What Is Progressive Overload? (And How You Can Do It)

You know how it goes, "Fail to progressive overload, plan to fail (on your gains goals)". OK, so it's not exactly that, but the idea checks out.

What Is Progressive Overload? (And How You Can Do It)

Can you go to the gym for months and even years on end — but still look like you have no gains?

Not to scare you, but yes

While there may be many contributing factors to this supposed “plateau” (e.g., nutrition), neglecting progressive overload in training is undoubtedly a huge part of it.

But wait, what’s progressive overload? And how do you do it? 

Learn everything you need to know about progressive overload here.

What is progressive overload?

To understand progressive overload, you’ll first need to understand how or why your muscles grow in the first place. 

A brief history lesson (we’ll keep it short, promise!) 

Scientists used to believe that there were 3 hypertrophy-driving mechanisms:

Muscle damage

You lift weights, and that causes microtears in your muscle fibers, which your body repairs to create bigger, stronger muscles. 
Metabolic stress

Intense resistance training (where your body is forced to rely on anaerobic energy production) causes a build-up of acidic metabolites, including lactate and hydrogen ions, in muscle cells. This acidic environment was thought to stimulate muscle growth.
Mechanical tension

Represents the tension placed on your muscle as it lengthens and contracts under load. 

But that’s no longer the case because recent research has now shown that mechanical tension is the ultimate, primary driver of strength training-induced hypertrophy.


To help your muscles grow, you’ll need to put them under sufficient mechanical tension. 

Although, that’s not the end of the story. 

Say you put X mechanical tension on your muscles. They’ll grow by Y amount. 

Now, what if you want them to grow even more (> Y amount)? 

That’s right: you’ll need to find a way to increase the mechanical tension (> X) placed on your muscles. 

This right there, showcases the concept of progressive overload. 

How to progressive overload 

OK. So, progressive overload helps your muscles continue growing — and involves “increasing mechanical tension”.

But just how, exactly, can you do so?

#1: Increase training volume 

The most straightforward method would be to ramp up your training volume (sets x reps x load) by increasing your:

  1. Sets of exercises (e.g., 3 sets of bicep curls to 4 sets)
  2. Reps done (e.g., 6 reps of squats to 8 reps)
  3. Weight lifted (e.g., 60 kg deadlifts to 70 kg)

Now, while you technically can play with all 3 variables at once, it’s not advisable. 

For instance, let’s say you’re used to doing 3 x 8 reps with 60 kg deadlifts. If you bump the weight up to 70 kg, you’ll likely (and understandably) see a decrease in the number of reps you’re able to complete: maybe 7 reps instead of 8.

But that’s still progressive overload since your training volume:

  • Was previously 3 x 8 x 60 kg = 1,440 kg, and 
  • Is now 3 x 7 x 70 kg = 1,470 kg

You may be wondering, “Is there a limit to how much I can increase my sets or reps count?” (The amount of weight you can lift is … well, naturally limited by your strength.) 

Research has suggested that the upper limit seems to be:

A piece of advice for increasing training volume: you need to base it on sound training fundamentals like going close to failure on your training sets and ensuring you can recover well. 

Chasing volume for the sake of it is not a meaningful way to train.

Maintaining training volume while losing weight

In the meantime, let’s talk about a special situation: maintaining training volume while losing weight. 

Why mention it? 

Because while it may not seem like it, it actually counts as progressive overload.

To illustrate, let’s say you carried 17 kg of muscle mass in your legs and could do 3 x 12 reps of 160 kg on the leg press. After weight loss, you lost 2 kg of muscle mass in your legs but maintained the same training volume. 

Here’s how the volume per kg of muscle mass numbers will change:

  • Before: (3 x 12 x 160) / 17 = 338.82
  • After: (3 x 12 x 160) / 15 = 384

The bigger the number, the greater the mechanical tension on your muscles.

In this case, progressive overload is achieved because you’re lifting more per kg of muscle mass.

So remember, simply maintaining training volume when you lose weight can be a form of progressive overload.

#2: Reduce rest between sets

How long are you resting between sets? 10 minutes?

If so, sorry to say, but that's too long. An easy way to progressive overload here is to cut down on the time you spend scrolling through TikTok or debating over the perfect song to bring you into your next set — and, as Nike says, just do it.

Um, we're referring to your next set or exercise, if that wasn't clear.

But here’s the thing. You don't want to cut your rest times by too much.

If you don’t get enough rest, your muscles won’t be able to perform optimally when you go into the next set — decreasing your training volume. Or, in other words, the amount of mechanical tension placed on your muscles.

Bad news for your gains: you’re not only failing to progressive overload but also potentially “regressing” by reducing your training volume. 

A good recommendation for your inter-set rest times would be:

2 minutes for single-joint exercises (e.g., bicep curls and chest flies)
3 minutes for heavy compound movements (e.g., barbell bench press and overhead press)

#3: Increase range of motion

Here’s some food for thought.

Since mechanical tension refers to the tension placed on your muscle as it lengthens and contracts under load, wouldn’t increasing the range of motion, in turn, increase mechanical tension — and count as progressive overload?


In fact, a growing body of research has found that an increase in ROM (with an emphasis on the lengthened portion of the exercise) has resulted in more muscle growth.

Take the 2 studies below, for example:

2021 study published in Frontiers in Physiology

The participants did cable pushdowns with 1 arm and overhead cable extensions with the other. FYI, the overhead cable extensions put the triceps in a position of a greater stretch than the cable pushdowns.

After 12 weeks, the participants experienced about 1.5 times the triceps growth in the overhead cable extension arm compared to the cable pushdown arm.

2020 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise

Researchers randomly assigned the participants to 2 groups: the first group did seated leg curls, while the second did lying leg curls.

Seated leg curls put 3 (of 4) hamstring muscles into a greater stretch than their lying counterpart.

Guess what the researchers found after 12 weeks?

Yep. Those assigned to seated leg curls saw significantly more growth in their hamstrings than those in the lying leg curls group.

That said, please don’t take this to mean that more range of motion is always better.

You should only increase your range to the extent where you can still perform your exercises safely and with good form.

E.g., don’t strive for ass-to-grass barbell back squats or incredibly deep Romanian deadlifts when you don’t have the necessary mobility to do so safely. 

In general, you may find it safer to push for an increased range of motion on single-joint and/or machine-based exercises, such as machine chest flies and lean-away cable curls. 

#4: Slow down your reps

How quickly do you usually complete a rep? Answer honestly.

If you’ve been going way too fast on your reps, consider slowing down to increase the amount of time your target muscles are placed under mechanical tension.

This is another way you can progressive overload.

This is particularly relevant for smaller muscle groups, such as the biceps, where adding just a bit of weight increases the difficulty disproportionately. 

And just like with rest times, don’t take this to the extreme.

Going waaaaay too slow doesn’t mean more gains.

According to a 2015 meta-analysis published in Sports Medicine investigating the relationship between rep duration and the resulting hypertrophy outcome, it appears that longer rep are associated with greater muscle growth … but only up to about 6 seconds total.

This means there are a number of ways you could perform your reps (e.g., 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up, or 2 seconds down, 3 seconds up) as long as you:

  • Keep them slow and controlled
  • Don’t exceed 6 seconds total per rep

In practice, focus on selecting weights that are suitably heavy (i.e., last rep is close to or at failure) and avoid speeding through any part of your rep. 

#5: Clean up your form

Remember when we said chasing volume for volume’s sake could end up hurting your gains? Even though increased volume = progressive overload? 

Yeah, that’s because when the difficulty of an exercise goes up, many people try to make things easier by relying on:

  • Momentum (swinging the weight up)
  • Other muscle groups (e.g., overworking your traps during lateral raises)

In other words, their form suffers — which actually reduces the amount of mechanical tension placed on the working muscles. 

On the bright side, this means simply cleaning up your form on some of your exercises could act as a form of progressive overload for you. 

When to apply progressive overload

Now that you know how to progressive overload … how do you know when it’s appropriate to apply progressive overload in your training plan? 

It depends on whether you’re losing weight or not.

If you are losing weight, as mentioned earlier, you’ll most likely find that even just maintaining your training volume will become a challenge. 

But try your best to do so; it’s progressive overload — the stimulus your muscles need to continue growing stronger and bigger.

And if you’re on maintenance or bulking?

Here are a few tips:

Clean up your form on your exercises first. Work on improving your range of motion safely and sensibly (if there’s still room available, of course).
Once your sets feel easy, increase your rep count by 1 till you hit a pre-set, “max” reps for all your working sets (e.g., 15 reps per set).
Increase your weight and go back to your previous rep range (e.g., 8), then slowly work your way up to your pre-set “max” reps once that starts to feel like a breeze, too. Remember to keep your form clean even as you progressive overload.
A final tip: progressive overload isn’t usually a linear progress.

For example, you could easily slap on 40 kg on the leg press 1 week, then have your legs shake with just an additional 10 kg the next. 

The important thing here is to be patient. Stay consistent, prioritize your recovery (sleep, nutrition, stress management, the works), and you’ll eventually break through again.