Developing a consistent exercise schedule is a challenge. Once you’ve established that, you’ll want to ensure you’re maximizing your workouts. But if you simply go to the gym and go through the motions, you’re probably not making the most of your time – and you likely won’t see progress.
Your solution: Progressive overload training.
It might sound like an advanced term, but progressive overload is a fairly basic strength and conditioning concept that’s simple to incorporate into your workouts – and the advantages are real. Here, fitness experts explain exactly what progressive overload training is and how it can prevent fitness plateaus.
What Is Progressive Overload Training?
“Progressive overload is essentially increasing the difficulty of your workouts by raising volume, intensity, or resistance in order to work towards achieving your goals,” explains Lauren Lobert, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach. The idea is that in order to continue inducing physiological changes, you need to continue challenging your body. (A simple way to remember it: Challenge equals change.) This is most commonly observed in weightlifting workouts, but it can also be applied to circuit training sessions and aerobic exercise, such as running.
“The concept is quite intuitive because as exercises become easier, you tend to make them more difficult by going faster or slower, using more weight, or doing more repetitions,” says Lobert. “Progressive overload is exactly that idea, but in a more planned and specific manner.” (Need assistance with the planning part? This is how to construct the ideal circuit training workout.)
You might be thinking: “Well, obviously I make my workouts more challenging every now and then.” But do you do it consistently? “Progressive overload necessitates planning and consistency,” says Lobert. In other words, you’ll need to keep track of your workouts, how much weight you’re lifting, and how many repetitions you’re doing if you want to do it correctly. “If you have no idea how many reps or what weight you can do for an exercise and don’t consistently perform the exercise, then progressive overload won’t be successful.”
If you’re not already doing this, there’s a pretty persuasive reason why you should: “Progressive overload is essential for continued improvement,” says Lobert. “As you train for a longer period of time, you will need to progressively increase the difficulty of your workouts in order to see results. Doing the same thing repeatedly will not lead to the changes you desire in your body or performance.” Essentially, progressive overload training prevents you from hitting a plateau.
3 Simple Progressive Overload Strategies
So there you have it. If you want to appear and perform better, you’ll require progressive overload training. Fortunately, there are several methods to get started. (By the way, cross-training can also keep your body guessing.)
1. Incorporate resistance.
This is probably the most evident approach to utilize progressive overload. “If you begin with 20-pound dumbbells, progress to 25,” explains Katie Collard, C.S.C.S., a trainer and coach at Cut Seven, a workout studio in Washington, DC. “Continually lift heavier weights as your body becomes stronger with each exercise.” Keep track of the progress you make from week to week, and you’re likely to notice you’re getting stronger, bit by bit.
2. Introduce a new factor.
At some point, adding more weight won’t be feasible for your progressive overload plan. So what happens next? You have a few options.
“Change the type of equipment used or perform the exercise on an unstable surface,” suggests Collard. Maybe you do TRX push-ups instead of regular ones, or chest presses on a Bosu ball instead of a bench. “This compels you to have more control during the exercise, activating the supporting, smaller muscle groups around the one targeted by the move,” she adds.
Switch to a unilateral exercise.
This actually combines adding weight with adding instability. Standing on one foot (or one arm in a push-up) makes you unstable and increases the weight carried by one limb, notes Collard. (Just think about how difficult pistol squats are.)
Advance the exercise.
If the exercise you’re doing is starting to feel easy, perhaps you want to switch to a more challenging variation. “Over time, you could progress from a bodyweight squat to a goblet squat to a front squat, increasing the complexity of the exercise,” says Travis Barrett, C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning coach. By incorporating new equipment in different positions, you can challenge your body in new ways.
3. Experiment with frequency, repetitions, and workout design.
How swiftly you complete your workout, how many repetitions you perform, how many sets of different exercises you do, and even how frequently you work out are also fair game when it comes to progressive overload training.
“If all you possess is one pair of 20-pound dumbbells, the simplest way to advance a movement is to augment repetitions,” states Collard. “When 10 reps become effortless, enhance to 15, then 20, to achieve muscle failure.”
Alter the intensity.
There exist several approaches to accomplish this. “Some of my preferred methods include expanding your range of motion, performing isometric holds, or concentrating on eccentric lowering,” says Lobert. “For instance, to intensify your squatting intensity, you could descend deeper into your squat, sustain the position for three to five seconds at the bottom before rising. Alternatively, descend gradually, focusing on executing a complete five-second descent.”
Collard is also an advocate of this technique, particularly for developing strength. “Each exercise consists of two components: concentric [contraction of the muscle] and eccentric [lengthening of the muscle],” she explains. “You enhance the strength in the concentric movement when you challenge the eccentric movement. For instance, if your objective is to perform a pull-up, initiate with a negative pull-up, steadily lowering yourself (the eccentric part of the movement) from above the bar. Eventually, you will progress to a full pull-up.
Strategically group exercises together.
“By combining two exercises, you can overload a specific muscle group,” suggests Collard. (See: What Is a Superset?) “For example, perform 10 reps of a chest press, then engage in push-ups, repeat.” This approach directs the effort towards your chest and triceps. To target your glutes, try pairing a hip thrust with a lateral band walk.
The Conclusion Regarding Progressive Overload Training
If you desire to accelerate your workout outcomes — whether performance-wise or aesthetically — progressive overload training is imperative. Experiment with any or all of these strategies, and enlist the assistance of a trainer if you encounter difficulties or are uncertain about your next steps. Before you know it, you’ll be achieving new personal records.