6 min read

Progressive Overload: The Key to Building Muscle

By: Kristina Lauer

In this article, we explain everything you need to know about using progressive overload to reach your muscle building goals. Keep reading to find out how to incorporate it into your workout regimen, from increasing the number of repetitions you need to do to how much time you need to give your body to rest. Plus: the traps you have to watch out for. 

What is progressive overload?

Progressive overload is when you continually and gradually increase the difficulty of your exercise. The term overload refers to the extra load that you’re putting on your body.

Muscle memory enables your body to remember the difficulty of your previous exercises. That means that over time, you’ll be able to handle more and more of a strain. Plus, muscles need new stimulus to grow rather than stagnate. This is also a good way to improve your endurance abilities.

Why is progressive overload important?

Imagine going to the gym regularly and doing the exact same thing every time. Not only would that be boring, but it wouldn’t get you any closer to your goals either. If you aren’t seeing changes, even though you’re working out regularly and eating mindfully, this could lead to loss of motivation and major frustration. You might find yourself thinking, what’s the point of continuing if everything is going to stay the same!

But it doesn’t have to come to that! The problem is probably that you’re not increasing the difficulty of your workouts. If they’re always the same, your body will have no reason to develop more muscle mass.

A shirtless, athletic man of color exhales as he squats with a weighted barbell on his shoulders

Muscle development is nothing more than your body adapting to external stimuli. When you stimulate it with new workouts, it will automatically adapt. If you need to be stronger to lift more, your body will become stronger. This process is known as the principle of overcompensation. Once you’ve adapted to this new level of intensity, it’s time to move onto the next.

Our tip: without progressive overload, you won’t get stronger over time. If this is your goal, it’s time to get out of your comfort zone by increasing the number of repetitions you do and increasing the weight you lift.

When is the right time to step up your workouts?

Going straight from lifting small weights to lifting big ones is not a great idea. Not only will it be extremely difficult to do, but it may put you at risk of injury. The key to progressive overload is to gradually increase the weight you lift and the intensity of the exercises you do so your body has time to adapt and you have time to learn the proper form and technique. Skipping steps will do more harm than good.

Above all else it’s important to listen to your body. Try not to focus on what others are doing and turn your attention to yourself. Everyone is unique and develops at different rates. Your workouts should be challenging but not overwhelming.

Our tip: Your muscles adapt more quickly to increased intensity than your bones, joints, and ligaments. Though your muscles may bounce back quickly after a workout, you may notice that your joints are still sore for anywhere from weeks to months.

That’s because capillary density is higher in muscles. Capillaries are the small blood vessels in which nutrients are absorbed and distributed and waste products are eliminated. The more capillaries, the higher the metabolic activity. As a result, muscles regenerate much faster than bones and joints. Keep that in mind as you plan your recovery periods.

How to Incorporate Progressive Overload Into Your Training Plan

Focusing on specific exercises will help you keep better track of your progressive overload. A structured muscle building workout plan can help. Remember, it’s about doing more little by little rather than a lot all at once.

A woman squats low to the floor, preparing to lift a barbell with weight plates on it. Her face shows focus and she is ready to breathe out. The man in her background is hollowing his back as he tries to lift, but the woman's back is absolutely straight.

1. Increasing your weight

This is the preferred method of progressive overload for bodybuilders. Gradually increase the weight you lift from one workout to the next. The size of a weight and speed at which you lift it will vary from person to person and depend on your current level and the muscle group you’re training. Always make sure to use proper technique.

2. More repetitions

Instead of increasing weight size, this method focuses on adding more repetitions to each workout. Always remember to use proper technique.

3. Shorter breaks

To add a new stimulus to your weightlifting workout, you can also shorten the breaks between each set. This will challenge your muscles more by giving them less time to recover.

A woman in the middle of a workout checks her heart rate on her smartwatch. She is sitting on the floor and is indoors.

4. Train more often

Working out more frequently will also increase muscle gains. Try to train each muscle group around two to three times per week to see results.

5. Change your movements

Using your full range of motion is another great way to stimulate muscle growth. Range of motion varies from person to person and is based on factors like genetics and an individual’s anatomy. But switching up the way you move in a workout will encourage muscle development throughout your body.

6. Better technique

No matter what kind of workout you’re doing, proper technique should always be the priority.

7. TUT (Time Under Tension)

“Time Under Tension” or resistance training refers to the amount of time your body is stimulated. When you move more slowly than usual during a set, your muscles have to adapt. Try this technique by doing a squat half as quickly as normal. Go down on the count of three and come back up at a normal speed. You can also modify techniques to challenge yourself during a session.

Our tip: What you eat also has an impact on whether or not muscle develops. Eating enough protein is essential to ensuring your goals are met. Our Protein Bars are an easy, portable way to get what you need in a pinch.

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What’s the priority: more weight or more reps?

The progressive overload method that you choose is going to depend on your preferences, your starting level, and your overall goals.

For beginners, the number of reps performed in your exercises should take precedence over the level of difficulty. Start by increasing the amount of times you repeat an exercise before increasing the difficulty.

If your goal is to build muscle, we recommend doing between 8 and 12 reps per exercise. If you can do 12 without breaking a sweat, it’s time to increase the difficulty. Every time you switch to a harder workout, try to increase the number of reps performed.

If improving endurance is your goal, taking shorter breaks between sets or slowing down the pace of an exercise may be beneficial. Ultimately, you need to decide which method is best for improving your performance abilities.

Beginning progressive overload vs. advanced progressive overload

For beginners, progressive overload can happen right away because your body is not yet familiar with the exercise you’re doing and has to adapt quickly. New movement patterns will encourage your muscles to develop rapidly.

Just because it happens quickly doesn’t mean you’re a superhero. Enjoy it while you can and let the success motivate you, because your progress will eventually slow down as you become stronger. It’s not that you’re becoming less strong, just that your body is getting used to the exercise you’ve been doing! You’ll be making progress again in no time.

Two athletes of color smile and high-five in front of a textured black metal background

The more advanced you become, the less easy it will be to gain more muscle. Because your body is already familiar with your usual workouts, increasing the difficulty will get harder and harder. It’s important to develop a methodical training plan to ensure your body is continually challenged. It’s important to be consistently increasing the weight you lift and the difficulty of the exercises you do to encourage progress.

Another way for the more advanced to continue progressing is to mix it up. Overload yourself sometimes, and other times take it easy. Trying a new workout is also a great way to expose your muscles to foreign stimuli. When in doubt, use the seven principles of exercise to light your way.

Your performance improvement is not a straight trajectory. Sometimes you’ll see a huge amount of progress in a short period of time and then nothing for weeks or months. There are many factors outside of the gym that could be affecting this, including daily stress, sleep quality, nutrition, and the length of your rest time.

It’s also important to make sure you’re eating enough. The fewer calories you consume, the less nutrients your body will have to build up muscle. Avoid trying to lose weight and gain muscle at the same time. You’ll be better off maintaining your current weight if you want to see progress.

Our tip: The more advanced you become, the less you may pay attention to technique. But don’t let it slip your mind! If you’re not sure if you’re performing a workout properly, use a lighter weight or do fewer reps to make sure everything is as it should be. Your body will benefit more from doing an exercise correctly at lower weight than incorrectly with a higher load.

Progressive Overload: Our conclusion

  • Progressive overload refers to gradually increasing the difficulty of an exercise over time.
  • Beginners can improve more easily than advanced athletes.
  • Progressive overload can increase muscle development, strength and endurance abilities.
  • Factors such as sleep quality, daily stress, recovery periods, and nutrition have a significant impact on your ability to perform. It’s also important to provide your body with a sufficient amount of rest time between workouts.
  • Doing a workout properly is more important than doing it a lot.
  • A structured training plan can make it easy to measure your progress.
Article sources
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  • Hans Albert Richard, Gunter Kullmer (2013): Zusammenhang zwischen Aufbau und Funktion des Bewegungsapparats.