Your body is amazingly efficient and adaptable. Thus, without a regular change in your training stimuli, your strength and muscle gains may stall.
If you complete the same workouts each week, lifting the same weight for the same reps for the same number of sets, your body will no longer adapt, i.e it won’t grow bigger and/or stronger.
This is where the principle of progressive overload comes in.
By continuously increasing the stresses you apply to your muscles over time you force continued adaptations.
That is, you continue to grow bigger and stronger.
Progressive overload is perhaps the most important law in strength training and bodybuilding.
But what is it and how should you utilise it to maximise your gains?
What is progressive overload?
Progressive overload is an increase in your workload over time. Or, more succinctly, lifting more than you did the week before.
More could be an increase in the weight you lift, the number of reps/sets you perform, a change in lifting tempo or simply an increase in your range of motion.
Consistent increases in the stimuli you apply to your muscles forces continued adaptation, pushing them to continually grow bigger and stronger.
Why is progressive overload important?
When we lift weights we aim to cause muscle fibre hypertrophy.
In simple terms, this means an increase in the size of the component parts of your muscle fibres. For the nerds out there, the sarcomeres and myofibril.
Muscle hypertrophy occurs in response to a stimulus (your training) and when the rate of protein synthesis within your body exceeds the natural rate of breakdown.
Given enough time and training sessions, and adequate nutrition and recovery, this can lead to an increase in muscle strength and size.
In summary, you stress, stimulate and even damage your muscles through regular bouts of resistance training. You then consume the right nutrients in adequate quantities to support your body to repair and regrow the muscles in a bigger and stronger state.
From your body’s point of view, this means you are better placed to handle the training stresses the next time you encounter them (i.e. future training sessions).
However, your body is amazingly adaptable and will quickly learn to handle the stresses you place upon it.
If you bench press 60kg for 8-10 reps twice per week your body will adapt to this stimulus.
When this stimulus is still ‘new’ the frequency of motor neurones firing and the number of muscle fibres contracting increases. This in turn can lead to the muscle hypertrophy we desire.
Once your body becomes accustomed to this stress, however, there is no longer any need for a further increase in muscle growth as it is already at a sufficient level to allow you to perform the exercise.
From your body’s point of view, if it feels it is already strong enough to cope with your workouts, it won’t feel the need to grow additional muscle.
Your body is incredibly efficient and won’t expend the energy to build new muscle if there isn’t a strong demand for it.
If you were to add additional reps or increase the weight, however, you would be creating a new or ‘novel’ stimulus that your body is once again forced to adapt to. Hopefully prompting further strength, and/or muscle growth.
This, in basic terms, is the progressive overload principle.
It also nicely sums up the life of a lifter, a constant game of stress and adaptation requiring a continual increase in training stimulus to see continued gains.
Progressive overload examples
Probably the most obvious form of progressive overload, lifting more weight than you did the session before.
For example, if you can comfortably perform 8 squats at 60kg, add on another 5kg for your next squat session.
Provided you’re training at an appropriate intensity, the number of reps you can do will decrease as the weights increase.
This is expected and, as explained below, it’s a good idea to combine an increase in weight with a reduction in reps.
This is followed by a progression over time back up to a higher rep range at the increased weight.
Keeping the weight the same but adding reps is another effective form of progressive overload.
If you can bench press 60kg for 8 reps with good from, progress to 10 reps and so on.
Do keep in mind your target rep range, however, and once you are at the upper end of this range it’s better to increase the weight and then build up the reps again.
I.e. in most cases you are better served increasing weight once you reach around 12 reps than progressing up to 18-20+.
Adding in drop sets, myo reps or assisted sets (if you have a training partner) are also effective ways to increase reps.
Training volume is generally calculated by multiplying sets and reps together. Or, if looking at total weight shifted, sets X reps X weight.
Up to a certain limit, increasing your training volume is arguably the most effective way to progressively overload and becomes crucial as your training experience increases.
You will hit plateaus in your training and may not be able to lift more weight.
But, given sufficient rest between sets, you will be able to complete additional sets at the same or a slightly reduced weight and this will cause sufficient stimulus to build strength/muscle.
There is no definitive number, but most current research suggests that around 12-24 working sets per muscle per week (split across 2-3 sessions) is an effective range for the majority of trainees.
As a beginner you will see results at the lower end of this range, or even slightly below (8-10 sets).
As you become more trained, you may need to work at the mid to higher volume ranges.
Increasing training frequency
Effective training programmes will see you working each major muscle group 2-3 times per week or training cycle (your programmes don’t have to be based around 7 days).
But, particularly where you have a lagging muscle, increasing the number of times you train it each week/cycle is an effective way to stimulate improvement.
If, for example, you are having a hard time growing your side deltoids, hit them more often throughout the week.
Decreasing rest periods between sets
If you complete the same amount of work in a shorter time period you are increasing the stress placed on your body and thus can promote improvement.
This is more suited to building muscle endurance, however, as opposed to strength or size.
If muscle hypertrophy is your aim, allowing sufficient rest between sets to allow you to shift the most weight for 6-12 reps is advised.
Generally, this will be around 1-3 minutes but will vary by individual.
You want to allow enough rest for you to complete the working set at the weight, rep range, intensity required. That is, if you fail the set with 60 seconds rest but can complete it resting 2 minutes, you are best served with the longer rest period.
For absolute beginners or the ultra trained
We’ve focused above on the more straightforward forms of progressive overload and those best suited to beginner to intermediate lifters/trainees.
There are other forms to consider, however, depending on your training experience.
For absolute beginners, increasing range of motion with a bodyweight squat, for example, is a form of progressive overload.
Conversely, for the very experienced lifter, maintaining your squat 1 rep max at a lower body weight or lower body fat percentage is also a form of progressive overload.
Basic progressive overload workout plan
As a beginner or intermediate lifter it is relatively straightforward building progressive overload into your training.
The simplest method is to use the log of a previous session as your benchmark and add additional weight, reps or sets to 1 or more of your planned exercises and work up over time to your volume or weight targets.
As a beginner or intermediate trainee, it is a good idea to combine the principles of increasing weight and reps as follows (we are using the bench press as an example but the logic can be applied to any lift):
- You currently bench press 60kg and can comfortably complete 4 sets of 12 reps per set
- For your next bench press session you increase the weight to 65kg and perform 4 working sets. But you perform 6 reps per set as opposed to 12.
- You work at this new weight/rep range for 2 weeks (4 training sessions) and can now comfortably complete all 4 sets.
- For your next bench session you maintain the same weight but increase the reps to 8 per working set.
- Over the next 4 weeks you gradually increase the reps each session until you can comfortably complete 4 working sets of 12 reps at 65kg.
- For your next bench session you increase the weight to 70kg and again lower the number of reps to 6 per working set.
- Again, over the next 4-6 weeks, as your body adapts and becomes comfortable with the increased stimulus, you gradually increase the reps once more back up to our target of 12. You then increase the weight again and repeat the process.
The timings, rep ranges and weights used are just examples. If you can progress at a faster rate, great. Conversely don’t sweat it if the gains come more slowly.
Your fitness journey is a marathon not a sprint.
If you can only manage the new weight/reps for 1 or 2 sets this is also fine and just gives you another benchmark to build from. Just work up to completing 3 then all 4 sets at the new weight/reps before increasing again.
It’s also a good idea to focus on just 1 or 2 muscle groups or exercises per training cycle, rather than trying to increase every lift.
If you are focused on hypertrophy rather than strength, complete the majority of your sets at a moderate to high rep range (6-15).
Reps in reserve (RIR) and relative perceived effort (RPE) are both excellent tools to help gauge effort and progress in the gym.
Taking it pro - daily undulating periodisation
We know that we need to keep hitting the body with novel training stimuli to force continuous adaptations.
But we also know that we can hit a limit where the basic progressive overload techniques of linear increases in weight, reps and sets can stall.
This is where the concept of daily undulating periodisation (DUP) can help.
What is daily undulating periodisation?
Simply put, undulating periodisation (or daily undulating periodisation) means that you vary your workload between lifting sessions throughout the week.
Weights, reps and sets can both increase and decrease depending on the session, rather than just following a linear path of increase from one week to the next.
The idea behind constantly shifting training stimuli in this way is that your muscles can’t get used to the training and adapt. The regular changes promote a continuous training response and hopefully improved gains.
The vast majority of us will see years of improvement by following the basic progressive overload example set out above. E.g. increase reps over several weeks, then increase the weight but reduce the reps to the base of your target range and work up again. Rinse and repeat.
But for those who are very experienced and are very well trained, further gains via this method will become extremely hard fought.
At that point, more nuance in how you approach progressive overload is required to see continued improvement.
Examples of daily undulating periodisation
The most basic example of undulating periodisation is variation in rep ranges from one session to the next.
E.g on Monday you bench in the 3-5 rep range, pushing a heavy weight, say 80-90% of your one rep max. On Thursday you bench in the 8-12 rep range, pushing a more moderate weight, say 60-70% of your one rep max.
Another example is to vary your method of progressive overload from one session to the next, for a particular lift.
For example, you train squat twice per week on Mondays and Thursdays.
For Monday’s session, you aim to complete 4-6 reps at 80-85% of your one rep max and adopt a basic progressive overload approach. You maintain the same weight but look to increase reps.
So, week 1 of your programme sees you squatting 100kg for 4 reps for 3 sets and by week 6 you are completing 6 reps for 3 sets.
Following a deload week you then start your next training cycle back at 4 reps but this time with increased weight, say 105kg.
You again work your way back up to 6 reps over several weeks.
For your second session on Thursday, you play it a little differently.
You complete 3 sets of 10 reps, thus at a more moderate weight than you used on Monday, say 70 Kg or 60% of your one rep max.
Instead of looking to increase reps and weight as above, you instead build up the sets, working from 3 sets up to 5 over several weeks before upping the weight and returning to 3 sets.
The overall outcome for both examples is the same as if we were utilising a more basic progressive overload approach. That is, we are aiming to be lifting ‘more’ than we were at the start of our training cycle.
But the approach of undulating periodisation is a touch more nuanced, however, and aims to constantly ‘shock’ your body by exposing it to regularly changing training stimuli.
As above, most trainees won’t need to utilise this approach. But for experienced trainees whose gains are becoming far harder won, utilising undulating periodisation is a smart way to go.
Building daily undulating periodisation into your training
When building your training plans, make sure the rep/set/weight ranges you identify are aligned with your goals. E.g. if you are focused on strength you’d still work around the lower rep ranges, whereas if focused on hypertrophy stick around the mid to high rep ranges.
And be consistent across your 6-8 week training cycle regarding which session is focused on which rep range. E.g. set Mondays as your 4-6 range and Thursdays as your 10-12 range and stick with this for the whole cycle.
Our example above focuses on just 2 sessions per week. But undulating periodisation can be utilised regardless of how many times you are performing a specific lift or hitting a specific muscle per week.
If you are hitting the bench press 3 times per week the same principles apply. You might have your first session training in the 4-6 rep range with heavy weight, the 2nd session at a lighter weight but higher set volume, and the 3rd session working at very higher rep ranges utilising drop sets.
Even if you are only training the bench once per week it can still be smart to change up your rep range and weight from week to week. Still with an eye on an overall increase in max strength over a given training cycle.
Finally, you can utilise undulating periodisation for any of your lifts. But we recommend you focus on the big compound lifts and those that you start your sessions with (i.e. squat, bench, deads, rows, overhead presses).
For your isolation moves, you will likely see better hypertrophic improvement by working in a higher rep range for most sessions and going very near to failure.
Realistic expectations and health warnings
Unfortunately you can’t keep growing stronger and bigger indefinitely and will hit the realms of diminishing returns at some point.
More advanced lifters will find they have to be smarter with progressive overload and will not be able to rely on simply adding more weight to their lifts.
As your lifting experience grows, and the gains become harder fought, you will need to make use of periodisation and undulating training intensity.
And, by design, progressive overload is a stressful way to train and you should plan a rest or deload every 4-6 weeks.
During these weeks you will lower the number of sets you complete each session or add in another rest day.
This will allow your body to recover and enable you to attack your next training cycle with sufficient intensity.
Remember that form is paramount and you should only be increasing intensity where you can safely and effectively perform a given exercise at the new weight or rep/set range.
How you lift is more important than how much. Leave your ego at the gym door before every session.
Whatever your training focus, progressive overload is possibly the most important concept to understand and something you must build into your training programmes.
As outlined above there are a number of different ways you can utilise progressive overload and no one option is best.
The most effective method for you will depend on your training goals and training experience.
If your focus is strength and powerlifting then increasing the weight you lift is often the best way to go. If you are more focused on hypertrophy or muscle endurance, increasing overall volume may be more effective.
It’s a good idea to make use of each of the various methods outlined above at some point in your training.
But we would suggest experimenting with one or two at a time to avoid stressing your body too much and to leave yourself options for when you hit a plateau in your training.
Finally, as important as progressive overload is, there are other fundamentals you need to understand to maximise your training.
Take a look at our article Beginners guide to building muscle for an overview of the other important principles you need to understand and follow.