Progressive Overload: What You Need to Know to Get Stronger


So I spent a while yesterday outlining my first blog to be titled “Does Calorie Counting Work?” and realised after about 1500 words and hardly having finished the introduction, that it’s one hell of a broad topic for my rookie blog post. I have no idea how to answer the question adequately without dipping into all sorts of other topics I haven’t yet written about.

Baby steps Chris. Baby steps.

So instead, I decided to narrow my focus, and at the same time blog about something completely different: How to warm-up for max effort lifting. But even this was too complex!I needed to get even more basic.

With that in mind, welcome to my first article: Progressive Overload: the single, number one, primo, numero uno, most important concept in strength training.


What is progressive overload?

To introduce the concept, allow me to quote a paragraph from Supersquats (Ironmind publications, page 23), one of the best training-aids of all time:

“The overload principle states that unless you do more than you are used to, you won’t build muscular size or strength. All those training clichés like “no pain, no gain” reflect the overload principle (…) The principle of progressive resistance goes back to Milo of Crotona, who carried a calf a given distance each day in ancient Greece – as the calf grew, so did Milo, getting bigger and stronger for his efforts. Adding five or ten pounds to the squat bar every workout simulates the process (…)”

In a nutshell: If no variables (examples: number of reps, weight lifted, bar speed, number of sets) improve from your previous workout, you will not make any improvements. And let’s be clear, we’re talking about getting stronger here, if you goal is to stay as you are, then you may stop reading: this article is not for you.

Once again I’m struggling not to lapse into scientific jargon, but basically everything in your body is governed by your Central Nervous System (or CNS), and it is concerned with keeping you safe, not getting you swole. If you perform the same exercises (weight, sets, reps, the lot) week-in, week-out, your CNS will respond by building you up to the precise level necessary for you to perform that exercise safely (think beginner gains).

If you up a variable each week, the CNS is forced to take an adaptive response to the increased load – and you will get bigger, stronger, or faster (all any combination of these) depending on how you train. Generally speaking (and please take this with a huge pinch of salt):

  • Increasing the weight makes you stronger;
  • Increasing the total load (weight x reps) makes you more muscular;
  • Increasing bar speed makes you faster, or more explosive;
  • Increasing the number of reps, and / or reducing the rest-period between sets will improve your conditioning.


Practical application

Rule #1 – keep a training journal

In short: this is why every smart man will keep a training journal. Unless you’re some kind of superhuman, you will not be able to remember the precise number of reps/ sets/ speed/ rest periods for the plethora of exercises you perform in a given week.

Write all your shit down, and this will not only allow you to ensure you are continually improving, but provides you with a target to hit each workout (more on the importance of targets in a future blog), and allows you to look back and see just how much stronger you have become; and trust me, this feels pretty damn good and is a great motivator!

Rule #2 – start conservatively

This one is a tough pill to swallow for some people; but don’t be afraid to start with a weight that you can handle easily. This is the concept of “peaking” used by competitive lifters, and there are a few notable benefits:

  1. Firstly, it gives you time to nail down your form (and do not underestimate the importance of conditioning neural motor patterns, or greasing the groove1);
  2. second, it provides a much-needed break or de-load period, since your body cannot take the strain of adding 10lbs a week to your squat indefinitely (see: adrenal fatigue, burnout, over-training, call it what you will); and
  3. Finally, it means you will be able to utilise progressive overload for a decent stretch before you hit point 2 above.

Rule #3 – Stick to the plan

Similar to rule #2: this means you do not, under any circumstances, do more than you’re supposed to on that day because you still feel you have “more in the tank”. That is not the point. The specific whys of this is the topic of a future blog, but for now, just have a little faith.

Rule #4 – Planning breaks into your schedule

A planned break, or Strategic deconditioning, is where you purposely let-up for a week or two to allow your body some time to recover and catch-up on the adaptive response we mentioned earlier, to avoid bullet 3 in Rule #2. Again, this is a hard pill for some to swallow, but the important things to remember here are:

Hitting burnout (or over-training, or adrenal fatigue, take your pick) is when you fail to improve, and in most cases means you will feel and perform worse than last week not better. Take what we said about adaptive response earlier, and you can see why not only is this painful, dangerous (training to muscular failure is always dangerous in my opinion), and damned demoralising; but is not beneficial to your body.

In short, you can either plan breaks, or your body will force you to take them (see my earlier point about your CNS being most concerned with keeping you safe): Always keep in mind Mark Reifkind’s tongue-in-cheek “classic tough-guy periodization” of light, heavy, heavier, heaviest… injury – can you guess the point where a planned break would have been a good call?


A quick demonstration

Right, so now we’re all (hopefully) clued up on the whats, whys and hows of factoring progressive overload into your training. But just to be sure, here are a few pointers:

  • First, decide how long you want the overload period to be (weeks, or number of sessions) – 6-10 sessions before a planned break is a good number.
  • Decide on where you want to be at the end of that period. For example, if your current Bench press 5RM (five rep max) is 225lbs, adding 10% to that number is a reasonable target (so 250lbs, roughly).
  • So in week 8, we will aim to perform 250lbs for 5 reps. Working backwards, on the assumption we want to add 10lbs per week, means:

Week 8: 250 lbs

Week 7: 240lbs

Week 6: 230lbs

Week 5: 220lbs

Week 4: 210lbs

Week 3: 200lbs

Week 2: 190lbs

Week 1: 180lbs

So for the first 5 weeks of the ‘cycle’, you are lifting a weight you can already do. I’m dead serious about this: refer to Rule #3.

Week 9 you will either do nothing, or you will train with weights no heavier than 135lbs. See Rule #4.

This technique will not only improve your strength, it will almost certainly improve your form, your confidence, and give you a keyhole-view into the world of possibilities if you employ real strength techniques in the gym.

And remember folks, there’s plenty more where that came from. Just give me time to write it all down.

–          fullcirclestrength



1. – ‘Greasing the groove’ – Chapter 5, The Naked Warrior, by Pavel Tsatsouline.

Further reading on this topic:

‘Unrealisitc’ Athletic Goals: Why and How to Pursue Them

Pavel: 80/20 Powerlifting and How to Add 110+ Pounds to Your Lifts

Dave Tate’s Iron Evolution: Phase 1 – Progressive Overload

One thought on “Progressive Overload: What You Need to Know to Get Stronger

  1. Pingback: Weight Training 101: A beginner guide (PART 1) | fullcirclestrength

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