Progressive Overload Is the Concept You Must Understand to Make Consistent Gains in the Weight Room

This article was originally written for STACK.

Progressive overload essentially means doing more work over time.

This principle is based on the concept that your body eventually adapts to the demands placed on it. To see continual improvements, you must continually increase the demand.

There are a variety of ways to introduce progressive overload into your training. This article will focus specifically on volume. Total volume is a product of sets, reps and load. To increase volume, you simply increase one or more of these factors. Here's a closer look at how manipulating each of these variable can help you safely gain strength and size.

1. Increase the Load

The most obvious way to increase volume is to add weight to any given exercise. If you were able to complete 4 sets of 8 reps of Incline Dumbbell Press with 50-pound dumbbells this week, jump up to 55-pound dumbbells the following week. Such a jump may seem insignificant, but the volume adds up!

Week 1: 4 sets x 8 reps x 100 pounds = 3,200 pounds Week 2: 4 sets x 8 reps x 110 pounds = 3,520 pounds

Load is the first training variable to increase to progressively overload a muscle, especially on new exercises with which you're not already familiar. Typically, it will take a few weeks just to get comfortable with the movement and find a weight that truly challenges you. At some point, however, you will reach a weight that no longer allows you to complete your required sets and reps. That's OK! That's how you know you're pushing yourself.

Let's use the previous example and assume you went up to 60-pound dumbbells in Week 3, making the total load 120 pounds. Let's say you completed 3 sets of 8 reps, but were only able to get 4 reps on your last set. Using the previous equation, that equates to a total of 2,760 pounds moved. So technically, your volume would've gone down from the previous week. But don't panic! And certainly don't go back down in weight. Instead, simply aim to do more reps with the same weight next week.

Remember, progressive overload is a long-term principle. Your volume may go down slightly from week to week, but as long as you're making steady increases over time, you're on the right path.

You can also use an advanced method called Rest-Pause Sets. Rather than moving to the next exercise when you fail at 4 reps on the last set, rest briefly for 20-30 seconds, then knock out the remaining 4 reps. While the training effect is not the same as doing all 8 reps in one set, it still ensures that you are maintaining your current level of volume.

2. Increase The Reps

Increasing reps is the second variable to attack for progressive overload. Once you have reached a weight that truly challenges you, and possibly pushes you to failure, continuing to increase that load offers little to no benefit. Instead, you need to aim to do more reps.

It's not rocket science, but people can overlook the effect an extra couple reps in each set has on the overall volume of your workout. Once you've found a load that's challenging enough to cause you to miss reps on your final set, I would not advise trying to increase the load again for the following week. Instead, stay at that current weight until you're capable of completing all the programmed sets and reps.

Bodyweight exercises are an area where it's much more valuable to add volume via reps than it is via load, particularly for beginners. If you can only perform three Pull-Ups with strict from, you have no business putting on a weighted vest and trying to perform three more reps with 20 pounds on your back. In this case, progressive overload is more easily achieved by adding reps and mastering your own body weight. Once you have reached the point where you can do a substantial number of reps with exercises such as Push-Ups, Pull-Ups and Dips, then you may consider loading them.

3. Increase the Sets

The final training variable to adjust when looking to add volume is the number of sets. I place this last in the hierarchy for a few reasons.

First, finding a load that's truly challenging enough to stimulate the muscle should be the top priority. Although it has been proven that exercises performed in all rep ranges (even as high as 50-plus reps) can build muscle, it's not practical for most exercises.

Second, increasing the sets for multiple exercises within a workout will inevitably increase your time spent in the gym. While this may be necessary eventually (especially if you cannot add more days to your training program), it shouldn't be the first place you look to add volume.

Lastly, adding sets can drastically increase overall training volume. Although this is our ultimate goal, it needs to be monitored and scaled appropriately, especially for beginners. Too much volume too soon could lead to a lack of focus (why care about set number one when you have five more), a lack of proper technique (if you're gassed by set two, the next three won't look so pretty), and a lack of adequate recovery time.

Going back to that initial equation, here's how adding just a single set affects the volume of our Incline Dumbbell Press:

Week 2: 4 sets x 8 reps x 110 pounds = 3,520 pounds

Week 3: 5 sets x 8 reps x 110 pounds = 4,400 pounds

That's pretty significant. Adding sets is a great way to progressively overload, but you need to make sure you're advanced enough to handle that change.

One simpler way to add extra sets to your exercises? Warm-up sets. Adding warm-up sets to certain exercises is a sneaky-good way to increase volume. For example, instead of warming up for 5x5 Back Squats at 225 pounds with just 1 set of 10 reps at 135 pounds, try something like this

  • 1x10x45 pounds (so just the bar)

  • 1x10x95 pounds

  • 1x10x135 pounds

  • 1x 5x185 pounds

It's not incredibly taxing, but the volume adds up quickly! Throwing in a warm-up set or two to any exercise where you use a relatively heavy weight can be a game-changer.

Volume is a key aspect of progressive overload. To continue to see gains in the gym, volume needs to increased appropriately. Work up to a challenging load first, then aim to add reps to meet the programmed goal, and finally, add sets to really jump up the total workload.