If you’re like most, you visit the gym several times per week and find yourself doing the same workout and using the same weights with minimal effort. This can go on for months or years. Eventually, you look in the mirror, hoping to see bigger muscles and the result is…no results.
By using progressive overload, you can force your body to build muscle, get shredded, or become stronger.
WHAT IS PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD?
Progressive overload is the continuous demand placed on the musculo-skeletal and cardiovascular systems with the aim of increasing muscle mass, strength, or cardiovascular endurance. In other words, progressive overload is when you keep challenging your body by altering intensity, weight used, or other acute variables.
When muscle mass or getting big is your goal, it’s not enough to mindlessly lift weights. You need to introduce new challenges to your muscles, and you do that by changing up your workouts. It isn’t just about throwing around heavier weights – although this is one way to do it. There are several methods of progressive overload that you can use to generate more hypertrophy or growth.
BEST WAYS TO TRIGGER PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
If you don’t want your gains to stop – if you want to push your muscles past the plateau stage – you need to embrace the principles of progressive overload.
Use Heavier Weights
Whether you want to build muscle or get stronger, you need to consistently increase the weight you use during your workouts. The best time to increase the amount of weight you use is when you have reached the point of doing more than your target repetitions. For example, let’s say your target is 10 repetitions for an exercise but you find that it’s easy to complete 11 or 12 repetitions.
When you increase the weight you use, we recommend doing so in 1-pound to 2.5-pound fractional plate segments. An increase of 2.5-pounds might be all you need to see more growth in the biceps but those stubborn legs might need a 10-pound bump.
Change the Equipment
Continuing with the point above, on top of increasing your weight load, you can change the exercise equipment going from beginner-friendly to intermediate or advanced-level gear. For example, if you have been using resistance bands for bicep curls or triceps extensions, try progressing to dumbbells, an EZ Curl bar, or a straight barbell.
To trigger progressive overload for muscle mass, you can also increase the number of sets for a given exercise. Muscle hypertrophy occurs when the fibers have been brought to the point of exhaustion and fatigue. You want to cause microtears in the muscle tissue so that they recover and come back bigger and stronger than before. Increasing your work load is a great way to do this.
Simply add one to three more sets to those exercises where you feel you are no longer seeing progress. Don’t keep adding sets so that your workouts are lasting three hours; rather, pinpoint where you aren’t seeing growth, consider your experience level, and add accordingly.
Change Up the Intensity
Intensity is largely based on how you feel during an exercise. If you’re able to hold a conversation, the exercise isn’t that intense. If you are forcing air out as you grunt or yell, that’s a pretty intense exercise. Most of the things on this list will increase intensity, but one of our favorite ways is to use one of the following:
Supersets: This is where you perform one exercise then immediately perform another exercise. It can be for the same or opposing muscle groups.
Tri-Sets: Same idea as above but you add a third set for the same or opposing muscle groups.
Pyramid Sets: The idea is to increase or decrease weight in relation to repetitions. The higher the repetitions, the less weight you use, and vice versa. Each set escalates or descends in a pyramid fashion. Here’s an example of pyramid sets for bicep curls:
- Set 1: 15 repetitions using 15 pounds
- Set 2: 12 x 20 lbs.
- Set 3: 10 x 25 lbs.
- Set 4: 8 x 30 lbs.
- Set 5: 6 x 35 lbs.
Try Different Repetition Ranges
Another way to increase your workload and muscle hypertrophy is to boost the number of repetitions you perform for each exercise. You can also lower the number of repetitions if you are increasing the weight you are using. The more weight you use, the less repetitions you should be performing to ensure correct form and execution. Try cycling through the following periodization schedule from week to week:
- Endurance: 12 to 15 repetitions – Use 50% to 60% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM)
- Hypertrophy: 8 to 12 repetitions – Use 65% to 75% of your 1RM
- Strength: 6 to 8 repetitions – Use 75% to 85% of your 1RM
- Power: 3 to 5 repetitions – Use 85% to 100% of your 1RM
Increase Training Frequency
If you have a lagging or weaker muscle, you can give that area special attention by tossing in another day of training for it. In general, most lifters use the conventional technique of once-a-week training. Studies suggest that targeting a muscle group twice per week results in superior growth in muscle mass and strength. (1)
With that said, pay close attention to your body. Avoid overtraining by giving yourself enough time to recover after each training session. Follow a diet that provides plenty of muscle-building nutrients with a focus on protein. If you experience extreme soreness, back off and lower your training frequency for a few weeks.
Use More or Different Exercises
If you want to increase the workload without changing your sets, repetitions, or weight used, add in another exercise targeting that lagging body part. If you’re using compound exercises, try an isolation exercise. For example, legs can be stubborn even if you are performing squats for size and strength; therefore, try isolating the muscle with leg extensions.
You can also use different or more advanced variations of the same exercise. Continuing with the example above, instead of traditional barbell back squat, try sumo squats or frog stance squats.
Shorten or Extend Your Breaks
The average suggested rest break is around 90 seconds. If you want to boost the intensity of your workout and demand more from your muscles, try shortening your rest breaks. Shave off 30 seconds from your current rest time and see what happens.
On the other hand, if you are using supersets or lifting up to 100% of your 1RM, try lengthening your rest break. Studies show that a rest break of up to three minutes improved size and strength gains. (2)
PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD: MIX, MATCH, AND REEVALUATE
We encourage you to try out all the techniques shared here. The idea is to do what you must to continually confuse and challenge the muscle tissue, prompting its growth. As you go through your training, keep us updated with your results in the comments below.
- Thomas MH, Burns SP. Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training. Int J Exerc Sci. 2016;9(2):159-167. Published 2016 Apr 1.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Pope ZK, Benik FM, Hester GM, Sellers J, Nooner JL, Schnaiter JA, Bond-Williams KE, Carter AS, Ross CL, Just BL, Henselmans M, Krieger JW. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1805-12. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001272.