As you get stronger, you become able to lift heavier and heavier weights. That much is probably obvious. But what beginners sometimes miss is that it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: You become stronger because you lift heavier and heavier weights. This is the concept of progressive overload.
How does progressive overload work?
In any area of fitness, such as strength, endurance, or flexibility, you need to challenge your body to get it to adapt and improve. As the National Strength and Conditioning Association explains, there are two parts to this: the “principle of overload” and the “principle of progression.”
The principle of overload states that “In order for an individual to achieve a certain training adaptation, the body must be stressed by working against a stimulus or load that is greater than that to which it is accustomed.” In other words, you have to work harder than what your body is used to.
And then the principle of progression lets you build on that: “In order to achieve the desired training adaptations for a certain activity or skill consistently, the training stimulus must gradually and constantly increase.”
Or to put it in simple terms: You’ll get fitter if you work harder than usual, and if you want to keep improving, you have to keep working harder than before.
What does this look like in real life?
If you’re bummed out by the idea of working harder and harder forever, don’t panic. You’ll work harder in absolute terms — by lifting heavier weights, let’s say — but the challenge stays about the same in relative terms. Your workouts will fall into an effort level you might call “hard, but doable,” and you’ll notice progress because your numbers are going up. (The same approach applies to endurance sports. As cyclist Greg Lemond reportedly said: “It never gets any easier, you just go faster.”)
When I started lifting weights many years ago, 30 kg was a decently challenging bench press for me. I remember being proud of myself for being able to squeeze out a rep or two at 30 kg. Now, if I’m going to do a bench workout, I don’t even bother loading those amounts onto the bar. My warmup sets start at 45 kg, and a heavy single would be around 70. That 70 feels just as hard as 30 used to, but it’s undeniably more weight.
How did I make that progress? Well, I kept lifting the weights that felt heavy for me. Over time, the same weights that used to be challenging started to feel easy, and I needed to add more and more weight to the bar to get something that actually felt heavy. (We have a guide here to figuring out whether you’re lifting “heavy.”)
Most of the time, I either followed a program that told me how many pounds to lift, increasing that amount slowly over time, or one that told me what effort level to lift at (a concept called RPE), which allowed me to choose an appropriate weight each day. Following a program will usually net you better progress than just winging it, but as long as you’re using the overload principle and the progression principle, you will get stronger.
What if I can’t lift more every time?
That’s ok! You don’t have to add weight to the bar literally every time you lift.
There’s a wide range of weights and rep ranges that can be effective for building strength and muscle. For example, if I did a bench workout today, I might do sets of 10 at 50 kg, or sets of five at 70, or some heavy singles at 80, or any combination of these. If I’m really tired or stressed, I might decide to do the sets of 10 at just 45 kg. If I’m feeling great, I might be able to do them at 50. This is what I mean by a wide range: All of these are hard enough work to spur my muscles to adapt and get stronger. (There are reasons you might choose one of these workouts over the others, but we don’t need to get into those details at the moment.)
What wouldn’t be progressive overload? Well, if I did sets of 10 with just the bar, that wouldn’t help me get stronger. If I had a mini barbell set, and it maxed out at 40 kg, my strength would stagnate once I got to the point where 40 kg isn’t a challenging weight anymore.
Even as your strength improves, you don’t have to do more every single workout, as long as you’re getting stronger in the long term, and your workouts are still in the range that is challenging to you.
So let’s say you’re doing bicep curls with a 5 kg dumbbell. You can do eight or 10 reps with it. Perfect. But the only way to add weight, at your gym, might be to pick up a 7 kg dumbbell. If that weight is too heavy for you, that’s ok. Keep working with the 5, and in time you’ll be ready for the 7.
You can progress on more than one metric
While you’re probably itching to lift heavier weights, weight on the bar is not the only way to progress. Sometimes you can’t add weight because of equipment issues, or just because your strength is improving slowly. (Even if your beginner gains were meteoric, everybody’s progress slows down at some point.)
But if you’re smart, you probably don’t want to only get better at one specific thing. A lot of beginners start off doing squat, bench, and deadlift in sets of five reps, and trying to add weight each workout. But you’ll be a more well-rounded lifter if you also know how to lift heavy singles and sets of 10 or 15. Depending on your goals you might consider front squats in addition to back squats, and reverse hypers or kettlebell swings in addition to deadlifts. There are ways to improve at all of these things, and it’s normal for a lifter to be simultaneously increasing their reps in accessory lifts, increasing their weight on the bar for heavy singles, and increasing the amount of time they spend on conditioning workouts.
What is double progression?
One simple way to combine goals is called double progression. That means you’re progressing on two metrics at a time: reps and weight. Here’s what it would look like:
- Your program calls for overhead press in three sets of “8-12 reps.”
- You choose a weight that you can do for 8 reps.
- Every workout, you see whether you can add an extra rep. (Maybe you can do 9, 8, and 8. Then another day you do 9, 9, and 9. Soon you’re up to 10’s.)
- Once you can do sets of 12, 12, and 12 with that weight, you move up to a heavier weight.
- Start again with the new weight in sets of 8, 8, and 8, and repeat the process.
A slightly more complicated version of this would be to add sets as well: after you go from 3×8 to 3×12, you can then move on to 4×12 and 5×12.
Besides adding more weight, more reps, or more sets, progression can also mean:
- taking less rest between sets
- doing a harder version of the exercise
- increasing your range of motion (for example, squatting deeper)
- doing the exercise in slow motion (for example, tempo squats where you take three seconds to lower yourself down)
The key is to make sure that you’re progressing in a direction that will benefit you. If you can do 20 pushups, for example, increasing reps will give you better muscular endurance, while doing fewer reps of a heavier exercise (like barbell bench press) will make you stronger. You can do both, but you should prioritise the one that means more to you. If your goal in life is to do 100 pushups, go with more reps! But if you want to get stronger, you’re better off adding weight.
Plateaus are normal
One last thing, now that we’ve discussed what progressive overload looks like. It’s important to remember that progression happens in the long term. Some competitive lifters might not test their one-rep max outside of competition, which means they’ll only find out once or twice a year how much their deadlift has gone up. That doesn’t mean they haven’t progressed in the meantime. If they’re doing an effective program, consistently challenging themselves, they’re still working.
Plateaus are a fact of life when you’re a lifter. Sometimes it takes a while to get stronger. Sometimes you need to work on your technique to be able to express your newfound strength. Sometimes factors like stress or weight loss or changes in your training can make you weaker in the short term, but if you keep training in a way that challenges you, you’ll set new PRs soon enough.