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What is progressive overload?

Progressive overload is a term thrown around a lot in the fitness community. But what is it? and what does it actually mean?


In short, progressive overload is a method of strength training where you progressively increase the stress to the muscles in order to build strength and muscle mass.


This can be done in a number of ways:

  • Increasing the amount of repetitions per exercise;

  • Increasing the number of sets performed;

  • Decreasing the amount of rest times taken between each set;

  • and of course, adding more weight to an exercise over time.

Essentially you are increasing the stress placed on the body to force adaptations. i.e muscle growth. When the muscles are introduced to a new stress that they haven’t felt before this shocks the body's natural resting state (homeostasis). A basic progressive overload will look like this: Homeostasis (The body's natural resting state) -> New stressor (Work performed) -> Adaptation (Muscle growth). A programme that uses progressive overload will leave the body with no choice but to adapt to the new physical demands, increasing muscular growth and performance.


All forms of progressive overload have their merits, however, adding weight to an exercise is by far the best way to make the greatest long term changes to your physique. Why? because eventually you have to add weight.


You can keep adding reps to a set and exercise, but how many reps can you keep adding before you simply need to add more weight? You can increase the volume (tonnage performed in a workout) but how much additional work can be done before you simply need to add weight? You can decrease your rest times between sets. But how much rest can you keeping cutting down before you simply need to add weight? Adding weight will keep forcing the muscles to get stronger, to meet the demands of the work performed in a session. Adding weight to an exercise creates more mechanical tension. More tension on a muscle over time, means more growth. Progressive overload will ensure that you naturally get stronger over time provided you are training with the correct percentages, volumes, frequencies and intensities. As well as having a decent exercise selection (more of that in another post). If you find yourself in the gym lifting the same weights, for the same number of reps with the same rest period - you will not see any progress. If you find yourself stuck, do get in touch for some programming advice, online coaching or face to face sessions - I am here to help.

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