Progressive overload: the ultimate guide

Progressive overload is one of the most important strength training principles. In fact, it’s necessary if you want to gain strength or build muscle. In this article we cover everything you need to know about progressive overload training. We also introduce the most convenient way to implement it, using velocity based training. Let’s get started!

By Loek Vossen

Progressive overload vs injury and overtraining

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What is progressive overload?

Progressive overload is a strength training strategy in which you gradually increase the intensity of your workout. Although there are many ways to apply progressive overload, it often means that you increase the load or volume of your training.

A more scientific definition of progressive overload is the act of gradually increasing stress placed upon the muscles and nervous system.

The progressive overload principle is one of the important principles of strength training. The goal is to keep increasing strength performance and hypertrophy gains.

Why progressive overload training is important

Progressive overload is important when you want to continuously increase your strength. In fact, a gradual overload is necessary to constantly achieve strength adaptations. If you would not apply the principle of overload, your strength and hypertrophy improvements quickly plateau.

That said, what are the benefits of progressive overload?

Benefits of progressive overload

The act of putting progressively greater-than-normal stress on your muscles has several (obvious) benefits:

  1. Strength increase
  2. Muscle hypertrophy
  3. Prevents strength plateau
  4. Prevents monotony, which keeps you motivated

Bottom line: you really need progressive overload if you want to continuously increase your weight training performances.

Progressive overload benefits
The benefits of applying the progressive overload principle.

How to do progressive overload

Let’s switch from theory to practice, with some examples of how to implement progressive overload. 

To implement overload training, you need strategies that help to gradually make your workout harder. If you are familiar with velocity based training, you’ll recognize that all these strategies result in a decrease in movement velocity. This is true given that you’re lifting with maximal intent (as fast as possible).

We’ll use this change in movement velocity later on, as a key to implement progressive overload training strategies into your training program. But first, let’s have a look at the strategies that can increasingly overload your training:

1. Increase load

A very straightforward example of applying the overload principle is by increasing the weight you’re lifting. Keep in mind that we’re not looking for ego lifting: lifting more weight than you should, solely to serve your ego. This can quickly lead to injuries and overtraining. More about preventing injuries when progressively overloading in a bit.

Although increasing load is the most common way to apply an overload, there are several ways to do progressive overload without increasing weights. Here are ways to do progressive overload with the same weight:

2. Increase volume

There are 3 simple examples of how to increase training volume. You can increase the number of:

  1. Repetitions per set
  2. Sets per workout
  3. Workouts per week

Especially the latter one is often forgotten. Don’t make the mistake of increasing all three types of volume at once. This could lead to overtraining.

3. Increase difficulty

You can increase the difficulty of an exercise without increasing weight or volume. For example:

Increasing the range of motion

Increasing the range of motion can increase exercise difficulty. A good example is the deadlift. You can increase the range of motion by doing a deficit deadlift: you stand on top of something while keeping the bar on the floor. This creates a longer range of motion, which increases the travel (displacement) of the bar. By doing so, you increase overload by increasing the work performed.

Combine resistance attributes

Instead of increasing the weight, you can combine different external resistances to make your workout harder. Let’s take a bicep curl as an example. When you use a dumbbell, the hardest part of the exercise is somewhere in the middle, e.g. where your elbow is at a 90 degree angle. When you use a resistance band, the hardest part is closer to the end. By combining these two resistance attributes, you can increase overload, without adding any weight.

Reduce momentum

Momentum can help to overcome a challenging part of the exercise. By reducing momentum, you make an exercise more challenging. For instance by adding a pause below knee level during a deadlift. The opposite of reducing momentum during a deadlift would be a touch-and go-deadlift, at which you use a short bounce at the bottom to prevent any stop in bar speed.

Progressive overload examples and strategies
Examples of progressive overload. Left: increase this to create overload. Right: decrease this to create overload.

FAQ: Should I increase reps or weight?

With so many options to apply progressive overload training, you might wonder which one is best. For instance: should you increase volume (repetitions) or weight?

According to a recent scientific study, increasing reps or weight as a way to apply progressive overload is equally effective. Increasing load seemed slightly better for strength improvements, while increasing reps seemed beneficial for hypertrophy. However, the training effect differed a lot per individual, which shows the need for a personal approach.

One way to do that is by looking at the force-velocity profile of an athlete. This profile shows the strength (force), speed (velocity) and therefore power of an athlete. If you’re trying to be an explosive athlete (e.g. rugby player, football player, Olympic weightlifter), but your force-velocity profile shows that you have a high force, low velocity profile, it makes sense to progressive overload without adding weight.

Read the force-velocity profile article to create your profile and learn how to train accordingly.

Force velocity curve
The force-velocity curve shows your strength, velocity (and power).

With these overload strategies, we can now start to implement progressive overload training into our training program. We do this by answering three questions:

  1. When should I increase the weight or intensity of my exercises?
  2. How much weight should I add during each progression?
  3. How to combine progressive overload and periodization?

When to start a progressive overload

Start to increase weight or volume when your workout feels too easy for multiple workouts in a row. Not satisfied with this subjective criterion? Here’s how to objectively know when to increase weight: measure movement velocity.

The best athletes and coaches worldwide measure movement velocity with a velocity based training device to manage their progressive overload. It works very straightforward.

Say your program prescribes 3×10 squats with a 50kg (110lbs) barbell. You perform these sets several times over the course of a couple of weeks. As a result, you become stronger.

The stronger you become, the faster you can lift this 50kg barbell. Makes sense, right? This is the fundamental principle behind velocity based training.

Now increase the weight as soon as your average bar velocity increases by 10% (indicator for strength improvement). 

After you increase the weight, your bar velocity will automatically decrease again.The reason for this is that as the weight increases, it becomes more challenging to move it fast. This phenomenon is also known as the load-velocity relationship.

Squat velocity depending on %1RM, including minimal squat velocity (1RM velocity)
When you increase the weight (e.g. from 40%1RM to 100%1RM), the velocity at which you can lift this weight decreases.

But what if you don’t want to increase the load, and instead prefer to increase volume or difficulty? 

As mentioned earlier, these two progressive overload strategies also affect movement velocity. Did your average bar velocity increase 10% because you got stronger? Add 1-2 reps per set and you’ll notice that your average velocity decreases again. This is due to the fatigue velocity relationship: when fatigue increases, it becomes more challenging to move a bar fast.

(Bar) velocity decreases when fatigue increases
When fatigue increases (e.g. during a set or workout), the maximum velocity at which you can lift a given amount of weight decreases.

In this case, 10% is just an example. You can use any threshold as a trigger to start your progressive overload. The lower your threshold (e.g. 5%), the more often you increase progressive overload – although in smaller increments. In fact, when using velocity based training, you could do a progressive overload every week. Or even every workout session!

That is because when you measure velocity, you can automatically adjust every workout intensity up and down. Instead of using a load or percentage of 1RM as your guideline, use velocity targets or velocity zones, and adjust the load and volume accordingly.

This is called strength training autoregulation and it’s an alternative to percentage based training.

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How much weight should I add during each progression?

In the previous section we learned when to progressive overload, now you probably wonder how fast you should progressively overload. Here’s a rule of thumb: never add more than 10% weight per week during a progression.

However, both sides of the spectrum will quickly experience how impractical this rule of thumb is. If you’re new to resistance training, using very low weights, it will take ages before you significantly increase the weight. On the other hand, experienced lifters can impossibly add another 10% to their current training program. Besides that, the answer probably differs per muscle group (e.g. lower body vs upper body).

Velocity based training (VBT) takes out the guesswork and automatically shows whether you are adding weight too fast or not fast enough.

For example: your VBT program prescribes 3×10 bench presses. It also prescribes a bar velocity of 0.60 m/s when you perform the bench press with maximal intent (as fast as possible).

After a couple of weeks you become significantly stronger. This allows you to move the weight faster (e.g. 0.70 m/s). It’s time to start your progressive overload.

Simply add weight until your movement velocity equals 0.60 m/s again, when pressing as fast as possible . You’ve added too much weight if your velocity drops well below 0.60 m/s.

Instead of specific velocity targets, you can also use the velocity based training zones. If you’re aiming for accelerative strength, your goal is to stay within the 0.75 – 0.5 m/s zone. Increase weight if you’re able to move the bar faster, slow your load increments down if your velocity drops below 0.5 m/s.

Velocity based training zones
Velocity based training zones

Overload training and periodization

Training is about balancing muscle stress and recovery. You can’t continuously add a progressive overload every week.

Deloading and periodization

Since you can’t add a progressive overload every week, it’s best practice to add recovery or deload weeks into your program. A smart athlete or coach uses periodization: pre-planned manipulation of training intensities over the course of weeks or months, to prevent overtraining or undertraining.

Monitoring fatigue, for instance by tracking daily readiness or jump height can help to see when it’s time to stop your progressive overload, and add a deload instead.

Overload when bulking or cutting

If you’re using bulking and cutting diet cycles as periodization, it makes sense to sync them with your overload and deload weeks. It’s recommended to add a progressive overload when bulking. When cutting, it’s still possible to add increments in load, but you should not exaggerate them.

When implementing velocity based training, you will automatically autoregulate your training during bulking and cutting cycles. Therefore, you train hard on days when you’re feeling good, and take it easy on days when recovery is more important.

Injury prevention when increasing overload

The best advice to prevent injury when doing progressive overload training is, to not blindly follow any overload program or 10% rule of thumb. Listen to your body and progress responsibly, using the tips mentioned earlier.

Especially in the beginning of an intensity progression, you should pay extra attention to your form and technique. For instance by double checking your bar path (how you move the weight from start to finish).

10 examples of progressive overload

Here are 10 examples of progressive overload:

  1. Increase the load
  2. Increase the power (load x velocity)
  3. Increase the repetitions per set
  4. Increase the sets per workout
  5. Increase the number of workouts per week
  6. Decrease the inter-set rest time
  7. Increase the range of motion
  8. Combine resistance attributes
  9. Reduce momentum during an exercise
  10. Increase intent

You don’t need to use all overload strategies at once to overload your muscles. The following push up progression shows how to combine several overload examples.

Push ups progression

The push up exercise is a good example of how to implement progression. Here’s just a simple example of how you increase load, volume and range of motion in a responsible way:

Step 1: wall push ups

Start with the easiest push up: wall push ups. Perform 3 sets of wall push ups every day and try to slowly increase the number of repetitions per set, over the course of several days.

Step 2: kneeling push ups

Kneeling push ups are a serious load progression, compared to wall push ups. That’s why you need to first decrease the volume (number of reps). Start with only a few kneeling push ups per set, but aim for 3 sets per day. Then slowly increase the number of reps per set, similar to what you did in step 1, to create volume overload.

Step 3: regular push ups

Once you’re able to do a fair amount of kneeling push ups per day, it’s time to try a regular push up. Again: first drastically decrease volume, with only a few reps per set. Then increase volume again.

Step 4: increase range of motion

Up for a challenge? Use a set of (hexagon) dumbbells or push up grips to increase the range of motion of your push up. This is a good example of intensity progression without adding any weight.

You could do a similar progression with pull ups, starting with the help of elastic resistance bands and finishing with weighted pull ups or even muscle ups.

Progressive overload: strength vs hypertrophy gains

Strength and hypertrophy are two different goals. Therefore, the progressive overload should be different too.

If muscle growth is your goal, you should aim to increase muscle stress. You can do this in many ways, for instance by adding load and volume (e.g. reps per set). You can also decrease inter-set rest. One important aspect in hypertrophy overloading is to always safely train close to failure.

However, if an increase in strength is your goal, you should be a bit more cautious. You want to lift heavy, but maintain quality. While those who want to build muscle can easily increase volume up to 25 reps per set, strength athletes shouldn’t increase volume that much (e.g. stay below 8 reps per set).

Progression for strength athletes is more about adding weight and less about increasing volume. Moreover, while decreasing inter-set rest is an overload strategy for hypertrophy, strength athletes are probably better off keeping sufficient recovery between sets. Additionally, strength athletes should not focus on training to failure, but instead consider implementing low velocity loss thresholds to maintain quality.

Here’s a video diving deeper into the differences between progressive overload for hypertrophy vs strength:

Summary

In summary: whether you are a beginner or an elite athlete, progressive overload is a must if you want to become stronger and build muscle.

Adding load is not the only way to create intensity progression. If you want to know which overload strategy works best for you, you should have a look at your personal force-velocity profile and compare it to your goals (e.g. strength vs muscle hypertrophy).

Implementing a gradual overload should not be made more complicated than it is. The easiest way to do it without risking injury or overtraining is by using the velocity based training method:

Start a progressive overload when your bar velocity starts to increase at a given load. For example: if you notice your bar velocity in a 50 kg back squat is 10% faster than a month ago, it’s time to increase the load or volume. Simply increase it until the velocity is back to your initial velocity, target velocity or velocity training zone.

Learn more about implementing velocity based training via the form:

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FAQ

How often should I increase progressive overload?

You can progressive overload every workout with small increments. You can also use larger overload steps if you increase the overload less often. For best practices on how often you should increase your load, jump to this section: When to start a progressive overload.

Do I progressive overload every week?

Yes, you can progressive overload every week, as long as you keep the increments small. Make sure to avoid ego-lifting, and instead add overload in a responsible way.

Should I overload until failure?

A progressive overload is not per se until failure. If muscle hypertrophy is your goal, it is advised to safely train close to failure, during your overload.

What’s the difference between progressive overload, linear progression and step loading?

Linear progression is a form of progressive overload in which you increase load in a linear fashion during your training program. Step loading is a form of progressive overload in which you use bigger load increments, but less often. In other words, you stick to a certain load for a longer period of time.

What is the 2 for 2 rule for progressive overload?

The “2-for-2 rule” says that you can increase the weight once you can perform 2 additional reps beyond your rep goal for the last set, for 2 weeks in a row. It’s a rule of thumb that helps to understand when it’s time to start a progressive overload. Here’s a more individualized approach that shows when you can start your overload.

References – scientific literature

  • Plotkin, D., Coleman, M., Van Every, D., Maldonado, J., Oberlin, D., Israetel, M., Feather, J., Alto, A., Vigotsky, A. D., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2022). Progressive overload without progressing load? The effects of load or repetition progression on muscular adaptations. PeerJ10, e14142.
Loek Vossen

Loek Vossen

Human Movement Scientist | Content Marketing and Education