Progressive Overload: How Does it Work?


Everyone has a certain limit to what they can accomplish in the gym without extra "supplements". We call it "genetic potential".

Luckily, most people are no where near it and would need years of dedicated effort to get there. Seeing as we don't have to worry about topping out for quite some time, I want to explain how you can keep progressing until you eventually do hit that genetic ceiling. You can keep getting stronger, buffer, leaner, and overall more athletic and good looking for a long time. 

The basic principles of muscle gain will apply until the day they are disproven, which is unlikely due to the overwhelming amount of research supporting over the last decade. You have several methods to work with and I'm going to highlight one of them and show you how to implement them into your training:


Progressive Overload (P.O.)

The theory of progressive overload is often wildly misused and even more often, misunderstood. When talking to a newbie (or sometimes an...oldbie?) about how progressive overload works, they seem to get this idea in their head that you can simply continue adding on more weight to the bar until the end of time.

It's great in theory, but completely unrealistic in practice. As an example, let's take 3 major lifts and apply this "principle" to them over a 5 year span: progressive overload exaggeration

Congratulations! You now have a powerlifting total of: 3,485 lbs. You will never be defeated.

Just kidding. That doesn't really work unfortunately.


But this one does:

You can make significant strength gains in the first couple months to year of your training as a beginner, but as time goes on your strength gains will slow down a lot. This is where other methods can be used to help you keep making progress, just don't expect it to be like in the beginning. As this graph shows, sometimes you get stronger, sometimes you get weaker. 

As much as we all wish our strength would continuously improve, there are times when your strength will decrease and you won't know why. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer as to why that happens.

Your strength loss may be because of outside stress, sickness, overreaching with your training (doing too much to recover from), time, and more. The list goes on and on.

The great thing is, it doesn't last forever. Your goal is to progressively get stronger over a long period of time. If you get stuck at a plateau for a long time, try adjusting some of the variables below.


What Progressive Overload Actually Means

Progress is not one dimensional. You can progress in a many areas aside from increasing the weight and still see appreciable progress. In fact, you haveto progress in other areas in order to keep seeing progress. Without working on this list of items, it's highly unrealistic that you'll continue to see good results. 


Here are some of the basics you'll need to learn how to do:

  • Increasing your range of motion in the exercise (recruiting more muscle fibre)
  • Decreasing your range of motion in certain exercises to focus on building muscle density
  • Increase time under tension (how long the set takes to complete)
  • Increase work volume (adding more sets or reps)
  • Varying exercise selection to recruit new muscle fibres
  • Decrease rest times to increase your work density in a set time period (E.g. 15 sets of X     in 40 minutes vs 15 sets of X in your usual 60)
  • Working on perfecting technique
  • Increasing the amount of muscular contraction used during an exercise
  • Increasing your training frequency (how many days per week you train)
  • Lifting the same weight, but faster (developing speed and power)
  • Being able to push the same amount of weight while weighing less, thereby having a       relatively higher strength to weight ratio
  • Having the ability to perform the same set and rep scheme without fatiguing (increasing   your work capacity)

  And finally...

  • Lifting heavier as a result of these


Looking at this list of items, how many of these would you have expected to be on there?

Lifting heavier is not always the answer to progress. Albeit, it is a spectacular feeling when you can lift more than you could last month; it won't happen every month. So get used to the idea of continually improving in other areas. 

You may find that by picking a couple of these areas to work over the next couple months actually helps increase your max bench, deadlift, squat, overhead press, or whatever.


What does this mean for progress?

Focus on getting stronger, but expect that your progress will not always be a quick as it was in the beginning. The longer you train, the most difficult it becomes to see progress.

Learn as much as you can about all aspects of fitness and strength training. Just because your strength won't always be moving forward consistently doesn't mean you can focus on getting thicker, denser muscles in the meantime. James Harris Profile

James Harris is the founder of Titanium Strength Systems, as well as the head writer and coach. He trains online and in person in Chilliwack, BC. You can find his writing around the internet on websites such as Muscle & Strength, The PTDC, Fitness Pollenator, PTBIZ, and