The High Performance Handbook

Progressive Overload – A Key Exercise Principle

No matter what your goal is, whether you want to build muscle fast or lose weight, during your workouts the key principle you should always work within is progressive overload. Failing to do so will mean that your results stop almost immediately.

What is Progressive Overload?

Our bodies are used to doing certain things on a daily basis. Walking around, carrying the shopping etc. All of these functions are normal activities that the body is capable of.

What happens when we go beyond our bodies normal capabilities? What if we’re only used to walking and all of a sudden we have to run for a bus? When people complain that even running for a bus is a difficult task for them it means that they have experienced OVERLOAD. An activity beyond what their body is normally used to.

Bearing in mind that the body is designed to survive, it will take steps to ensure that this kind of stress or ‘overload’ isn’t experienced again by ‘progressing’. After a while, running for a bus will become a ‘normal’ daily activity (if it was done regularly) and would not be something that the body finds difficult to perform.

That is a very simple example of progressive overload in the real world.

How Does Progressive Overload Work in Our Training?

The idea remains similar. Your goal should be to push your body beyond it’s normal demands. Why? So that your body responds by progressing you towards the goal you are working towards.

Muscle Building Example :John Smith wants to be bigger. He pushes 50kg on the bench press for 10 repetitions in his first week. He struggled.

His body responds throughout the week to make sure that next time he doesn’t struggle. It will do this by making John’s muscles bigger and stronger.

John Smith comes back to the gym next week and pushes 50kg for 12 reps (progressive overload from last week – an extra 2 reps). His body grows bigger and stronger still.


Weight Loss Example :John Smith wants to drop body fat. He has taken up a cardio program.John does 20 minutes at a speed of 8km on the treadmill in his first week. He is very out of breath as he is not used to running for so long. His body responds by increasing his fitness and increasing his metabolism.

20 minutes at 8km is now a ”normal” function for John. He must now beat his score the following week to progress (either by increasing the duration or his speed)

Failing to beat your score (increase intensity) from your previous workout will result in a plateau!

No progressive overload = No reason for your body to change!If John carried on with his 50kg for 10 repetition workout week after week his body will have no need to increase his muscle size and strength because it has now become a normal activity that it can handle fairly easily.

How Do We Ensure That We Reach Progressive Overload?

There are a few things you must do :-

  • Keep a log of every workout you do! How will you remember what you did in your last workout if you don’t write it down? How do you know what score you have to beat to reach progressive overload? This is very important and a must do!
  • Train to muscular failure or close to it if you’re goal is to build muscle. (those last 1 or 2 repetitions that you struggle with are the difference between reaching progressive overload or not!)
  • Getting as close to failure as safely possible during your cardio program.
  • (Failure is harder to determine with cardio. Obviously it wouldn’t be safe to go to absolute failure on the treadmill! As long as you’re using appropriate intensity and beating your previous workout’s score, you should progress. Don’t cheat yourself if you feel that you have a little more in the tank!)

    What If We Fail to Reach Progressive Overload and What Can We Do?

    Here are some reasons that people may fail to beat their previous score or increase their intensity

  • Not taking in the correct nutrition to allow your body to grow stronger/bigger/fitter
  • Solution : Eat correctly and eat enough food every single day!

  • Not pushing yourself to beat your previous score
  • Solution : This is a mental thing and something only you can overcome. Sure at times your workout will feel uncomfortable (unless it is actual pain, stop if you feel you’re injuring yourself). You are trying to ‘overload’ your body! How badly do you want to reach your goal? If you want it enough, a bit of short term discomfort is nothing compared to the long term glory you will achieve.

  • Forgetting what you did the previous week
  • Solution : No excuse, you MUST record your workouts

  • Feeling tired / Lacking energy / Over-training
  • Solution: Get adequate rest. Try to aim for at least 7 hours of sleep a night. You may also be over-training. Take an extra day off in between workouts if this is the case and let your body recover fully.

  • Not using correct technique or cheating
  • Solution: This can be hard to see yourself. Somebody will probably have to tell you if your form is slacking. Remember to lift a weight that is heavy enough but can be lifted with correct technique. There is no point in lifting heavy if you’re not targeting the correct muscles.


    Whoever you are, male or female, no matter what your goal you must exercise using progressive overload or your results will stagnate after the first couple of weeks. Remember that no two people are the same so start at a level that your body is capable of handling and progress gradually from there.

    In short : No progressive overload = No Progress!

    About Tod Rimmer

    Tod Rimmer loves contributing to all things health and fitness related! He both ghostwrites and produces his own content for various online health and fitness sites, like the one you’re visiting now. In fact, you’ve probably read a few of them, although he may not be credited as the writer. It’s that ‘ghostwriter’ thing!