What is Progressive Overload and Why Do I Need to Know About It?



By Jenny Gusella

Certified Personal Trainer, @jennykgoose


At its essence, resistance training (training against external resistance like dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, or even your own body weight against gravity) is all about teaching your muscles to adapt to a certain amount of force. When you first come up with a gym routine, you select your exercises then you select certain weights to complete those exercises. For the first few weeks, those weights may feel challenging, but over time, your body will adapt and that weight will become easier. Then what?


This is where the idea of progressive overload comes in. If you stick with the same weight over and over, the muscle adaptations will stop. You will plateau. You need to give your muscles a new challenge. The most simple way to do this would be to add a little bit of weight, maybe starting with 5 pounds (or 10 pounds for barbell lifts). It should feel challenging to complete 10 reps at this new weight.


If you are limited in your weight options there are other ways to increase the strain or force on your muscles so that they continue to adapt. First, you could add more reps or sets. Keep in mind, for muscle growth, the 8-12 rep range is ideal, and you should do somewhere between 3-5 sets. Another option would be to decrease rest between your sets, pushing your muscles to do the work in a shorter amount of time. You could also increase the “time under tension” – in other words, do each rep slower.


In short, your goal every time you hit the gym should be to challenge your muscles to work a little bit harder or differently than they did last time. 


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