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Why Progressive Overload is Key to Getting Real Results

Build strength faster, break through plateaus, and make your workouts more efficient with this proven training principle.

Person using the weight dial on Tonal

To get stronger, you need to keep challenging yourself. Do the same workout week after week with the same weight, and those exercises will start feeling easy. Your muscles will no longer be forced to adapt to meet the demand.  

That’s the idea behind progressive overload, a training principle proven to get you closer to your goals by safely and systematically increasing the difficulty of your workouts over time. 

Here’s how you can incorporate progressive overload into your training to make your workouts as productive and efficient as possible.

What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is the intentional manner of applying a training stimulus that exceeds the current capabilities of the kinetic chain to elicit the optimal physical, physiological, and performance adaptations. Translation: It’s necessary to gradually and methodically increase the stress of your workouts over time. 

In strength training, that stress can come by increasing intensity through resistance; volume through additional sets and repetitions in a workout, or the frequency with which you lift each week; increasing workout density by altering your work-to-rest ratios; or varying the type and complexity of exercises you perform. 

The goal of progressive overload in programming is to “increase the stress placed on the body to continue driving adaptation,” says Josh Clay, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and Fitness Programming Specialist at Tonal.

Why is Progressive Overload Effective?

When you’re learning anything new, it makes sense that you’d start with easier tasks and progress to more difficult ones as your skill level increases. Think about running: If your goal is to run a marathon, you won’t go out and run 20 miles in your first long run. You’ll begin with a shorter, more appropriately challenging distance, then build up to longer ones as your body adapts. 

“Our bodies change through signals from the environment,” says Tonal coach and certified personal trainer Tim Landicho. With weight lifting, the primary mechanism for signaling change is tension in the form of resistance, he explains. In response to this signal, receptors within muscle cells trigger the production of new muscle tissue. To spark that response, though, the signal has to be strong enough to challenge your body’s current baseline. 

When you first start lifting, it doesn’t take much resistance to spark change. However, as you get stronger and your body gets used to lifting certain weights, your muscles and nervous system require more stimulus to change.

“Progressive overload allows you to train over the course of the long term,” says Christian Hartford, Senior Performance Manager of Applied Sports Science at Tonal. He explains that gradually increasing a training variable in a periodized and intelligent way ensures you’re continually providing your body with an appropriate level of stress to stimulate adaptation.

“You want to expose your body to an increasing level of stress that helps create adaptation, but isn’t so high that your body has a negative response to it.” 

—Christian Hartford

How Often Do You Increase Weight with Progressive Overload?

The key to successful progressive overload is increasing stress—through overall volume, resistance, or time—at a sustainable rate that will help you make gains over time without leading to injury. 

“You want to expose your body to an increasing level of stress that helps create adaptation, but isn’t so high that your body has a negative response to it,” says Hartford. “That’s the difference between progressive overload and overtraining.” 

The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends increasing your overall volume by no more than 10 percent each week. For example, if you’re trying to apply progressive overload to your bench press, and you’re currently lifting 50 pounds, try lifting 55 pounds next week. If you’re doing 3 sets of 10 reps in your bench press (30 reps total), aim for 3 sets of 11 reps (33 reps total) the following week. 

Since we all respond to training and recovery slightly differently, it’s also important to pay attention to how you feel during and after your workouts. Hartford explains that if you’re experiencing excessive soreness or losing motivation to train, you might be overdoing it. A little delayed-onset muscle soreness is normal after a tough session, but if you’re experiencing full-body fatigue, consider taking a step back or slowing down your progression.

On the flip side, if your workouts are starting to feel less demanding and you feel like you could keep going beyond your prescribed rep count, it’s probably time to amp up your training.

What to Do If You Hit a Plateau with Progressive Overload

It’s impossible to increase resistance forever, but when you hit a plateau with weight, you can still achieve progressive overload and make strength gains by changing other variables such as your rep count, exercise type, or work-to-rest ratio. 

“The answer isn’t always more,” says Clay. “You may just need to modify the stimulus.” Introducing different training styles or new exercises can be equally effective. 

In one recent study, participants who increased resistance in four lower-body exercises saw similar results as those who increased the number of repetitions in the same exercises in an eight-week training cycle. Similarly, another study found that it’s possible to make strength gains by varying your exercises even when the level of intensity stays constant. 

For example, if you’ve been doing a program with a lot of bench pressing, Hartford recommends switching to one that features standing incline presses or single-arm bench presses. “Exercise variation is usually a good way to expose the body to a novel stimulus that will help it break out of its cycle.”

Or, if you typically train for hypertrophy, consider shifting to a program geared toward strength and power to give your body a new challenge.

Landicho explains this is especially true for advanced exercisers who may be well past their “newbie gains” and find they’re making only incremental progress with their lifts. For those lifters, he recommends trying advanced training methods such as drop sets, that allow you to keep accumulating volume without adding resistance.  

Alternatively, if you’ve hit a plateau, try taking a deload week in between training programs. Hartford explains that a week of active recovery can “press the reset button” for your body so you can come back stronger when you start lifting heavy again.

How to Track Progressive Overload

If you’re not tracking your workouts, you run the risk of selecting the same weights every time and not actually applying progressive overload. That’s why it’s essential to record your weights, reps, and sets for each exercise so you know how much you lifted last time and if you’re making progress. 

Keep a log of your resistance, rep, and set count for each exercise along with notes on how difficult your workouts feel. While you can do this on paper or on your phone, Tonal makes tracking effortless by automatically logging your workout data and continuing to challenge you.

How to Create a Progressive Overload Workout Plan 

Your progressive overload workload plan will depend on your personal goals. Hartford explains that your goal will determine the variable you should focus on manipulating. Here’s a general breakdown of what he suggests:

How to Use Progressive Overload for Your Goal
Build Strength: Increase resistance
Hypertrophy: Increase total volume
Fat Loss: Increase workout density (work-to-rest ratio)

One way to increase total volume, according to Landicho, is the double progression method in which you first focus on adding reps and then add resistance. For example, if you can currently squat 100 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps, keep the weight the same but work up to performing 3 sets of 12 reps. Once that feels doable, up the resistance to 110 pounds, return to 3 sets of 10 reps, and repeat the process. 

Working out on Tonal takes the guesswork out of progressive overload. As Tonal senses your range of motion, power output, and speed in a movement improving, it will automatically increase the resistance to a level that’s more appropriate for your current ability. When you work out with free weights, you might only have dumbbells that go up in five- or 10-pound increments (often greater than a 10 percent increase), but Tonal increases weight in one-pound increments so you can build gradually at your own pace. 

On Tonal, multi-week programs have progressive overload built in so you can just focus on showing up. Depending on the level and goal of the program you choose, reps or sets may increase as the weeks progress or new, more challenging exercises may be introduced in the later weeks. For programs where the exercises and rep schemes stay consistent, you’ll still increase your volume week-over-week as Tonal automatically bumps up the resistance to meet your new strength. These increases are kept in the safe 10-percent-per-week range to set you up for success.

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