Progressive Overload: Methods, Application, and Pitfalls

Progressive Overload: Methods, Application, and Pitfalls

No matter who you are, using good ol’ fashion Progressive Overload will give you better results. Anybody who has seen an inkling of results in the gym uses progressive overload whether they know it or not.

The goals of this article are simple:

1. Define Progressive Overload.

2. Show you the various ways to implement Progressive Overload in your training for more efficient results.

3. Cover the most common pitfalls of Progressive Overload, so that you can avoid some mistakes I have made myself.


Progressive Overload is simply following progressions and doing more over time. Exceeding your previous best. Setting personal records. It is the basis of all progress in the gym.

Methods and Application:

Below are 8 ways to implement Progressive Overload into your exercise program for more effective results:

1. Add weight to the bar or (insert favorite lifting implement here_____ ). You are increasing exercise intensity.

The smaller you increase your load each workout, the longer you can progress on that exercise.

Workout 1: 3×10 (Read: 3 sets of 10) Lunges @ 10# dumbbell.
Workout 2: 3×10 Lunges @ 12# dumbbell.

2. Perform more reps. Increase workout volume. Volume is simply Sets x Reps. The more volume you do, the more you can grow, the more calories you burn, and the more muscle endurance you will have.

Workout 1: 4×8 Dumbbell Bench @ 40#.
Workout 2: 4×9 Dumbell Bench @ 40#.
Another Example:
Workout 1: 2 x Max Push-ups => 22+ 13 = 35.
Workout 2: 2 x Max Push-ups => 23 + 13 = 36.

3. Do more sets. Again, you are increasing volume.

Workout 1: 4×5 Deadlift @225#.
Workout 2: 5×5 Deadlift @ 225#.

4. Take less rest between sets. Increase workout density and improve muscular endurance. More work in less time builds better fitness. This is the goal behind CrossFit. And it works when applied systematically.

Workout 1: Perform 3x 10 Pull-ups, 20 Yoga Push-ups, Rest 75 seconds between circuits.
Workout 2: Pull-ups 3×10, 20 Yoga Push-ups, Rest 70 seconds between circuits.

5. Perform more work in the same time. Another way to increase workout density.

Workout 1: With a running clock, perform 5 Tricep Dips on the minute for 8 minutes.
Workout 2: With a running clock, perform 6 Tricep Dips on the minute for 8 minutes.

6. Perform a more advanced version of the same exercise.

Workout 1: Standard Plank 3x 45 seconds
Workout 2: progress to the TRX Plank 3×45 seconds.

7. Increase Range of Motion. Increase the amount of work performed.

Workout 1: Box Squat to a 15” Box for 5×5 @ 315#.
Workout 2: Box Squat to a 14” Box for 5×5 @ 315#.

8. Last, but certainly not least, Perform the same exercise for the same load and volume with better form. This improves exercise efficiency and muscle recruitment.
Workout 1: 3×5 Barbell Squats @ 185#. Form fell apart on a couple reps.
Workout 2: Repeat 3×5 Barbell Squats @ 185# with perfect form.

Progressive Overload Pitfalls:

1. As you add weight, the exercise form tends to change.

What to do about it? Standardize your exercise form. Prioritize form improvements over other methods of progressive overload. Be strict with yourself and don’t allow bad form. If your form changes, you are not making progress and are working different muscles than when your form was perfect.

2. Lifting Tempo changes.

What to do about it?  In addition to standardizing technique, standardize your tempo. The rep speed should remain constant workout to workout. The rep speed determines the time under tension of a given muscle. Time under tension is the amount of time the muscle is working against resistance in a given set. Failure to consider lifting tempo can derail your progress, particularly if you are focusing on higher rep work (5-25 reps) and hypertrophy is your goal.

For example, consider these two lifters:

Lifter 1:
Workout 1: Barbell Curls – 3×10 @ 65#, performed in 60 seconds for each set.
Workout 2: Barbell Curls – 3×10 @ 70#, performed in 37 seconds for each set.
Lifter 2
Workout 1: Barbell Curls – 3×10 @ 65#, performed in 60 seconds for each set.
Workout 2: Barbell Curls – 3×10 @ 70#, performed in 60 seconds for each set.

While both lifters increased their weights, Lifter 2 made his muscles work harder and will experience greater muscle growth. Lifter 1 may have had a harder workout in Workout 1 because his time under tension was longer than in Workout 2. Be like Lifter 2.
3. Trying to follow a Progression too long.

What to do about it? Once progress comes to a screeching halt, don’t despair. Realize the longer you lift, the slower you will progress. Otherwise, everyone would be Hercules! It’s time to change the game plan to break the plateau.
You can reset the effort to a workout from a few workouts before, and build back up with more volume. Or change movements for a slightly new stimulus and set new records. Eventually you should return to your old workouts or exercises to beat those records.

I hope this article gives you new insights in how to make progress in the gym. Skilled manipulation of the various types of progressions discussed in this article will help you avoid plateaus and let you make gains for years to come. Feel free to each out to me if you have any questions.