I talk about progressive overload a lot on my channel, but I wanted to give a more detailed explanation of exactly what progressive overload is and how you can use it to maximize your muscle building results.
What Is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload is a gradual increase in stress on the musculoskeletal and the nervous system.
So you’re doing more work over time while giving your body a chance to adapt.
The Rules Of Progressive Overload
I’m gonna explain how you can do progressive overload, what the rules are.
And at the end, I’m gonna include some important warnings so that you avoid getting injured, doing this training method. I’m gonna tell you how often you should change your training variables, whether you’re a beginner or advanced. Because it’s different.
I’m also gonna talk about deloading and whether that’s something that you need to include in your progressive overload plan.
Progressive Overload & Cardio
Now you can, and you should apply progressive overload to cardio training, but we normally think of it in terms of weight training or resistance training your muscles grow in response to a training stimulus.
This process is called adaptation.
And if you’re constantly keeping the stimulus the same, then you’re not going to see muscle growth or any development in strength.
Variables To Change For Progressive Overload
In order to produce progressive overload, you can change a number of things.
I’m gonna include the more obvious things that we normally change. And also a few that you might not have thought about.
The most obvious example is weight. That’s the amount of resistance you’re using.
So if you’re doing biceps curls with 10 pound weight, then you move yourself up to let’s say 12 pound weights.
So the next thing would be reps or repetitions. And that’s simply how many times you’re doing the exercise. So if you’re curling with your biceps 10 times, then your repetitions are 10.
Six to 12 reps has generally been considered the best range for optimal muscle development.
Recent research seems to suggest that higher rep ranges may also produce quite good muscle growth and perhaps equivalent muscle growth, but six to 12 is still a good range to work in.
The next variable that you can change is sets. Often beginners start off with two or three sets.
There’s a standard beginner protocol. It’s like three sets of 10 for just about everything. And you’ll see that often when there’s general programming. It’s always three times 10.
But there are a lot of different ways you can do it.
There are different training systems. You can be five by five. So five sets of five reps. That means the weight that you’re gonna be using is actually heavier than you would be using for three sets of 10.
Pushing Your Muscles To Their Limits
Because in general, you want to do the amount of reps that you can only do without weight. So if you’re using a weight that you could do 20 reps to do three sets of 10, then you’re not gonna get that benefit. And you’re not really working with progressive overload.
12 to 20 sets per muscle group per week has been shown to be ideal for muscle building. Again, for some people they can handle more sets for each muscle group, but this is where a lot of the idea of splitting body parts, upper body and lower body comes from because you only wanna stress the muscle a certain amount per per week.
The sets and reps adds up to training volume. And we generally think of it over the course of a week.
Part of that includes the other variable that you can change, which is frequency. So if you’re only training one day a week with weights, then you can increase it to two or three days a week, and you’re gonna increase your training volume that way.
And that’s a way of progressing more training volume, as long as it’s within a reasonable range and allows recovery is going to mean more muscle building.
Progressive Overload As We Age
As we get older, we tend to not respond that well to higher training volume. So we need more recovery. If you’re in that 35 plus crowd than usually you need a little bit more rest than you would’ve when you were in your early twenties, for instance. So you’ll actually do better with a slightly lower training volume, maybe only 12 sets per muscle group per week, as opposed to the higher end, which is 20 sets per muscle group per week.
In terms of frequency, research indicates that hitting each major muscle group twice a week is probably ideal for muscle building.
Range Of Motion
One of the variables that you can change to achieve progressive overload that most people don’t think about is range of motion.
So if you’re doing only half squats and then coming back up, you can go to a fuller range of motion and that’s gonna be a progression because it’s definitely harder to do a full squat all the way down than it is just to do a half squat say to bench level.
Another thing that you can change that most people don’t mention is density.
The workout density is just how much you do in that workout. You can do the same amount of sets and reps, but you can make it more dense by shortening your rest period. So you’re gonna do exactly the same amount of work, but you’re going to do it in a shorter timeframe. And of course that’s gonna be harder than taking the time to rest. It’s not something that you wanna use that often, but occasionally if you wanna stick to exactly the same program, it will give you a little bit of progressive overload.
Rules Of Progressive Overload
Now, here are the major rules of progressive overload.
Use Excellent Technique
Use excellent technique. So it does you no good to increase your weight, but then your form gets really sloppy and you may get injured. You have to use really good technique. And once you can do that particular weight very well, then you can move yourself up.
We generally talk about an increase of no more than 10% per week.
And it’s really easy to think about this in terms of running so runners when they measure their mileage. So they may do 50 miles one week and they don’t wanna do any more than 10%.So 55 miles the next week, the next week, they don’t want any more than 60.5 miles. And then so on now with weight training, let’s say you start off squatting a hundred pounds. So you wouldn’t wanna go any higher than 110 pounds the next week.
Sometimes these numbers don’t really work out. It depends on the exercise. It’s not often practical with dumbbells because you’re not going to have a small increment. So you might just have to watch to make sure you’re not doing big jumps. Keep the increases relatively small, gives your muscles a chance to adapt, and you’re less likely to injure yourself.
And you definitely wanna avoid getting injured because that means you might have to stop your training. And you’re gonna set yourself yourself back even further. So try not to push yourself too hard, too fast.
Don’t Expect Progress To Be Linear
Along the same lines. Don’t expect progress to be linear now, especially with the big body weight exercises, squats and deadlifts, maybe lunges. It’s not gonna progress up 10% per week. Every week. You’ll get to a point where you can’t increase it at all.
And if you look at some isolation exercises, a lateral raise, for instance, if you’re just lifting up with the shoulders, you’re not going to be able to find the right weight to just do a 10% increase. So you might be on the same weight for several weeks before you’re able to move up to the next higher dumbbell for instance.
Muscle adaptation tends to happen in waves and there’ll be periods when you’re stuck on the same weight for a month or maybe two. Once you’re quite experienced and you’ve got five years or more of solid weight training, you’re not going to see major changes.
Change The Exercise
So what you can do instead is change up the exercise. If you’ve been working on a back squat, you can switch to a front squat, and there’s so many variations.If you think about it as well, like a lunge exercise, there are so many ways of using that exercise and changing it in order to get some more adaptation.
Differences Between Beginners & Advanced Trainees
Now I’m gonna go through some of the differences between beginners and then more advanced trainees.
Normally, if you’re a beginner, you’re going to see bigger changes at the beginning.
It’s something we call newbie gains.
And that’s usually in terms of muscle size, but it’s going to happen with strength as well. And most of those newbie gains occur in the first year of training of solid proper training. So some people will be training for 20 years and they don’t know what they’re doing. They never use progressive overload. So they’re not really getting the ideal amount. Newbie gains tend to last about a year with the biggest gains happening in the first six months of proper training. So once you’re through that period, if you’re more experienced, you can’t expect the changes to happen that frequently. You’re gonna see much more incremental changes in the amount of muscle that you’re putting on and your strength.
Benefits Of Being A Beginner
If you’re a complete beginner and you’ve never done any weight training before than you’re gonna see some impressive changes right at the beginning. Practically anything you do, even if it’s not an ideal workout, because it’s still more than you’ve been doing before. It’s really easy to see results. If you’ve never done weight training before, or if you’ve been completely sedentary.
So that’s the benefit of being a beginner!
This by the way, is why a lot of people will start working out and not really know what they’re doing and still seek changes. And then they get to a certain point and nothing’s really happening because they’re probably using the same weight over and over using the same sets and reps.And they’re wondering why they’re not getting results anymore.
Progressive Overload And Weight Loss
Remember that progressive overload changes. If you’re losing weight at the same time, you may also notice that you’re getting weaker as you lose weight. Especially if it’s a large amount of weight that you’re losing. Particularly for big lifts, like squats and deadlifts. You may find that you can’t lift as much as you did before at your heavier weight for body weight exercises.
As you’re losing weight, you’re actually giving your muscles less stimulus. So doing body weight, step-ups when you’re 250 pounds is a lot harder than when you’re only 200 pounds.
This actually happened to a client of mine. He lost about 80 pounds and I needed to give him more weight for those particular exercises, because he was always lifting 80 pounds less for a step up. For instance, he’d have to be holding a heavier weight than he did before. And maybe he might do a higher step up because if you increase that range of motion, it’s also going to make the exercise more challenging.
How Often Should You Progress?
And now we come to that key question, how often should you progress?
This varies depending on whether you’re a beginner or more advanced.
Beginners can do the same thing for longer periods of time without needing to change, they’re still gonna see results. So they might do exactly the same program for three months, for instance, and still be able to get results from it. If somebody’s been training for 10 or 15 years, then they need to change their program more frequently.
“Muscle Confusion” Is A Made-Up Marketing Term
The main thing that I wanna get across is that you don’t want to change your program too frequently.
That whole idea of muscle confusion, and you just want to change your workout every session. That’s not how ideal muscle building works.
It’s going to work for complete beginners who are doing nothing before. Which is why some of those programs that encourage changing your program all the time, do initially work. As I said, beginners, respond to practically anything. But after a while, you need to apply progressive overload in order to see results.
So it takes time for your body to adapt to the program that you’re using and for your muscles to grow in response. And to get stronger.
The Right Time To Progress
I find that about four to six weeks works for most people from both a physical and a psychological standpoint. Because even though you’re gonna be getting results from a program for three months, you might be totally bored with it. And you’re going to be demotivated and perhaps not pushing yourself as much.
Should You Deload?
Now, should you have a deloading phase?
We often think of a deload phase for athletes that are doing a periodized program in order to peak for competition. They’re pushing themselves very, very hard with progressive overload, but at some point they actually take it down a little bit and reduce their volume in order to improve recovery. And then they’re going back to pushing things up again.
Now, if you are just building muscle for your own purposes, just so you can be fit and healthy, or because you wanna improve your appearance (I’m not gonna judge!). It really doesn’t matter in terms of deloading.
Adjusting Your Program For Your Life
You want to go by what’s happening in your life. If you’re going through a very stressful period, for instance, or you’re really busy, then it’s a good time maybe to take the volume down or not to keep pushing for a really heavy weight because your body can only take so much before it becomes overwhelmed. And then you’re not going to see the recovery and the progress that you’d like. Sometimes pushing yourself in the gym when you’re going through a really stressful period, overwhelms your body’s capacity to recover.
And that means you’re not going to get results. You may actually make yourself sick. If you’re depressed your immune system, by going too hard, or you may get injured, your body’s capacity for recovery is tied to both physical and mental factors.
A Vacation Is As Good As A Deload?
I also think that if you’re going on a vacation, that’s a great time to do a bit of a deload take your time off the weight and maybe just stay active during that vacation. I recently did a video about avoiding weight gain on vacation. So I talk a little bit about not bothering to go to the gym and doing other things instead. So that could be considered a deload phase of your weight training program.
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Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 9-year-old boy. She is a YouTuber, writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training, chocolate, mountain biking, and ice cream...not always in that order of preference.