Progressive Overload: How to Keep Your Muscles Guessing (and Growing!)


calendar-iconDecember 27, 2018

Foundational Training Series

If there is one concept you should implement into your training regimen, it's progressive overload. Without it, you don't stand a chance of growing bigger, stronger, or more fit- there's no two ways about it!

So what is this all-important principle? Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon muscles during exercise training.1

Simple enough, but how can you make sure you introduce this concept into your training plan? No worries- we'll break it all down in this post.

The Importance of Progressive Overload

The results suggest that short-term resistance training reduces MR image contrast shift evoked by a given effort, thereby reflecting the use of less muscle to lift the load.

Ploutz LL et. al

During a training program, your body adapts to a given workload over time.1-3 As the body adapts to a particular exercise, it becomes easier to perform and less muscle mass is recruited. In other words, after you do the same exercise for multiple workouts, your muscles get used to the exercise and don't need work as hard.

With lower muscle recruitment, less muscle growth occurs. Progressive overload helps prevent your muscles from getting too used to any particular exercise which helps to continually increase muscle growth and facilitate muscle retention.1-3

How can you implement progressive overload into your training plan?

Systematically increasing the demands placed upon the body is necessary for further improvement and may be accomplished through altering one or more of the following variables: 1) exercise intensity ... 2) total repetitions performed at the current intensity... 3) repetition speed/tempo ... 4) rest periods ... and 5) training volume

American College of Sports Medicine

In resistance training, there are a number of ways to introduce progressive overload. Below are some methods of implementing progressive overload:1-4

  1. Keep changing your exercise intensity – or the weight you use for an exercise.
  2. Adjust the volume of work you are doing, or the number of repetitions you perform for an exercise
  3. Change the speed you perform an exercise – vary between a faster tempo and a slower tempo every few workouts to keep your muscles guessing
  4. Alter your rest between sets and exercises – changing between less rest and more rest will hit your muscles differently

We'll be covering each of these variables as we progress through this series.

The Takeaway

If your goal is to gain or retain muscle mass, progressive overload is a necessary ingredient to an optimal training regimen. Introducing increased intensity, volume, or varying tempo and rest times through a resistance training program is currently the most effective way to introduce progressive overload to your fitness regimen.


  1. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687-708. Link
  2. Rhea MR, Alderman BL. A meta-analysis of periodized versus nonperiodized strength and power training programs. ResQ Exerc Sport. 2004;75(4):413-22. Link
  3. Ploutz LL, Tesch PA, Biro RL, Dudley GA. Effect of resistance training on muscle use during exercise. J Appl Physiol.1994;76(4):1675-81. Link
  4. Stone MH, Potteiger Ja, Pierce Kc, et al. Comparison of the Effects of Three Different Weight-Training Programs on the One Repetition Maximum Squat. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2000;14(3). Link
Date Created: December 27, 2018

Last Updated: April 2, 2020