Progressive overload is a term used in workout programming that refers to an increase in difficulty over time. This increase in difficulty is often referred to as “intensity” but other references may be used, often based on the terminology of the coach.
 
Bodybuilding.com notes the definition as “This principle involves continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system to continually make gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance.” The term “progressive overload” is commonly thought to refer to resistance-based exercises. Many people associate the wording with strength-based workout methods such as powerlifting and Olympic lifting. However, this is a narrow view.
 
Overload occurs in all form of training. An increase in difficulty is necessary for progress in any form of physical output in order to see progress. From jump training to running to powerlifting to circuit training, the idea of overload is present.
 
The interpretation of overload, or more correctly the application of overload, varies by the training modality used. For example, an increase in training intensity for powerlifting refers to an increase in load, whether a specific number or a percentage of one-rep max (1RM). For running, increase in top speed may be used as the form of overload. Other forms of physical activity use other methods. With that in mind, let us look at progressive overload as a nuanced topic, then apply these nuances to different training modalities
 

The nuances of progressive overload

 
It is my opinion that it is too simple to refer to progressive overload as simply an increase in weight, top speed, jump height, etc. That is, it is too simple and narrow to think of only one metric as responsible for overload. If this is the case, a person would always need to chase that one metric in order to achieve overload, and therefore progress.
 
Think of it like this, if for strength a person always had to use more weight for a single rep to achieve overload and therefore progress, what happens when a person cannot use more load? Every person who ever lifted weights has reached multiple points when he or she could not increase 1RM weight and had to use a different approach to break through a “plateau.” No one can infinitely increase weight to see progress.
 
In a generalized sense, progressive overload can be thought of as increase in difficulty over time that leads to progress. When thinking that way, more sets, more weight, adjusted rep pace, speed, distance, height, and many other metrics, such as total volume, can be used to achieve overload, and therefore progress over time.
 
Brett Contreras notes different methods for progressive overload as:
 
  • Lifting the same load for increased distance (range of motion)
  • Lifting the same load and volume with better form, more control, and less effort (efficiency)
  • Lifting the same load for more reps (volume)
  • Lifting heavier loads (intensity of load)
  • Lifting the same load and volume with less rest time in between sets (density)
  • Lifting a load with more speed and acceleration (intensity of effort)
  • Doing more work in the same amount of time (density)
  • Doing the same work in less amount of time (density)
  • Doing more sets with the same load and reps (volume)
  • Lifting the same load and volume more often throughout the week (frequency)
  • Doing the same work while losing body mass (increased relative volume)
  • Lifting the same load and volume and then extending the set past technical failure with forced reps, negatives, drop sets, static holds, rest pause, partial reps, or post-exhaustion (intensity of effort)
 
That is a great list, and better than I would have worded it. Though focused on resistance training, the ideas can be adjusted for different training styles.
 

The different types of progressive overload

Let us look at the items in Brett’s list and briefly explain each. I will likely explain each of these different than Brett would.
 
Lifting the same load for increased distance (range of motion)—this is simple; move through a greater range of motion. In general, the greater the range of motion, the higher the level of difficulty. For example, if during your max effort squat, you squat to parallel, squatting three inches deeper will increase the difficulty. This will effectively overload the difficulty. In fact, you will likely need to lower weight, because you will not be accustomed to the difference in form and will not be as strong in the greater range.
 
Lifting the same load and volume with better form, more control, and less effort (efficiency)—this is not progressive overload, but instead simply improvement in form, which is progress. That has value. That said, if the new form makes the same load and volume harder, then you have effectively engaged in progressive overload.
 
Lifting the same load for more reps (volume)straightforward. Complete more reps to make the movement harder and to see progress. If you previously performed X reps with X weight, then more reps with the same weight is progressively overloading the movement.
 
Lifting heavier loads (intensity of load)—what people typically think of with progressive overload. More weight used equals progress.
 
Lifting the same load and volume with less rest time in between sets (density)—I would argue this one may become more about conditioning, but if you can handle the same load and volume over time, with less effort, you have effectively engaged in progressive overload and then can add more weight, less rest or modify another variable to keep the process going.
 
Lifting a load with more speed and acceleration (intensity of effort)if you can accelerate a bar, dumbbell, or other object, even just your own body, with increased speed over time you have progressively overloaded the movement. That is, if you move faster, more explosive, or another wording, than before, then you are progressively overloading the movement, since speed and acceleration are the intensity modifiers.
 
Doing more work in the same amount of time (density)—similar to density above.
 
Doing the same work in less amount of time (density)—similar to density above.
 
Doing more sets with the same load and reps (volume)—similar to volume above
 
Lifting the same load and volume more often throughout the week (frequency)—this is akin to volume, but instead of more volume in a single session, you add more volume through the week. That makes this more akin to density, since you complete more work in the same time period, but this time interval is a week instead of a session.
 
Doing the same work while losing body mass (increased relative volume)—to be honest, this one is a little lost on me. It would be interesting to see Brett explain this, and maybe he has, but I did not see it yet. When losing weight, someone is in a calorie restricted state, which often means energy is down. This should make the same level of activity more difficult. I would call this one an increase in relative intensity, meaning even if hitting the same loads, percentage, etc., as pre-weight loss, each would feel more difficult relative to the weight loss.
 
Lifting the same load and volume and then extending the set past technical failure with forced reps, negatives, drop sets, static holds, rest pause, partial reps, or post-exhaustion (intensity of effort)—this is beautiful. Very old-school bodybuilding, which is what I did when I began working out. The approach may go like this: complete a set to failure, rest a short time, such as 15 seconds, do more reps, repeat. You can modify this further by dropping weight, completing partial reps, or only completing negatives or forced reps once you can no longer complete reps with 15 seconds of rest.
 

Appling progressive overload to different workout styles

Now let us apply these ideas to different training methods. What I am going to do is adapt Brett’s list for different training styles. You can fault me for not being original. When creating the following content, I picked common training styles that would use progressive overload. This is for familiarity. For each training style, I only selected three options though more could have been selected for each. This is for simplicity of understanding. I also varied each as reasonably able. For example, bodybuilding and powerlifting could use the same line items, but I chose three different types of progressive overload for each. This is to provide examples that are more varied.
 
As you read through the types of progressive overload listed for each workout style, remember overload is about increasing stimuli, not a specific method for doing so. The goal of increasing stimuli is to force adaptation to achieve a desired goal, such as increased strength, muscle, speed, or endurance. An increase in load, speed, or another singular metric is not the only way to increase stimuli, or to progressively overload, and ultimately to create adaptation, which is what you need to remember when considering these points.
 
Progressive overload for running
Progressive overload for running is often simplistic. The simplicity lies in the fact that running has one primary movement, which limits the number of variables for progressive overload. Types of progressive overload for running include:
 
  • Running further (volume)
  • Running faster (intensity of speed)
  • Running more often (frequency)
 
The three items should be easy to understand. Running further equals more volume. If you run more than before, you progressively overload volume. If you run one mile one session, 1.25 miles the next session, and keep adding mileage session over session, you are progressively overloading the distance ran by running further. This is akin to completing more reps of a resistance-based exercise.
 
Running faster is to running what using more weight is to lifting. Both are intensities for the respective movement. Increasing pace is acutely more difficult than increasing mileage. By that I mean that if you try to increase your speed by 10 percent, that is immediately felt as an increase in difficulty. When increasing distance, you do not feel the increased difficulty until to reach the additional distance. Think of completing more reps of a lift. If you use the same weight you have before, but instead of competing 10, you complete 15, you do not feel the difficulty on rep one, but as you move toward rep 10 and then beyond. In that same vein, if you increase weight, you immediately feel the increased difficulty, same as if you increase speed. This is progressive overload.
 
Running more often is an interesting idea for progressive overload since most people do not think of this as progressive overload. But if you complete the same work more often (frequency) then you are putting in more time under tension (stimuli) and there for increase the difficulty of work in the given interval, such as a week, and have overloaded how much the body handles.
 
Progressive overload for gymnastics
For gymnastics, I could consider a number of different variables for progressive overload, including focusing on strength, skill, muscle endurance, power, and cardio. To help keep things varied to continue to look at different expressions of progressive overload, these are the line items I will cover:
 
  • Performing movements for increased distance (range of motion)
  • Moving with more speed and acceleration (intensity of effort)
  • Repeating movements more with the same load and reps (volume)
 
When speaking of gymnastics, I include all lesser forms of body weight exercises used for resistance training, including any form of calisthenics, from plyometric work to ring work to bodyweight squats. The reason for this is, in my opinion, gymnastics is the top of the pyramid for bodyweight-based exercises. For clarity, I exclude traditional cardio methods such as running, cycling, and swimming, since these are typically more cardio focused than resistance.
 
Performing movements with increased range of motion is relatively straightforward. Performing higher flips during floor work, increased height for uneven bar dismounts, and being able to perform deeper splits are all examples. Progressive overload for these movements is not a matter of loading but instead increasing range of motion.
 
Momentum is a key factor in gymnastics. If you look at pummel horse, tumbling passes, and ring transitions, momentum is the driver for chaining together movements. Moving with more speed and acceleration will create the start of this momentum and keep it going. A person will not be able to perform a flip slow, to transition from support on rings to a handstand slow, or rotate on the pummel slow. While the potential increase in speed and acceleration will always be finite, and a balance of momentum and control ever present, an increase in speed and acceleration will always be a form of progressive overload for gymnastics.
 
Endurance is a factor in any form of exercises. Even completing three reps of a back squat requires some endurance, while running 26.2 miles requires even more. For gymnasts, chaining together movements that require heavy power output and do not lend to even breathing patterns makes building endurance a difficult process. It takes years to build the kind of endurance that these gymnastics men and women can seemingly repeat tumble after tumble. Pushing endurance is a form of progressive overload that will always be a necessary component for gymnastics movements.
 
Progressive overload for powerlifting
For powerlifting, I get back to basics, so to speak. As with any other training style, I could cover a number of possible forms of progressive overload, but am going a bit more atypical with:
 
  • Lifting the same load for more reps (volume)
  • Lifting heavier loads (intensity of load)
  • Doing the same work in less amount of time (density)
 
Lifting the same load for more reps should be something you are familiar with if you have any lifting experience behind you. This is one of the most common ways people can increase difficulty, or progressively overload—do more work by completing more reps. If you can do one more rep, then you have progressed and you have overloaded how much your body does. More so when you apply this to multiple exercises and sets in the same session. This is a tried-and-true method for doing more work with resistance training to see progress over time.
 
Lifting heavier loads is likely what you and most people think of when thinking about progressive overload. While an overarching theme of this writing it the narrowness of looking at progressive overload as a single metric, including but not limited to lifting heavier load, using more wight over time is overload and leads to progress, while at the same time being an indicator of progress. If you lift more weight than before, you overload the muscle. If you increase one rep max over time, it indicates you are becoming stronger.
 
Doing the same work in less amount of time (density) increases difficulty by not giving your body sufficient time to recover, relative to your normal recovery time. For example, if your normally rest 60 seconds between sets, and move to 45 seconds, then you have progressively overloaded by increasing difficulty.
 
Progressive overload for bodybuilding
With bodybuilding the goal is to build muscle and to lose body fat for that mass to be seen. Progressive overload still plays a role here, though not in a performance sense. However, the logic is still the same.
 
When looking at progressive overload for bodybuilding, a few line items we can consider are:
 
  • Lifting the same load and volume more often throughout the week (frequency)
  • Doing the same work while losing body mass (increased relative volume)
  • Lifting the same load and volume and then extending the set past technical failure with forced reps, negatives, drop sets, static holds, rest pause, partial reps, or post-exhaustion (intensity of effort)
Lifting the same load and volume more often throughout the week (frequency) equals more time under tension. This time under tension has been shown to cause adaptations in muscle mass, notably an increase in that mass. The more often you work the muscle per week, ideally the more mass you can build, within limits of ability to workout. Progressive overload in this sense still comes back to volume, since through frequency you complete more volume in a given time period than you were before. As you can increase more days per week for a given body part or movement, such as from one day to two days to three days per week, you are progressively overloading the body, since you are completing more work than before.
 
Doing the same work while losing body mass (increased relative volume) is very relative to bodybuilding, physique, bikini, and similar aesthetics-based competitions, since a person leans out moving toward competitions. As a person loses weight, he or she is generally in a calorie restricted state, which also equals an energy restricted state, since calories are energy. In this sense, a person has to work hard to overcome the energy limitations imposed by losing weight. This effectively makes the same weight, reps, etc. harder to complete and this increase in difficulty is a form of progressive overload, albeit a very situational based one.
 
Lifting the same load and volume and then extending the set past technical failure with forced reps, negatives, drop sets, static holds, rest pause, partial reps, or post-exhaustion (intensity of effort) is old school, as I said above. Though old school, it is still very relevant today, and can help push someone past what he or she would be able to do without the pauses, force reps, etc. The example I gave above was a set to failure, rest a short time, such as 15 seconds, do more reps, repeat. You can modify this further by dropping weight, completing partial reps, or only completing negatives or forced reps once you can no longer complete reps with 15 seconds of rest. There are a number of other approaches as well. For example, you might do cluster sets. A cluster set does not initially approach failure, but instead reaches failure after pauses. However, it still allows a person to push beyond normal limits. Imagine for the squat your five-rep max is 315. Instead of completing five reps, you complete two, rest 15 seconds, and then repeat. Imagine you are able to do this four times before total failure; you just completed eight reps with your five-rep max, with is progressive overload. You could also pair with this with another overload method.
 
Final thoughts
Any training style utilizes progressive overload, whether you realize it or not. Any time a person makes progress in their Orange Theory class, their training sessions at Westside Barbell, the cycling workouts you best friend completes, the weightlifting you saw at the 2016 Olympics, and the workouts you complete at your local gym, or anywhere else, progressive overload was present in some way—even if you did not program for it. You may not even be conscious of it at work and that is an oversight.
Progressive overload is an essential part of the workout process and understanding this concept and how to plan for it will help you reach your goals. If you use the above training styles, look closer at the line items I used as examples for progressive overload and see how you apply them, even if you do not realize, or how you can apply them.
 
If the training style you use is not listed above, look back at the main list I utilized and reference the definitions for each to see what you can apply and to consider how you can apply. Have questions? Reach out to me at nathan@demetzonlinepersonaltraining.com. Want to make real progress? Sign up for coaching here https://www.demetzonlinepersonaltraining.com/.
 
 
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Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, Utah State University, and the ISSA College of Exercise Science. Nathan has 20 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA