bodybuilder employing front squat with progressive overload

Progressive Overload: How to Grow Muscle and Make Gains

Do want to know the fundamental theory behind making unstoppable gains? Look no further. It’s time for you to master progressive overload…

Get in the Mindset:

  • How to build muscle with Progressive Overload
  • Why it’s important…
  • How to Progressive Overload
  • When should you use Progressive Overload?
  • What about progressive overload without adding weight?
  • When not to Progressive Overload

How to build muscle with Progressive Overload

Keep reading to learn how to progressively overload for building muscle…

The progressive overload principal says that to build muscle you must provide a stimulus. Simply put – you’ve got to do something to tell those fibers it’s time to adapt. Without it, the tough as hell workout that once worked for you will grind to a halt.

Yeah you’re likely stronger and fitter, but you’ll eventually stop making gains. When this plateu in strength or size happens many people keep hammering away at their old program. “It worked before so it should work again, right?” Not so fast.

We’re here to tell you that doesn’t work. In order to move forward, you need to progressively overload. You must give your muscle a reason to develop.

Why it’s important…

You’ve seen that guy or girl in the weight room who never makes gains. You know, the one who’s been crushing the same workout every day for as long as you remember? It’s like ground hog day for these people and their bored, sleeping, and uninspired body.

They need to give their physique a wake up call. If you’re reading this thinking “that’s me”, slap yourself silly and get some weight on the bar. You’re doing it all wrong.

What’s happened here is the working muscles have simply adapted to the stresses of training. They’re just sat there chilling without the need to grow or get stronger. Remember, nothing worthwhile comes from your comfort zone, so why would stacks of lean mass live there?

We’re about to tell you how you can avoid becoming this guy or girl. All you need is this one basic yet gains-breaking theory. You guessed it – progressive overload.

There’s so many myth’s, methods and mechanics behind building muscle. Some are straight forward like hitting the iron hard, while others are confusing as hell. Luckily, progressive overload is a simple concept that’ll truly accelerate you goals.

weight lifter using progressive overload by adding weight plate to the bar

How to Progressive Overload

In short – you consistently make exercise harder.

By doing this, you keep providing a stimulus [1]. It’s like you’re giving your muscle fibers a regular reminder they have to rise to the occasion. They either have to put up, or shut up, and with a big as barbell sat on your shoulders they don’t have much choice.

An example of progressive overload would be:

  • Adding more weight to the bar [2]
  • Increasing the amount of reps with the same weight
  • Increasing the amount of sets
  • Shortening rest between sets

Okay, let’s put it all in action.

Imagine for a moment you’ve been battling hard with your 120 lb bench press. At first you struggled completing all eight reps, but you stuck with it. Several months later you could probably nail 10 reps in your sleep if you wanted to. So, you stick with the weight because surely it’s made you all types of gorilla strong…

Maybe not.

If you decide to do this, you can expect to meet a stalemate. At first your muscle fibers scrambled to handle the load, but now they have it on lockdown. They got bigger, stronger, and have adapted to meet the demand. Yes you got stronger, but now you’re not getting stronger.

Of course, this mindset is a decision. You have everything in your power to set yourself up for success. Instead you decide to employ progressive overload. By increasing the weight once you’re handling a load, you keep shaking up your sacks of sarcomeres.

As far of your muscles are concerned they have to rise to the occasion yet again and adjust to the tension put on them. It’s all about survival and your body is doing everything it can to stay alive, which means making gains in the long run [3].

athlete using progressive overload with barbell

When should you use Progressive Overload?

When many gym goers first learn about progressive overload they always ask about frequency, When exactly do you need to progressively overload?

You should look to increase the intensity of your workouts once you’re crushing them. Let’s use your bench press again for an example…

You’ve just completed your last set of 10 reps. However, you know that deep down you have another two or three reps left in the tank. What previously seemed like an impossible weight before is more like a mild discomfort now. Okay, it’s a push, but you finish the set knowing rep 10 wasn’t your last.

This is when you progressively overload. At this point it’s recommended to add an increase of 5-10% to the overall volume. In terms of a loaded barbell, this will be up to 10% of whatever the total amount is.

Alright, you can definitely add more. If you’re new to lifting you’ll probably be smashing PR(s) every week and want to leap higher. Yet, studies show this slight increase to be the sweet spot without raising the risk of injury, so trust the science and stay safe.

woman employing progressive overload without weights

What about progressive overload without adding weight?

For some people reading this you’re not in a position to add weight. Maybe you don’t have any extra plates, the dumbbells only go up to a certain heaviness, or you plain just don’t want to. Guess what? You can still progressively overload.

Consider the fundamental factor is that you’re trying to make exercise harder. You’re altering your routine just enough to give your fibers a reason to change. You can do this quite easily by upping your rest count for starters. Next, consider adding another set.

Together, both of these things increase total volume. You’ve expanded the overall amount of work your muscles have to perform, just like adding another mile to a jog.

This is why bodybuilders looking to build hypertrophy gains will often go to failure. It’s not that they’re all addicted to the pain, they simply want to give their bod as much work (volume) as possible. Think about drop sets, forced reps, and going to failure all as methods to push the most out of each muscle.

An example of this would be to imagine you’re back on the bench press. You’re hitting 120 lb for 10 reps over four sets and you’re starting to find the set easy. In fact, you know you have at least 12 in you. So, what do you do? You step up the rep range to 11 reps over the same sets to increase volume:

Workout A: 10 x 4 = 40 reps

Workout B: 11 x 4 = 44 reps

Here you have a theoretically safe progression of 10%.

When not to Progressive Overload

Progressive overload theory is incredible. It helps us accelerate toward goals and enhance our all-round performance in such a simple, easy to understand way. As with all great things in life we have to know when to enjoy it and when to leave well alone.

If you’re feeling beat up, run down, or your sleep sucks, then steer clear. These are all warning signs of overtraining, which is never a good thing.

Once you start to feel like you’re run-down or not recovering well consider a planned deload week. Back off the volume, eat some good food, and rest up to hit it hard after a few days. Do not progressively overload…

When you can’t complete the set…

Secondly, in a more basic manner, if you can’t complete the set don’t increase the weight. When you begin to nail every rep with impeccable form you can reward yourself with a boost on the bar, Until then, stay where you are, or back off for a slight deload before you try again.

Finally, forget about progressive overload if you’re cheating reps. Fix your form before worrying about progression.

You’ll become a beast much faster by doing things right than settling for half-reps or poor technique. After all, the iron never lies, so embrace the grind and get the job done properly.

muscular bodybuilder using progressive overload

Last rep

Progressive overload is the key to unlocking your true potential. Employ it to your training, and you can expect to rise through the ranks while becoming bigger, better, and stronger.

The fundamental theory behind this technique is to consistently make work harder. It’s easy to think that progressive overload is all about lifting weights, but it works for cardio too. You’re essentially breaking out of your comfort zone to create an environment for change.

Key ways of increasing the demand inflicted on your physique include; lifting heavier, adding reps, upping sets, reducing rest times, and training more frequently. For the cardio crew, this might also mean adding longer times to your runs or hitting an extra mile.

Now, go train. Remember to practice progressive overload to accelerate your goals and take you one rep closer to greatness.


  1. HOSTLER, D., CRILL, M., HAGERMAN, F., & STARON, R. (2001). The Effectiveness of 0.5-lb Increments in Progressive Resistance Exercise. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research15(1), 86-91. doi: 10.1519/00124278-200102000-00015
  2. Mangine GT, Hoffman JR, Gonzalez AM, et al. The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiol Rep. 2015;3(8):e12472.
  3. Peterson MD, Pistilli E, Haff GG, Hoffman EP, Gordon PM. Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010;111(6):1063-71

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