Progressive overload is when you gradually increase the weight, frequency, or number of repetitions in your strength training routine. This challenges your body and allows your musculoskeletal system to get stronger.
Although progressive overload is usually used in strength training, the same idea can be applied to any type of exercise, including cardiovascular endurance exercises like running.
By changing up your workouts and adding additional tension to your muscles, you can avoid plateauing, which is when your body adapts to the type of exercise you’re doing. With progressive overload, you may notice you feel fitter and stronger.
Here’s why progressive overload is important for your training regimen.
Doing the same workouts over and over or using the same amount of weight every time you strength train can lead to your body plateauing. You may be able to easily lift weight that once was challenging, and you likely don’t notice any soreness — or any progress being made.
While a plateau can be seen as a positive sign that means you’ve made some gains in your fitness journey, it also signals that it’s time to mix things up.
Progressive overload benefits your training because you’ll avoid a plateau. By changing or progressing in your workouts, you’ll keep your muscles challenged and you’ll get stronger.
For example, in the first month of strength training, you might perform 10 repetitions at one weight. Then, the next month, you’d perform 12 reps of the exercise. Or maybe you’d stick to 10 reps but increase the weight you’re using instead.
Researchers found progressive overload — gradually increasing the weight and number of repetitions of exercises — to be effective for increasing bicep strength and muscle growth in both men and women.
One drawback of progressive overload training is that it must be done gradually. It can be dangerous to increase the load or frequency of your training too quickly, which can lead to injury.
You may not notice changes as immediately with this type of training as with others. But it’s the safest way to progress.
Working with a certified personal trainer (either in a gym or online) who can customize a progressive training routine for you is the most effective and safest way to meet your fitness goals.
You can add progressive overload to your training routine in different ways. This depends on your fitness level and types of workouts you do. Below are general examples of progressive overload.
- Week 1. Perform 10–12 squats, with or without weight.
- Week 3. Perform 12–15 squats, with or without weight.
- Week 5. Perform 15 squats, with or without weight.
Increase weight used
- Week 1. Perform bicep curls with 10- or 12-pound weights.
- Week 4. Perform bicep curls with 12- or 15-pound weights.
- Week 8. Perform bicep curls with 15- or 18-pound weights.
Increase mileage in running
- Week 1. Run 20 minutes at a light to moderate pace, 2 days per week.
- Week 3. Run 30 minutes at a light to moderate pace, 2 days per week.
- Week 5. Run 30–40 minutes a light to moderate pace, 3 days per week.
A certified personal trainer can create a plan that’s customized to your goals.
1. Increase resistance
Adding additional stress to your muscles allows them to break down, rebuild, and get stronger. One way to do this is to lift heavier, which means increasing the weight you’re lifting.
You should be comfortable lifting a weight for 10–12 repetitions before you move on to a heavier weight. You should also master the exercise and make sure you have good form before you move up in weight.
When you’re ready to lift heavier, look for a weight that you can lift for about 10 repetitions — but the last 2 or 3 reps should be a challenge. If you’re doing multiple sets, give yourself plenty of time to rest in between.
You should also take 1 or 2 days off in between lifting to give your body time to recover.
2. Increase endurance (length of workouts)
In order to increase endurance, you need to increase the length of your workouts.
While strength training, for example, you can do a higher number of reps with a lower weight. Increase the number of repetitions only after you’ve spent a few weeks mastering an exercise. A certified personal trainer can also create a plan to help you with endurance.
For cardiovascular endurance, you can increase the length of your cardio exercise sessions. Do this gradually. For example, run or cycle an additional 20 minutes every few weeks. Allow your body plenty of recovery time after putting additional strain on it. Rest for 2 or 3 days before your next cardio workout.
3. Increase tempo
Increasing the tempo — or intensity — of your workouts can help you get stronger and fitter. You can do this by working out at a quicker pace or with less rest time in between sets.
Try increasing the tempo by using a lighter weight but lifting at a quicker pace. If you aren’t able to increase the tempo easily, switch to a lighter weight that you can comfortably lift for multiple sets of 10–15 reps.
4. Increase reps
Increasing the number of repetitions puts more demand on your muscles. This can make them stronger over time.
For each exercise, try increasing from 2 sets of 10 reps one month to 2 sets of 12 reps the next month. You can also switch to 3 sets instead of performing only 2 sets.
Progressive overload training should be done only after you’ve mastered an exercise with proper form. You should’ve also been doing the same routine for at least 2 weeks — ideally a month — before you start to train harder.
Working with a certified personal trainer in the gym or online can help you meet your goals. They can create a personalized plan to guide you on how to progressively overload safely.
Always give your body time off to rest between workouts. Stop training or scale back the intensity if you feel very sore or injured.