Progressive Overload: The Key To Muscle Growth

progressive overload

You often see gym members who have strict routines and training sessions where they come in many times a week performing the same exercises for the same number of reps, the same number of sets, and the same amount of weight. Nothing changes and neither do they.

If their goal is to further develop their body then this must be frustrating for them and for many people who are in the same situation. They will see minimum if any changes to their body while many people may end up getting disheartened with the lack of results, causing them to reduce their efforts, which causes further negative effects, or they may just quit altogether.

If your aim is to increase mass then you must continually challenge yourself and your muscles. Muscles grow in size and strength in response to exercise stimulus and if you want to continue this growth you need to make greater demands on your muscles. You need to progressively-overload your muscles, challenging your muscles to work under greater stress than what they’re accustomed to, this shocks your muscles causing adaptations.


What Is Progressive Overload?

It simply involves increasing the efforts on the musculoskeletal systems making small but continual advancements in muscle strength, size, and endurance. If you want to get bigger and stronger you must force your body and its muscles to work harder than what they are used to. Classic interpretations of this suggest in most cases to increase resistance, but there are other methods to achieve this and increase the overload.

If you do not at least maintain the demands on the target muscle they will atrophy, meaning they will lose size and strength.

Progressive-overload is often thought to be applicable to just weight-lifting to increase muscle size and strength but it also applies to cardiovascular fitness programs. The basis is to stimulate the body in a way that creates physiological adaptations that improve the bodies cardiovascular systems and aerobic metabolism.


What Does Progressive Overload Look Like?

Performing a set of the barbell bench press with your 10 rep max, which may happen to be, say 65kg (145lb). Over a period of time, your body will adapt and your pectorals and the muscle that supports the bench pressing exercise will get stronger and the size will slightly increase due to the growth in new muscle fibres. However, at a point, this weight will no longer become challenging as your body has adapted to it.

What’s your next step? If you stay with the same weight for the same reps and same sets don’t expect to see much more in terms of growth and mass development from that point on. This is fine if you are happy to stay at that strength and size, and just want to maintain what you gained from your fitness program. However, if your goal is to further develop and enhance your pectoral muscles in terms of size and strength then you have to place greater demands on them, you have to shock your muscles.


How To Increase Overload


The most obvious way to increase the demand placed on a muscle is to increase the weight load that it manoeuvres. If 65kg has become easy add another 5kg to bench press bar to make it more challenging. Now the adverse effect is that you will not be able to do the same amount of reps or the last few reps may not have perfect form. This is what puts many people off pushing for higher weight loads – they focus on rigid programs such as always pushing for 10 reps in every set they do. Don’t let this be you! It’s OK, in this instance if you cannot achieve your normal 10 rep set or that your last few reps are partial reps. You are forcing higher weight loads onto your muscles and they will adapt to this, soon enough you will get stronger and will achieve the full 10 rep set and it will become less challenging thus the cycle should then be repeated with higher weight.



Doing more reps can be another means to increase the overload. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said “the last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.” Don’t stop the movement once you have hit your arbitrary rep count, push through a few more so that it burns and you are unable to complete anymore with good form.

Exercises scientist suggest that the 8-10 rep range is optimal for hypertrophy (muscle building) training. The ability to go past this range is an indicator that you should increase the resistance as this will aid more in muscle endurance rather than muscle size and strength. However, at times advanced training techniques such as partial reps or forced reps can be used at the end of the rep count to shock the muscle that bit more, further stimulating the muscle fibres.



Volume simply means the total weight that is lifted by the target muscle throughout the entire training session. Its the sum of reps multiplied by sets multiplied by resistance. The most common way that you could do this is to increase the number of sets, but you could also do this by adding an exercise routine that targets the same muscle in a different way.


Decrease Rest Between Sets

Reducing the rest between set reduces the workout time. This will force your body to adapt as it requires your body to become more metabolically efficient, one such result would be faster recovery after anabolic exertion (weightlifting).


Increase Training Frequency

As long as the muscle has had sufficient time to fully recover, increasing the training frequency can be a great way to develop your muscles. Training more frequently will place the target muscle under more stress more often, forcing growth. Typically, lagging body parts can be built up faster by increasing the frequency that they are worked.


One Comment

  1. Its hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what youre talking about! Thanks

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