Progressive Overload: The What, Why & How
When you’re working out, pushing yourself is paramount. Doing the same thing over and over again might be the easy way, but easy just isn’t my style. Plus, you want to see results from using BUILD, right?
It’s so important to challenge yourself and continually build on the success of your previous heavy-lifting session.
Your body adapts each time you exercise and if you don’t make your workout a little bit harder each time, you’ll limit your ability to grow. But, how do you do this? Meet the progressive overload principle.
What is progressive overload?
Progressive overload is dialling up the stress you put on your body while exercising over time, or “overloading” it in an effort to grow your muscles and become stronger. The progressive overload principle is made up of four different things: volume, intensity, density and frequently.
By introducing progressive overload into your everyday exercise routine, you’ll maximise performance and achieve meaningful muscle growth. And who doesn’t want that?
Here I deep-dive into the details and share simple ways to integrate the overload principle into your workouts.
Putting the “progress” in progressive overload
The progressive overload principle has been around for a very long time. Today, it remains an important part of many training programs for athletes, gym-goers — and users of BUILD!
Progressive overload plays a super important role in BUILD. Those who are familiar with my powerbuilding program will know that each week the workouts change and build in intensity. This increased pressure on your body is key to smashing goals and measuring positive changes in your performance.
One of the most important things? BUILD has been thoroughly and strategically planned.
For example — you’ll see that an additional resistance session is added at the end of the first nine weeks in the BUILD beginner program, as well as in the BUILD 2.0 program (this means that the frequency has increased).
You’ll also notice that you’re provided with suggested weights for all of the primary movements which gradually change over time (this means that the intensity has increased).
Remember, nothing is achieved overnight — progressive overload takes hard work, measurement and time.
Understanding how progressive overload works
Gradually increasing stress on your body triggers its natural, adaptive responses. These responses only kick in when the body is placed under a certain level of pressure. As the pressure increases so do your body’s resistance and strength. Hence the term: gains.
It might sound simple and a little obvious: push harder to increase performance. But, progressive overload takes planning and strategy. If you’re not tracking what you’re doing, you won’t know how to progress, right? And if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten!
Growing your muscles and boosting performance
So, what does progressive overload actually mean when it comes to working out? Progressive overload requires a gradual increase in volume, intensity, density and frequency.
Basically, doing more sets and/or reps, lifting heavier weights, completing your powerbuilding workout in a shorter space of time and increasing the number of workouts you do each week.
Move over leg day, it’s about leg days. (If you’re looking for a leg workout, here’s a good place to start.)
Volume: More reps, more sets
Doing more sets or reps is an easy, achievable way to include progressive overload in your workouts.
When five reps become easy, increase your reps to six. Follow the same logic for your sets to make sure you’re still being challenged in each workout. (See the rep suggestions in the BUILD app for a guide.)
It might be tempting to increase your reps across the board, but monitor each part of the body separately. Your legs might be stronger than your arms, or vice versa. That’s totally OK!
Tracking your progress is really important when it comes to increasing volume. Take note of what you lift in each workout in the BUILD app. You can record reps completed and weights lifted in increments of 0.5kgs by hitting the arrow button once you're done with the exercise.
- Be realistic and track each part of your body separately. Once workouts become easy, gradually increase your reps or sets to continue muscle growth. Log your progress after each workout.
Intensity: Gradually upping your weights
When it comes to growing your muscles, lifting heavier weights is probably the most common solution you’ll hear. And that’s for good reason. But it’s not so black and white.
Lifting heavier weights will help increase the intensity of your workout and put your muscles under more stress. You can opt for slightly heavier weights in each unique exercise, as your body gets stronger.
Little by little you’ll see progress and increase performance. If you’re new to lifting heavy, it’s important to understand it and do some research first.
RPE, a rating of the perceived effort of an exercise, is a great way to measure the intensity of your workout. You’ll find the RPE rating next to each exercise in the BUILD app.
While intensity is an important part of progressive overload, using it alone could see your progress plateau or lead to soft tissue injury. It’s also not physically possible to simply add more weight every session or every week.
Imagine if you started with an empty barbell (20kg) and attempted to add 2.5kg to the bar every week. After six months, you’d be lifting 85kg — which is totally doable — but after one year of this progression you’d be lifting 150kg and after two years you’d nearly be breaking world records lifting up to 280kg. As amazing as this sounds, it’s just not sustainable or achievable long term.
So, consider combining different elements and follow my advice in the app.
- Gradually increase your weights over time, and keep a record of what you’re lifting so you can measure your progress.
Density: Putting the “work” into your workout
Workout density combines volume and duration: that is, the total work you do in a workout and how long it takes you to do it.
Let’s say your lifting session typically involves doing ten sets of three reps in roughly 15 minutes. Increasing the density of your workout would mean completing the same session but in 13 minutes. What this doesn’t mean is rushing your workout.
Instead, gradually reduce your rest time between sets. Usually rest for three minutes? Rest for two and a half. Keep an eye on the clock to track your time, or choose a short tune for in-between sets.
Always focus on form. Make sure you use machines correctly. Focus on your breathing as you lift. Don’t rush.
Frequency: Get set to spend more time at the gym
Those using my BUILD program will be aware of the recommended lifting sessions per week and which areas of the body to focus on when.
But, of course, your training journey is unique and it’s totally fine to increase the frequency of your training. Just be realistic and make sure you’re not overdoing it. Overdoing it will only lead to injury and unwanted setbacks. No one wants that!
Adding an additional session over time (either resistance, HIIT or LISS) is a great way to apply overload. However, this is only effective if you’re able to recover from the increase in workload! So, this element should be manipulated with caution, and I would strongly recommend following the progression with the BUILD programs.
- Strength and muscle improvement actually happens in the time between your gym sessions. So, if you don’t recover properly from a powerbuilding workout, your performance and growth will suffer. Be realistic about how many sessions you do.
Challenge equals change!
Progressive overload sounds a whole lot more complicated than it really is. What it boils down to is continually challenging yourself over time to perform, grow and feel your absolute best.
It’s important to remember that while progressive overload combines four elements — volume, intensity, density and frequency — you absolutely don’t need to increase all of these at once. As I always say, think long term and work hard. The results will come!
Looking for a new lifting challenge? I’m proud to have recently launched BUILD 2.0 — a more advanced powerbuilding program for women who love to lift. Here you’ll find everything you need to take your fitness journey to the next level, including a workout planner and progress metrics.
I hope you learned lots about progressive overload. Make sure to log your progress in the BUILD app, keep track of how you’re doing and make measured improvements. How will you boost your workouts?
* Results from BUILD may vary. Strict adherence to the program is required for best results.