophy Training: 

I lump strength and hypertrophy training together here very carefully because they are not the same. For clarity’s sake: 

Strength is the measure of force output with no regard for time. How much weight can you move, how much load can you move? 

Hypertrophy is the adaptation of muscle fiber growth in an increase in cross-sectional area. 

What I mean by that is when you grow muscle, you’re not creating new muscle fibers, rather growing the ones that you already have. They get bigger individually. That’s why the more muscle fibers that we can recruit with our training, the more chance that we give ourselves of increasing muscle size. #gains

With that, I lumped strength and hypertrophy together because from a muscular standpoint, muscle mass is the potential for strength output or development, but muscle mass does not automatically mean strength as strength is a skill and also depends on a lot of neural adaptations. 

I digress… 

Whether Training For Increase In Muscle Size Or Muscle Performance, Progressive Overload Is A Principle That You Are Going To Need, Period.

Programming Design: 

As a trainer writing these programs or a trainee searching for a program… In terms of program design, you do not need to change everything. You do not need to change things on a weekly basis or increase the load. 

Try providing a new stimulus via keeping everything the same and playing with tempo, slow it down, speed it up. You can change movement patterns and therefore how the muscle is being stressed from different angles. 

Think back squat versus front squat or bench press versus incline press. You can add one rep per set or tack on a back-off set to the last set where you’re performing an AMRAP or near failure or just a higher rep lower load set to add volume and further fatigue that muscle group.

You have options. 

That is my point and I think it’s so important to acknowledge that yes, increasing load is one way to implement progressive overload, but it is not the only way. It may also be the easiest way and it also won’t work forever. 

Newbie gains are real and they do have a lifespan. There are so many ways to provide new levels of demand to our muscles, which I think is the beautiful thing about programming. 

Have fun and embrace other training factors outside of load. 

Join The Discussion: 

Go ahead and tell me in the comments, what is your favorite way to implement progressive overload, either as a trainee or a trainer? Do you like to add volume? AMRAP sets changing up actual movement patterns? Let me know in the comments below. 

Mine is an end of set volume, like adding AMRAP sets or a drop set. I generally like heavier and lower volume, but it’s hard to beat that pump that comes from a burnout set. For me, that also provides the best of both worlds. I get the strength work, followed by a classic high volume fatigue. Let me know yours in the comment section below.

I hope you enjoyed these educated gains and I will see you in the next blog. 

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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