What is progressive overload and can it boost your results?
Do you want to get stronger? See more progress from your strength training routine? Achieve the definition you’re pushing for on the workout mat?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you need progressive overload. The overload principle can take you beyond your training limits, to the next level of performance, and to your best ever results.
It’s a big part of my workout philosophy at FIT, with progressive strength training programs such as my Upper Body Blast designed to get tougher week by week as you get stronger. You can try the program (as well as my other challenges and workouts) when you start your free trial.
But what is progressive overload, and how do you make it a part of your routine? I’m going to talk you through the definition of overload and give you four practical ways you can start using it today.
What is progressive overload?
Put simply, the progressive overload principle means increasing the intensity of your training (making it harder) so that your body adapts and grows stronger.
When it comes to strength training, progressive overload is essential if you want to gain muscle strength, size or power.
To keep making progress, you’ve got to keep pushing yourself.
No, that doesn’t mean pushing yourself to exhaustion and ‘overtraining’. It’s important to point out that these two concepts are very different. While progressive overload is challenging your body within a workout, overtraining occurs when you don’t allow your body enough time for recovery, by not taking rest days or continuing a workout long after your body is fatigued. While the former can move your goals forward, the latter is more likely to set you back.
How does the progressive overload principle work?
To understand why you need to use progressive overload to keep making progress, let’s take a look at how your body gets stronger and gains lean muscle. Because bicep curls don’t just magically make your muscles flex!
When you do a strength training workout, your muscles receive microscopic damage. Your body repairs the damaged tissue while you rest and sleep by fusing muscle fibres together. Repeat this cycle and your muscle fibre multiplies, becoming stronger and thicker – this is known as hypertrophy. Or as I like to call it, results!
Your body adapts to exercise quickly, so the great results coming from a training program in the beginning may slow down after a few weeks or months.
None of us – me included – want to get stuck on a fitness plateau, where we’re no longer gaining muscle, can’t seem to lose fat, or are unable to lift heavier weights. That’s why progressive overload is essential to keep moving forward.
OK, now you understand what progressive overload is, let’s take a look at how you can put it into practice.
5 ways to safely use progressive overload in your training
What does progressive overload look like in action? There are several ways you can increase the load and intensity of your strength workouts. Whether you’re working out with me on FIT at home or in the gym, overloading your training will be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be hard!
1. Increase your weights
This is what most people mean when they talk about progressive overload. If you have a lot of gear at home or access to a gym, all you need to do is increase the amount of weight you lift while exercising.
The Logbook feature on Emily Skye FIT makes keeping track of your weights and reps easy.
The key to knowing when you need to increase your weights is in your last few reps. If you’re doing a set of 10 bicep curls and the last two reps are a struggle, you’re still challenging (and damaging, in the good way) your muscles. If you’re flying through the last couple of reps and it’s easy, you should increase your weights.
The general rule I give my FIT members is to increase your weight by 1-2kg (2-5lbs) when those final reps are getting easy.
2. Add extra reps
Don’t have access to more weights? Add more reps. While your arms might find 10 bicep curls easy or your glutes still feel good after 10 squats, pushing through 12 or 15 reps while maintaining good form will give you a bigger challenge.
If you’re training to build strength and add muscle definition, the number of reps you should perform isn’t endless. The exact range of reps for hypertrophy is up for debate, but you shouldn’t do less than 4 and shouldn’t go over 40. If you can do 40 bodyweight squats with no problem, then adding more reps won’t help, and you’ll need to use some of the other techniques outlined below to achieve progressive overload.
3. Go back to back with supersets
I love a superset – you’ll find them in most of my workouts on FIT when it’s time to turn up the heat. A superset is two exercises back to back with minimal (e.g. 10 seconds) or no rest, and it can really dial up the intensity of your training.
Instead of doing one exercise, then resting for say 20 or 30 seconds before moving on to the next, in a superset you jump straight into the second exercise.
With my 6-week Upper Body Blast program, I’ll challenge your muscles even further with triple sets – three exercises back to back!
Exercises in supersets can target the same muscle groups (e.g. squats into lunges) to bring the burn, or opposing muscle groups (e.g. bicep curls into tricep dips) so one can rest while the other works.
4. Introduce variations
When you first start strength training, standard exercises such as push-ups and lunges will challenge your body. But as you get stronger and your body adapts, you need to keep surprising your muscles. That’s how exercise variations can help you to achieve overload.
The Body Sculpt Challenge is a progressive program that will challenge you with variations on classic moves, like single-leg deadlifts.
For instance, with both chest presses and push-ups you can introduce incline or decline variations. An incline chest press is performed while your torso leans backwards on a bench – this shifts the focus of the exercise to target the upper section of your chest and activates your shoulders more to increase overall upper-body strength. In a decline push-up, your hands remain on the floor while your feet are elevated on a bench – this increases the resistance and intensity required to perform the move.
Introducing variations is especially important for progressive overload when you’re doing bodyweight (no-equipment) workouts, as you obviously can’t push the intensity by increasing the weight of your dumbbells or kettlebell.
5. Train more often
Remember how we talked about overtraining earlier? The progressive overload principle doesn’t mean “too much training is never enough!” So you shouldn’t be pushing your body to the point of exhaustion or injury.
But if you’re working out less than 5 days a week, you might have room to push yourself for more while still getting the time your body needs for rest and recovery. Increasing your training days from (for example) 3 to 4 will lift the intensity of your routine and your body will respond.
Feeling ready to push your workouts and results further with progressive overload? I’ll help you do it on FIT with progressive training challenges, supersets, Body Burner bonus workouts, advice on training with weights and more.
Personal trainer • Founder
Emily Skye is a strength training expert and the face of FIT, the digital fitness app that helps women worldwide build strength and confidence, stay active through pregnancy and rebuild post-pregnancy. Emily holds a Certificate IV in Fitness and Master Trainer qualification from the Australian Institute of Fitness. She is also co-founder of James Cosmetics and a mother of two.
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