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Progressive Overload: How To Make Progress In The Gym

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What Is The Progressive Overload Principle?

Progressive overload means doing more over time. In strength training we generally think of progressive overload as a gradual increase in weight, but it could also mean more reps, faster velocities, and more. Progressive overload is the best way to increase strength, and helps to build muscle. 

How Does Progressive Overload Work?

The body responds to stress placed on it by adapting to cope better in future. This phenomenon is known as supercompensation. We can only apply so much stress to the body at any one time without causing more damage than it can adapt to. Progressive overload involves applying increasing levels of stress to the body at a rate the body can handle. The body becomes stronger as it adapts to increasingly greater loads, speeds, workout volumes etc. 

Why Is Progressive Overload Important?

Progressive Overload For Strength

Progressive overload is necessary if your main goal is to build strength. The principle is centred around lifting more over time, pushing strength boundaries in order to improve. Hypertrophy, endurance, and cardio training programmes also utilise progressive overload strategies to improve performance over time.

Progressive Overload For Hypertrophy

If athletic performance isn’t a goal for you, progressive overload may not be necessary. Progressive overload for strength involves increasing the weight lifted, whereas workout volume and training to failure are more important for hypertrophy. A progressive overload approach is more effective when training for strength over muscle growth.

Progressive Overload For Fat Loss

Progressive overload isn’t necessary for fat loss, but can be a great tool to ensure you’re training hard and burning calories. Building muscle can also be extremely useful weight loss. 

Progressive overload can be more challenging when you’re losing weight. Maintaining strength during weight loss would be considered progressive overload because your relative strength would be increasing. Bodyweight exercises often become easier as you lose weight compared to exercises which use external load, ie conventional strength training. 

Examples Of Progressive Overload In Weight Training

Below are the key methods you can use to make progress in the gym. When writing programmes for clients I may specifically plan to use specific methods, or I might just leave flexibility for appropriate methods to be used as necessary. The best workout plans create space for coach and client to use a range of strategies to get results.

  • Same load, same reps, increased ROM
  • Same load, same reps, better control/less effort
  • Same load, more reps
  • Same load, same sets & reps, less rest
  • Same load, same reps, more sets
  • Same load, same reps, technical failure Same load, greater velocity/effort
  • More load, same reps
  • More work in the same time
  • Same work in less time
  • Same workout done more frequently
  • Same workout, maintaining strength, losing body mass

Training To Technical Failure

Training to technical failure involves pushing the muscles to the point of absolute fatigue, where they physically can’t continue to perform the movement with proper form any more. There are a range of programming strategies available to achieve this, including:

Forced reps
Negatives
Dropsets
Static holds
Rest pauses
Partial reps
Supersets

How To Plan For Progressive Overload

Structured training plans are by far the best way to earn results. Training randomly simply doesn’t cut it. Note that despite needing structure, the best training plans are flexible. 

Each of my clients starts their journey with a thorough consultation, where we get clear on their goals and refine these into measurable outcomes. It’s essential to understand your underlying motivations for exercise if you want to get into the habit long term.

We must consider both the start and end points in order to create a roadmap for success. Once goals have been established, I assess clients’ current abilities with a range of relevant biometric, movement, flexibility, strength, and fitness tests. There’s no pressure to perform: the aim is simply to get an initial set of metrics. These assessments will be regularly re-tested to ensure the client is making good progress. 

Armed with all of this information, I design an appropriate training plan. It starts with a “skeleton” - that’s the overall framework - into which I plan individual workouts. Whereas the skeleton doesn’t really change, workouts are tweaked frequently based on the client’s performance and fluctuating needs. 

In short, begin by getting crystal clear on your goals, establish your current position, and create a structured training plan. From there, experience will guide any changes that need to be made. Check out this article I wrote on sets & reps for tips on creating the perfect training plan for your goal.

Where To Start With Progressive Overload

The key to making sustainable training progress is to master movements first. Always prioritise good technique over progressive overload. Exercises must be done with proper form otherwise progressive overload can’t work (at least not in the way you want it to). Incorrect lifting technique makes you more likely to injure yourself and need time out of training for rehab. For large compound movements such as squats and lunges, I’d recommend a minimum baseline of 3 sets of 20 full ROM bodyweight reps before adding load.

You must earn the right to add load to your lifts. Beginners to strength training should master each lift without weight, performing the simplest version of each movement possible on the regression/progression continuum. 

Work out where you stand on that scale, and first work to build the mobility/strength required to meet minimum movement standards. Some clients should start with partial range lifts. 

The Regression/Progression Continuum

Every exercise can be regressed/progressed to make it harder or easier. This allows us to select exercises that appropriately challenge the athlete. Advancing to a tougher version of an exercise you’ve been practising could be an example of progressive overload. See below for an example list of squat variations, listed in order from easiest to hardest. 

Box squat
Air squat
Goblet squat
Front squat
Back squat
Overhead squat

How To Progress A Strength Programme

Strength increases occur gradually, and weight increases when lifting should be relatively small. On any given lift you may need to focus on increasing the number of reps you do over a few sessions before trying to increase your weight. Once you do so, drop your reps back down and repeat this process. This is one reason coaches often prescribe reps in a range, eg 8-12. 

For most goals, I’d recommend focusing on increasing reps and load, whilst using other progressive overload methods to support. Coaches select progressive overload methods based on client goals, eg when training for speed, or reducing a 5k time. 

It’s not all about weights, though. Weight increases are a great way to know you're progressing, but that may not be your main objective. It’s okay to stay stable at one weight for a while whilst training other skills.

I want my clients to really “own” their weights before increasing them. Most people benefit from using a mixture of progressive overload methods, which helps them make all the gains they possibly can with less load. Lifting heavier carries more risk of injury, and so doing more work with less load is a good way to mitigate that. Clients training purely for strength should be lifting with great technique and excellent control before increasing their weights. 

Standardised technique is a cornerstone of strength training. You must do an exercise exactly the same way each time to know if you’re truly improving. It’s easy to put more weight on the bar and perform the movement with less range of motion, but you won’t be making any gains and eventually progress will stall. Olympic lifting, powerlifting, and other federations have created standardised techniques for various exercises. 

I’d strongly recommend learning proper lifting technique from an experienced coach. There are some basic skills you’ll need to achieve great movement quality in general, like organising your spine, bracing your core, and safe knee tracking. When learning technique, always control movements through their full range of motion. 

Training progress isn't linear, and so you should expect to see fluctuations in improvement after your first few months of consistent exercise. It's essential to schedule regular deload weeks into your programme (where you work at a lower % capacity than usual, for example, just aiming to maintain). I'd recommend a deload every 3-8 weeks.

Progressive Overload At Home

Progressive overload requires a little extra thought and planning when resources are limited. Without a gym full of loading options (barbells, dumbbells, machines etc), you’ll need to get creative to ensure progress.

When training at home, you may be using a combination of bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, and perhaps some other home gym equipment. As I mentioned earlier, all exercises can be regressed or progressed to make them easier/tougher. Bodyweight exercises such as push-ups - which are often quite challenging for beginners - can be scaled back using a kneeling version, or by starting with the hands on a raised platform and working down to the floor. Most often however, the challenge when training from home is creating enough intensity to elicit a training effect. Resistance bands offer a wide range of possibilities, and in any exercise it’s possible to create slack/tightness on the band for less/more resistance. Speak to your coach for specific recommendations on how to train at home at the right intensity to get results. 

How Long Does It Take To See Progress In The Gym?

Whilst an experienced coach will be able to estimate how much progress you’ll make in a given time period, there are far too many variables at play with human bodies to accurately predict training progress. 

Beginners make the fastest strength and size gains. This is mostly due to the initial improvement in coordination when people first learn to exercise. Another reason for the phenomenon of “beginner gains” is that lifters are far from their genetic potential and can recover quickly between training sessions. 

In your first few months of training expect to see improvements almost every session, with progress slowing exponentially over time. Beginners can do pretty much any random exercise and get stronger, as long as they’re consistent. When progress slows or you reach a plateau, more complex programming is required. With training experience your body requires greater and more specific stimulus for growth. To save time and effort, I’d recommend starting as you mean to go on with structured programming from a professional. 

Workouts for more advanced lifters must be well-organised. As results become harder to earn over time, it’s helpful to focus on a particular lift or skill each month whilst maintaining others. Lifts, training stress, and other variables are rotated as priorities shift throughout the training cycle. Cyclical programming like this works well because it’s easier to maintain strength than it is to build it.

Why Don't I See Progress In The Gym?

If you’re seeing extremely slow progress in the gym, not progressing, or are going backwards, it could be because of one or a combination of the following:

  • Undertraining: not providing your body with enough stimulus to make noticeable progress;
  • Overtraining: placing so much stress on your body such that not only can it not recover, damage is also being done;
  • Under-recovery: not giving your body the mental and physical rest and/or nourishment it needs to cope with training stress;
  • Underlying health issues: some hormonal and other disorders affect the body’s response to exercise. Certain medications can also impact this. 

Sometimes performance backtracks a little. This could be due to a range of factors, and can happen even if you’ve got nutrition and recovery dialled in. There may be times you’re eating trash, partying all night and skipping sleep, and still hitting personal bests in the gym. Don’t get fooled into thinking a rockstar lifestyle can last forever. Human bodies go through complex processes, and exercise science is multifactorial. Progress might fluctuate, but with moderate, consistent effort there’s no reason you shouldn’t see improvements every 6 months. 

When following programmes based on percentages of your one rep max (1RM), ensure you’re using an up to date figure! Athletes often make the mistake of using an out of date 1RM to calculate how much to lift in training. Regular testing is essential for progress tracking, and over time you’ll gather enough data in order to inform more accurate/realistic goals and make better predictions about future progress.

How To Make Progress In The Gym

Consistency is key if you want to see progress when working out. Consistently train, eat and sleep to the best of your ability, working to make better decisions over time. One piece of advice I’d offer is to train intentionally, and make a point of learning from your mistakes (rather than being discouraged when you don’t get what you want).

When writing your training plan, start with the guidelines and go from there. A mixture of exercise science and trial and error (ie a highly personalised approach) yields best results. 

Programmes should include plenty of varied stimuli in order to keep stressing the body in new ways. This can mean using different progressive overload techniques, and also relates to exercise selection and overall programme structure, amongst other things. 

It’s useful to be able to tune into your body’s signals during workouts, and recognise signs of overtraining in general. This helps ensure you’re giving yourself just the right dose of stress, keeping training sustainable long term. Self awareness (including body awareness) is a highly valuable life skill. It can be uncomfortable to cultivate, but is one of the main benefits my clients get from working with me. I use a range of holistic techniques including mindfulness, breathwork, and physical exercises to help clients learn to listen to their bodies.

Over time you’ll understand more about how you respond to exercise, which can inform and further individualise future programming. This is the approach I use as a coach: closely watching clients’ journey and tapping into the right areas with intelligent workout design. 

Coaching is the difference that makes the difference for many. With a good PT you’ll learn more sooner, feel motivated, and get the chance to work with a professional who’s dedicated to your success. Check out Online PT for more information. 

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