What is progressive overload? (+ How to do it)

So you want answers to the question "What is progressive overload?"

Well my friend, you have arrived at the perfect place.

Progressive overload is one of the key principles of strength training, which is why we focus on it intensely with our coaching clients. Today we are going to share these principles with you too.

Nerd Fitness Coaches help busy people like you get strong. Find out more here.

Here's what we're going to cover today:

Okay let's do this.

What is progressive overload?

In the video above, I'll walk you through the pros and cons of progressive overload.

First, let's give a definition:

For strength training, The progressive overload leads to a little more than last time – like lifting a heavier weight or doing one more repetition.

The name of the game is slowly but surely overloading our current skills.

By doing this consistently, we become stronger – as our body adapts to the ever-increasing demands on them.

In other words, without overload there is no adjustment by the body.

When you challenge your body through strength training, it responds with:

  • Neuromuscular adaptations and increased coordination. After some strength training, the nerves in your muscles fire better and react faster. The more you do a movement, the better you get at it (coordination). (1)
  • Increased muscle and bone mass. When you weight training your muscles and bones, they get bigger and stronger. (2)
  • Improvement of the connective tissue strength. Not only do your muscles become stronger as the overload progresses, but so do all of the connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, etc.) (3).
  • Increased lactic acid tolerance. When you exercise intensely, lactic acid builds up and eventually slows you down. But the more you gradually overload, the more tolerance you will develop towards lactic acid. (4)

Don't worry about the terminology here.

You can think of progressive overload similar to a video game:

  • When you start an RPG, the first bad guys you encounter are weak. They just give you a little bit of XP to help you beat them. They're probably rats or slimes or something.
  • Once you've defeated a few of these rats, you'll earn enough XP. Then you can upgrade and fight something else (maybe a goblin).
  • If you keep fighting enemies harder and harder, you can eventually defeat a dragon!

Exercising is the same:

  • At first, you may only be able to do push-ups against a wall. NBD! Hit these wall pushups until they feel lighter, then start doing pushups on a countertop (this is progressive overload!).
  • Keep working and decrease the height of your pushups. At some point you will do it on site!

Congratulations, dragon slain!

So if you have a progressive overload strategy, just tell yourself, "I make XP here to get strong."

How do I overload my muscles? (8 ways to progressive overload)

There are many ways to achieve progressive congestion.

Here are eight strategies for increasing the workload and overloading your muscles:

# 1) Increase the weight. This is the most common way to make a weighted exercise more difficult in the gym. We'll talk about how to choose the right weight a little later.

# 2) Increase the repetitions. This is the other most common way to make things more challenging. So instead of 10 pushups, go to 11. Then next time, go to 12. And so on.

# 3) Increase the rates. Instead of doing 3 sets of 10 pushups, you can do 4 sets of 10 pushups, then 5 sets of 10 pushups, etc.

# 4) Increase the frequency of your exercise. Let's say you exercise twice a week, Monday and Thursday. Maybe we'll add an extra day, Monday-Wednesday-Friday. That way we get more total work for the week.

# 5) Decrease the rest time. Instead of increasing the weight, repetitions, or sets, just decrease the amount of time you rest between sets. This will put more stress on your body and can be a good option for some based on their goals and schedule (especially if you're already short of exercise time).

# 6) Make more difficult variations. This is especially relevant for bodyweight exercises to which we don't add anything.

You could go from assisted lunges:

To regular lunges:

Or back to push-ups, for example: you can do them against a wall, then against a countertop, and then against the floor.

Such switches would make the movement more challenging and therefore an overload strategy.

# 7) Slow down the range of motion. Play with the training pace! Taking longer to do a push-up will increase the amount of time your muscles are under tension and working.

# 8) Hold the position. Just like slowing down, this increases the amount of time the muscles are under tension, and therefore more work. You could take a break at the bottom of your squat:

Or on top of a pull-up:


For any workout, there is likely a way to make it more challenging, and therefore perfect for progressive overload.

Now let's talk about when to make an exercise more difficult.

How do I know when I am ready for a progressive overload?

The key to progressive overload is making the workout harder and harder.

How do you know when it's time to level up?

Unfortunately, after a certain number of training sessions, you will no longer shine with stars.

We will probably have to wait for the "singularity".

However, once you've completed the prescribed number of sets and repetitions for an exercise, you will know when you're ready to increase weight or intensity, and you will still feel like you could do a few more reps.

This will be MUCH more common for beginners.

Here's what's up::

If you are just starting to exercise, you will adapt and progress quickly. Much of this is just due to improved coordination and comfort with the exercise.

That means you'll be able to overload faster and faster – likely adding weight or intensity every workout or week.

It is important to understand that progressive overload does not go up forever.

For example: If you started putting £ 45 on the bank and adding £ 5 each week, you would be putting more than £ 500 on the bank after two years.

Which one would be crazy …

But that's not how it works.

After a while, the progress becomes slower and slower.

You can even plateau and sit at a certain intensity for several weeks or more. That's OK.

It's hard to say how long you'll be at each stage.

How quickly you can gradually overload depends on many factors, such as:

Don't be afraid to test the water with a more difficult exercise. You can always go back downstairs if it doesn't feel right.

But move up from time to time. You might be surprised at how much more you can handle!

How much weight do you add to the progressive overload?

We usually recommend increasing in small increments as you add weight to your exercises.

For barbell lifts, adding 5 pounds (or about 2.5 kilos) to each side is generally a good rule of thumb.

That would be an increase of 10 pounds or 5 pounds for the entire elevator.

So you could go from 75 to 85 pounds on the bank.

This rate of increase is an average recommendation, but it may vary depending on the exercise.

  • For upper body lifts, This can be too much of an increase for you.

    In this case, add 2.5 pounds, or about 1 kilo, to each side of the bar.

    That would be an increase of 5 pounds, or 2 kilos, for the entire elevator.

    If that's too much, there are smaller ones Fracture plates This allows you to increase the weight in even smaller amounts.

  • For lower body liftsWe might want to add more weight – so 10 pounds – or about 5 pounds on each side of the bar.

    That would be an increase of 20 pounds or 10 pounds for the entire elevator.

    So you could go from deadlifting 135 pounds to 155 pounds.

If you use dumbbells in both cases, add the weight of the dumbbell by the amount you want to add to the side of the bar (e.g. 5 lbs per side = 5 lbs per dumbbell).

If you want more here, check out our guide. How Much Weight Should I Lift?

Is Progressive Overload Bad For You?

The biggest danger with progressive overload is simply gaining weight faster than your body can adapt.

Are you ready for handstand pushups?

Is a 315 pound deadlift a big jump in weight for you?

There is nothing inherently dangerous about these movements. BUT I've seen a lot of people rush to do more … then don't be ready.

This is how you can get hurt.

So, start your workout by doing less than you think, including lifting the bar – or even a broomstick:

As you add more weight or increase the intensity of an exercise, take small steps.

There is no rush.

Do you always have to gradually overload?

Do you always need to keep adding weight, or the difficulty, or the repetitions you are doing?


It is perfectly fine and normal to remain calm at a certain level.

You still move around and get a ton of great benefits like:

  • Improve your mood. (5)
  • Help with losing weight. (6)
  • Keep your bones strong. (7)
  • Make yourself more energetic. (8th)
  • Reducing Your Risk of Chronic Disease. (9)

Don't be put off by the thought of “need” to work harder all the time.

How far you take things is up to you and there is no right decision for everyone. Do what works best for you.

How to keep growing strong (next steps)

There you have it, my friend.

A step-by-step plan for gradual overload.

Now let's do some workouts so you can get started TODAY.

After all, if you never get going, you can't get anywhere.

Here are three guides to help you overload your muscles::

  • Beginner body weight training. This 20 minute routine can be done ANYWHERE. Yes, even there. If you don't know how to start exercising, start here.
  • The best 8 workouts at home. Once you familiarize yourself with our beginner workout above, the fun is only just beginning. From there, you can learn moves designed for a Jedi Knight, like training Batman, or just doing push-ups against a wall. Everything is covered in this home training manual.
  • The beginner's guide to the gym. If you go to the gym to overload yourself, read this. Our guide will show you how to use anything from a treadmill to a weighted barbell.

Okay my friend, you got that.

If you need more help from us, please continue your journey with Nerd Fitness here.

# 1) Our Online Coaching Program: Perfect for someone who wants an expert (like me!) To map out the right path to progressive overload. We are all different. Why doesn't a coach guide you through a program that is tailored to you?

You can schedule a free call with our team so we can get to know you and see if our coaching program is a good fit for you. Just click the image below for more information:

Our coaching program changes life. Learn how!

# 2) If you want a daily prompt to complete workouts (which are becoming more and more demanding), check out NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app will help you exercise more, eat healthier, and (literally) improve your life.

Try your free trial here:

Next step number 3) Join the rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion. You will meet people from all walks of life who are all trying to make their lives better.

Sign up in the box below to sign up and receive ours Rebel starter kitThis includes all of our guides for exercising at home, the Nerd Fitness Diet Cheat Sheet and much more!

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  • The 15 mistakes you don't want to make.
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  • Complete and track your first workout today without the need for a gym.

Okay I want to hear from you:

What is your plan for progressive congestion?

Are there any tips or tricks that I am missing?

Have you been stuck at a certain level for a while?

Let me know in the comments!


PS: If you are interested in getting strong, be sure to read Strength Training 101: Where Do I Start?


Photo source: Him type, Him-Dude II, LEGO VIDIYO minifigures, LEGO bench press, Hammer and forge yourself into the best artist you can be, Shower guy, Mountain bikers

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