Progressive Overload


Stronger, Better, Faster: How to get results from your workouts


What makes us stronger, better and faster? If you answered exercise, you’d be right. But what makes us even stronger, even better and even faster? The answer to this is progressive overload.  The concept is extremely simple; to progress in any facet of exercise, whether it is cardiovascular activity or resistance work, you have to challenge yourself more.

Progression will lead to adaptation. Adapting to harder work will result in body composition changes, such as more muscle mass and less fat. The body will cope better with increased stress, enabling you to continually lift more and run further.

So let’s look at how you can employ progressive overload in your workouts.


Cardiovascular progression

To progress cardiovascular work you can look to increase the distance travelled, or the speed at which a particular distance is travelled. When running you can increase the intensity by going uphill or even downhill, creating a different stimulus than just running on the flat. There will be different reasons to incorporate these changes into your workout. 


Bodyweight resistance progression

Pic 1. Picture of knees down push ups. Notice the short lever due to the knees ‘shortening’ the length of the body. Less weight is put through the arms and through the lower limbs.

Resistance training with bodyweight can be slightly trickier, but when you break it down it’s still pretty straight forward. You can achieve progression in bodyweight exercises by creating mechanical disadvantages to make your body work harder. The longer the lever  you work with, the harder a movement becomes. To demonstrate this, let’s look at the push up. Someone who has adapted to on the knees push ups can look to progress by going into full push ups.



Pic 2. Picture of full pushup. The longer lever makes this a more difficult version. More weight will be put through the arms and the lower limbs. More muscle groups will be working, along with the core having to work harder to maintain a neutral spine.

The body is effectively made ‘longer’. The distance from the pivot (the feet) is increased, thus making the force required to perform the push up increase.

With bodyweight work, reps and sets can also be changed to increase the stimulus. Going from 2 sets of 5 press ups to 4 sets of 5 press ups, you've doubled the workload.




Free Weights progression

When it comes to free weights progression, as with bodyweight exercises, you can change the reps and sets to increase the difficulty. Varying the weight is the most obvious form of progression.

If you squat 100kg for 10 reps then eventually increase your squat to 105kg for 10 reps, progression has been made. However, in my experience I’ve found that people really struggle to successfully apply this approach.  

Generally speaking, ego lifting is the problem; pushing to lift the heaviest weights in the gym before conditioned to do so. This increases the chance of injury and reduces the quality of repetitions.

Another problem is with those that lift same weight, day in and day out expecting further results; however, their bodies are already well conditioned to lift those weights. Lo and behold, they don't get stronger, and their appearance doesn't change.


Ego lifting

Pic 3. An ego lifter on an attempted squat set. You can bet that these reps were of poor quality and to almost zero depth (trust me I watched the video). This pattern gets learned if you do it enough times.

We’ve all seen it; someone putting on too much weight on the bar and attempting the lift. Fair enough, they got the squat done and have increased from 50kg for 10 reps to 60kg for 10 reps in only a week. Maybe the first couple reps were half decent, the rest were poor at best. Depth wasn’t achieved, upper back rounding, the heels lifted slightly, the knees caved in and the bar path zig zagged.

Though the desired weight for a lift might have been achieved the real problem is that this movement pattern will be learned and if you carry on doing these poor quality reps, the neuromuscular system will think of this as a normal rep for the squat. So not only does lifting more weight than you have conditioned yourself for put you at risk of injury, it also has the ability to normalise a poor movement pattern.


Groundhog Day

'Groundhog day' lifters are those that lift the same weights and never attempt to lift heavier. They may have gotten results initially from these weights, but haven't looked to increase them. This is great if your goal is maintenance. However, if you want to further your results, you need apply progressive overload.


Don’t expect every rep to be 100% perfect, especially when working hard. Allow some discrepancies between reps, especially towards the end of a set. If every rep is poor quality, a drop in weight would be advisable
— Ben Goodman


Progressive Overload - Back to basics

When starting a new programme, you need to start too light. Those reps, whatever number you are performing, should be easy. When you’ve finished a set, you should have the energy to complete another 1 or 2 reps comfortably. This will help you to learn the technique and ‘grease the groove’. Get that movement pattern ingrained in your brain.

Think of it as learning a language; you don’t just start speaking in fluent sentences, you learn to in stages. Learning in stages is particularly important when carrying out compound movements, like the squat. When your squat pattern looks right (video feedback or a personal trainer can confirm this for you if you are unsure) then you can look to increase those weights. But, put down the 20kg plates! This is where you need to check your ego.

The key here is gradual increase, so get the 1.25kg plates and put one of those on each side. That’s an extra 2.5kg you’ve just increased your squat by. If that’s not progression, then you don’t know what progression is! If you are able to go from squatting 50kg for 10 reps and grease the groove for the first 4 weeks (neuromuscular adaptation can take roughly 4 weeks, depending on the individual), then within the following 6 weeks increase your squat by 2.5 per week, then in theory you’ll finish your training cycle at a squat of 75kg for 10 reps. Those 10 reps will be of a good standard thanks to having patience with the slow increase in weights. That’s a huge increase, of going from a total volume of 500kg to 750kg. Eventually you are going to hit the wall in your 10 rep maximum. This is where you can change the reps and/or sets that you complete, or you could go with a different squat variation and apply the same principles.


Change the stimulus, change the body

It really is quite simple, whether it’s cardiovascular or resistance based exercise, if you don’t follow some form of progressive overload, you won’t get results (i.e. stronger, better, faster). Your body will only adapt to do something if it can’t quite do it (yet).  If you don’t progress in a sensible manner then your movements will be of poor quality, increasing the chances of injury and missed reps.

About the author:  Ben is an athlete & qualified Personal Trainer with over 12 years experience training people around the world. Get more info on Ben's work here & follow him on Instagram here.