What is Progressive Overload and How Can It Help Me Become A Better Athlete?

Performance & Sport

Progressive overload is one of the foundational principles necessary for any training program. As an athlete, it is especially important in order to see continual progress and improvements.

Progressive overload is defined as the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. In order for muscles to grow, for strength to increase, or for performance to improve, the body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.

The human body is able to adapt to its environment as well as stresses placed upon it. So, if you continue to do the same workout week to week, your body will adapt, get stronger, and then stall. To continue to see progress, you must continue to force your body to adapt.

If your goal is to see an increase in strength or physical ability, such as going from a 150 lb back squat for 5 reps to a 175 lb back squat for 5 reps, you must use training loads that have a magnitude greater than what your body is already used to. These same principles also apply if your goal is to continue to see improvements in your body composition or performance.

There a number of different ways that you can continue to challenge the body and progressively overload your muscles.

  1. Maintain weight, decrease sets, and increase reps

Let’s stick with the example from above. You are currently able to perform 150 lb back squats for 3 sets of 5 reps and you would like to move up to being able to do 175 lb back squats for 3 sets of 5 reps. 

In order to put this method into practice, you would want to start training with 150 lbs for 1 set of 8 reps. Each week begin adding 1 additional set until you reach a point that this is no longer possible. This will progressively increase your strength and the amount of weight that you are able to squat.

  1. Maintain weight and sets and increase reps

With this second method, instead of decreasing your sets, you will want to stick to 3 sets. However, each week you will want to increase your reps by 1. For example, during the first week, you will perform 3 sets of 6 reps, the following week you will perform 3 sets of 7 reps. This will again increase the total training volume and will promote positive changes over time.

  1. Increase weight and incrementally increase sets and reps

With this method, it is the weight that you begin to increase. For example, increase your weight to 160 lbs. On the first week, complete 3 sets of 5 reps. Add 1 set each week for 3 weeks. Once you have successfully added an additional 3 sets (total of 6 sets), start again with 3 sets and add 1 rep to each set every week. Again, this will increase the total training volume and the stress applied to your system over time.

  1. Decrease Rest Periods

With this last method, you will leave your weight, reps, and sets the same, but decrease your rest period between sets. Decreasing your rest time in between sets will force your body work to recover quicker and will help with your endurance.

Which method you choose to employ will depend on your goals. If you are a defensive tackle on your football team and are looking to put on mass and build muscle, it will be ideal for you to stay between the 8-12 rep range. So instead of increasing your reps, you may choose to increase your sets.

If you are a powerlifter and your main goals is to increase your strength, your best method for progressive overload may be to increase your resistance (weight) and decrease your reps.

Finally, if you are an endurance athlete, and that is what you are looking to improve upon, decreasing your rest periods may be your best option.

Do one method at a time, but don’t forget to mix it up. The best athletes are well-rounded and work every day to see improvements in all areas of strength, performance, and endurance.

Continually challenge your body and you’ll continue to see results.