How Progressive Overload Helps You Build More Muscle
When pressed, I would probably say that progressive overload is the most important component of any sound strength or muscle building workout.
Yes, it is more important than the numerous other particulars of the program – including training frequency, rep ranges, tempo, etc (although these can all be important too).
What’s more, I would postulate that the lack of focus on progressive overload is what is holding the vast majority of people back in their workouts.
In fact, I would say that probably only 5% of the people in the gym have a workout routine that is progressive overload oriented.
But before I get ahead of myself, you’re probably wondering what this actually means, right?
Well, not only am I going to expound on what this integral workout principle is, but I’m also going to show you exactly how you can start incorporating it into your gym routine.
Let’s dive right in.
What Is Progressive Overload?
I’d venture to say that most people haven’t actually heard this term before – even though they may have seen it in practice – but progressive overload simply refers to progressively increasing the amount of stress your muscle fibers are under during weight training.
In practical terms, this simply means steadily increasing the amount of weight that you are lifting for each exercise.
Sounds pretty simple, right?
Well, in theory it is, but many people fail to incorporate it properly, if at all.
Instead, their workouts will be exactly the same, week after week.
Yup, they’ll go to the gym and do exactly the same amount of weight that they did the previous week.
To clarify, this isn’t to say that they aren’t working out hard…
On the contrary, many of these people work out incredibly hard – pushing themselves like crazy each and every workout until they are completely spent.
At the same time, however, they aren’t trying to systematically progress. Instead, they’ll just push out as many reps as they can that day, and that’ll be it.
They may have done more than the week before, they may have done a couple sets or reps less – but they did as much as their strength and energy would allow.
Unfortunately, if you work out like this, you will be very unlikely to get stronger after a certain point – and you certainly aren’t maximizing your strength and muscle gains. I promise you that much.
Why Progressive Overload Is So Important
Ok, so now that we’ve defined our terms, and gone over that most people aren’t working out like this, let’s explore why the concept actually matters.
I mean, you might be thinking that this is just some tedious jargon that Chris is droning on about.
Well, that’s not the case (this time, at least), so listen up!
Now I’m going to assume that when you go to the gym, you are trying to build more muscle and get stronger.
If that is not your goal, and you are simply going there to exercise, then progressive overload will not be as important for you.
This is because you are not actually trying to progress; instead, you are happy just staying the same – in terms of your size/strength – and are content to just reap the various health benefits of the exercise itself.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! If that is you, I would suggest that you stop reading this article, and watch this funny video instead.
But if that isn’t you – and you want to get bigger, stronger, and more muscular – then this is why progressive overload is absolutely essential.
You see, the process of building muscle is called hypertrophy. There are 3 main ways to stimulate hypertrophy, which are:
- Progressive Overload
- Muscle Damage
- Celular Fatigue
Now we’ve already been over what progressive overload is – so to put it in better context let’s quickly take a look at the other 2 ways to achieve hypertrophy.
Muscle damage is, quite literally, the damage that you are causing to your muscles when weightlifting, as opposed to progressive overload which refers to the tension you are putting them under.
When you lift weights at the gym, putting your muscles under tension causes a degree of damage to the actual fibers. When you subsequently give them a chance to recover – and assuming you are getting adequate nutrition – they will repair themselves with stronger fibers than before.
Cellular Fatigue, on the other hand, is caused by pushing your muscles to their metabolic limits, thereby causing muscle failure.
This is typically achieved from doing a high number of repetitions in each set.
Each of these methods can be targeted through gym training – but progressive overload is, by far, the most effective at inducing hypertrophy (muscle growth).
This is why people who just focus on doing high reps of light weight often don’t have very good results, in terms of their physical development.
The same is true for people who focus too much on supersets, dropsets, or other fancy workout protocols – they are much more likely to induce cellular fatigue than progressive overload.
In addition, they are also often at risk of overtraining.
Of course, I am talking about natural weight lifters here; very different rules apply for people who are juicing.
Making Progressive Overload Part Of Your Workouts
So far, we’ve only been dealing in theory here – so let’s bring it back to reality, and how you can practically implement progressive overload training into your workouts.
I’ll break it down into 3 easy steps:
Step 1: Choose a consistent rep range for each of your exercises. I would recommend sticking within the 4-6 range (or sometimes the 6-8 range, depending on the exercise) if you’re looking to maximize hypertrophy.
However, if you prefer to work in a different range – say 8-10 or 10-12 – that is fine. The most important part is to define your range and be consistent!
Step 2: For each exercise, determine the amount of weight that you can lift within that rep range. For instance, if you are going to be working in a 4-6 rep range for the bench press, then you’d want to figure out how much weight you can lift for roughly 4 or 5 reps.
It may take a bit of trial and error to determine this for each exercise – especially if you haven’t worked out like this before.
Step 3: Each time you go to the gym, try to increase either the number of reps or the amount of weight for each exercise you do.
I would advise approaching this very systematically. Work with a weight where you can only do 4 reps initially (maintaining proper form, of course).
Once you are able to do 6 reps of that weight, you would increase the amount of weight by 5-10 pounds. This should leave you able to do around 4 reps of the new weight.
You would then just work up with the new weight, each week pushing for another rep, until you are able to do 6 reps. Then add 5-10 pounds of weight again. Rinse and repeat.
Since this process requires consistency in order to be successful, it is essential that you log each and every one of your workouts.
Anything Else I Should Know?
This article gives you a basic blueprint into starting to incorporate the principle of progressive overload into your workouts, but I won’t pretend that it gives you the full roadmap here.
It is only one piece of the puzzle, and you’ll still need to figure out a sensible workout program, frequency, rep-range, exercise specifics, etc.
Also, there are several other factors to consider. For instance, if you aren’t eating enough calories, and getting the right balance of macronutrients, you aren’t going to have as much success making consistent strength gains as you would be if you had your nutrition in order.
Case in point, you are going to have a tough time making steady strength progressions if you are currently on a cutting diet.
Likewise, if you aren’t sleeping properly, that can also take its toll on your progress.
That being said, progressive overload is truly an indispensable part of working out (at least in my opinion).
In my experience, it is what separates a successful weight lifter – one that is consistently getting stronger and more muscular – from one that tends to indefinitely spin their wheels at the gym.
So go out and start incorporating the principle of progressive overload into your workouts. I guarantee that you will have have a more rewarding gym experience.