Progressive Overload is the process of gradually increasing load/weight (or other variables such as range of motion, frequency, sets, reps) as one’s body adapts and becomes stronger.
Understanding the principle of progressive overload in strength training is important for maximizing strength gains and minimizing risk of injury.
Increased strength is the outcome of a multitude of positive adaptations that happen when we engage in moderate to high intensity strength training. In order to for those adaptations to occur we must lift an appropriate load (weight) for our current baseline level of strength.
Selecting an appropriate starting point for any resistance exercise begins with knowing your 1 Repetition Maximum or 1 Rep Max (often abbreviated as “1RM”) for that specific exercise. The easiest way to determine your 1RM for a given exercise is by using a 1 Rep Max Calculator (such as this one).
To see how to use a 1 Rep Max Calculator, check out this quick video tutorial.
To strength training effectively for muscle strength and bone density you’ll use your 1 Rep Max to select a Training Intensity (weight or load) that offers enough resistance for positive adaptations to take place. (Read more about the benefits of resistance training.)
Training Intensity is measured as a percentage of your 1 Rep Max.
Low Intensity = 55-65% of 1RM
Appropriate for warm ups and muscular endurance
High number of repetitions (more than 15)
Moderate Intensity = 65-85% of 1RM
Appropriate for beginning strength training
Moderate number of repetitions (5-15)
High Intensity = 85-100% of 1RM
Ideal for improving muscle strength and bone density
Low number of repetitions (1-5)
For those just beginning to lift heavy weights, it’s a good idea to start with “moderate intensity” loads. This means lifting at about 75% of your 1RM for each exercise for approximately 8-12 repetitions per set.
(Check out this strength training glossary if you need more info on repetitions and sets.)
Over several weeks-to-months you would gradually increase load/weight until you can lift at “high intensity” - somewhere between 85-95% of your 1RM for approximate 2-5 repetitions per set.
You may have noticed that as the amount of load/weight you’re lifting goes up, the number of repetitions goes down.
This is because when you’re lifting to improve strength and bone density you have to lift heavy, but you don’t have to do it a whole bunch of times.
Progressive Overload and the Stress-Recovery-Adaptation Cycle (outlined below) go hand-in-hand to create a well-balanced strength training program.
Stress-Recovery-Adaptation Cycle (see graph below):
Phase 1 — Stress: Muscles are exposed to appropriate strength training loads. This stress prompts fatigue which is reflected in a (temporarily) decline in strength.
Phase 2 — Recovery: Time between training sessions while the body recuperates from applied stress with adequate rest and nutrition.
Phase 3 — Adaptation: Your body intelligently responds by increasing capacity in preparation for the training session.
In the graph above, the grey dotted line represents your “starting ability”. This is the amount of weight you can lift today.
After a strength training session (“stress” on the graph), notice that the red “adaptation” line takes a temporary dip while muscles and bones recover from the stress of the strength training session. This means you are temporarily weaker in the approximately 48 hours after a strength training session.
And this is where the Progressive Overload *magic* happens…
… because after the “recovery” phase is over, notice how the red “adaptation” line begins climbing. This means your muscles and bones are now stronger than they were before your strength training session. This is your “new ability” and ideally you do another round of strength training while that red line is still above the dotted grey “starting ability” line.
And so on, and so on…
I’ll give you an example of using Progressive Overload in strength training from my own weight lifting program...
What you see below is a combination of warm up sets (at a weight I can lift fairly easily – about 70-80% of my 1 Rep Max) and working sets (at weights that are about 85-95% of my 1 Rep Max).
(FYI… an empty barbell weighs approximately 45 pounds.)
On 6/5/23 I did 3 sets of bench press.
Set 1: 45lbs. for 10 reps (warm up)
Set 2: 50lbs. for 8 reps (working set)
Set 3: 55lbs for 5 reps (working set)
Total reps = 23
On 9/18/23 I did 5 sets of bench press.
Set 1: 45lbs. for 5 reps (warm up)
Set 2: 55lbs. for 5 reps (warm up)
Set 3: 60lbs for 5 reps (working set)
Set 4: 65lbs for 4 reps (working set)
Set 5: 65lbs. for 4 reps (working set)
Total reps = 23
Notice that overall the number of repetitions is the same, but I did more total sets with fewer repetitions in each set.
It took me more than 3 months to increase 10 pounds.
When you first begin strength training, your body adapts relatively quickly and increases in the weight you’re able to lift happen faster. As the weight you lift is greater and greater, the increases slow down so it should take longer than 3 months for my next 10 pound increase.
Understand Progressive Overload in Strength Training can help you to understand how to gradually (and patiently) increase load over time to maximize strength and bone density outcomes while minimizing the risk of injury.