The Progressive Overload Principle: Avoiding Workout Plateaus

Progressive Overload Definition

Progressive overload is the idea that in order to grow in size, strength, and endurance you have to continually adjust and increase the demand you’re putting on your body. Muscles need to work harder and longer than what’s become the “normal” to make changes. If the demand you put on your muscles is just maintained or decreases, your muscles can atrophy and lose strength.

The progressive overload principle can be applied to nearly any fitness program, from weightlifting to endurance running to HIIT programs. When you use progressive overload, you can increase your strength, size, endurance, metabolism, and cardiorespiratory system depending on the exercises and programs you choose to use.

If you stay stable with the same workout, targeting the same part of the muscle, with the same reps, and the same weight, you’re not going to see any changes. In all reality, your muscles become “bored.” There’s no need for them to strain, break, and grow if you’re doing the same exercises you’ve been comfortable doing. That’s why progressive overload training is so important.

Methods of Increasing Overload

Increase Resistance/Weight

Increasing the amount of weight you’re using will help to challenge your muscles, breaking down and reforming muscle fibers stronger and bigger than before. When increasing your weight, your reps will decrease at first. Eventually, you’ll be able to hit the same number of reps and will need to increase your weight again.

Best for: Hypertrophy (Increasing Size)

Increase Reps

Increasing your reps is an alternative option to increasing weight. You should increase your reps until you can’t perform any more or until you hit 12 per set without stress. If you’re hitting 12 reps easily, up your weights. At that point you stop increasing size and strength and start working on minor increases to endurance.

Best for: Muscle Endurance

Increasing Sets

Increasing sets increases the total volume of overload you’re putting on your muscles. If you can normally hit 2 sets of 12 with relatively low effort, adding another set may put you into the amount over overload you need to increase your size and strength. If you feel that you’ve hit your max reps on a certain movement, you can add a similar exercise to target a different part of the muscle. Increasing the number of movements will also increase your overall training overload.

Decrease Rest Time

Decreasing your rest time is another way to increase your total overload. This is a way to effectively increase your cardio and heart rate, adding another level of difficulty to your sets. When you have less time to rest, your muscles have to work harder to perform.

Best for: Increasing Cardio Health

Increase Training Frequency

Increasing training frequency is a form of increasing overload that should be used sparingly. Training a specific muscle more frequently may help increase difficulty to boost size and strength. However, use caution as too much frequency in training can cause the muscle to atrophy without enough recovery time.

One at a Time

While all of these methods work to increase your size and strength by increasing your progressive overload, it’s best to use just one at a time. That way you can add on as needed. Maybe you increase reps first, then weight, then frequency.

The techniques you choose to use are dependent on what your goals are. A bodybuilder who is trying to build size is going to increase weight more than an endurance athlete who wants to build muscle endurance by increasing reps. If your goal is strength and size, try increasing weights first. If your goal is endurance or cardio health, try increasing reps and sets first. But remember all of these techniques can be used together. Once one stops working, you might want to try a different option.

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