Progressive Overload: Muscle Growth Key

progressive overload

One of the basics of training aimed at muscle growth is progressive overload.

The concept of progressive overload firmly entered the vocabulary of athletes. Each time they try to improve the results compared with the previous ones. This can be done by implementing this rule into your training program.

What Is Progressive Overload?

In bodybuilding, muscle building is considered progress. If people train for a long time adhering to the same program and do not increase weight during strength exercises, nothing changes, respectively, muscles do not grow, and workouts do not make sense.

Thanks to the progressive overload principle, the muscles are forced to adapt and increase in size to cope with heavier weights.

You will find different interpretations of this definition on the Internet – from increasing the weight of the projectile to reducing the rest time between sets and increasing their number. ⠀

So for you to find out what is a real principle of progressive overload, we listed all of them and figured out where the truth is.

Varieties of progressive overload for growing muscle mass

what is progressive overload

Let’s consider the main types of progressive overload in bodybuilding:

Increasing Intensity

This is the most popular and simplest and, at the same time, a safe method of increasing the load. Safety is due to the fact that a person will not be able to harm himself with too much weight, as he will not overcome it. Accordingly, the load will increase gradually as the necessary muscle mass builds up – in fact, this is the result expected from training.

You need to focus on an increase of 2-3 kilograms in one training session to provoke DOMS and subsequent proliferation of muscle fibers. It is best to increase the weights on a weekly basis: if you took 50 kilograms last week, then this week you need to take 52-53 for the progress with the same number of sets.

Increasing Volume

It can be used both separately and together with the first method. In fact, each workout should add the number of repetitions within the necessary limits. Typically, most exercises require six to twelve repetitions. For example, if an exercise with dumbbells of 18 kilograms was performed 6 times last week, then for the correct progression of the load this week, you should do this exercise with dumbbells of 18 kilograms, but not 6, but 7-12 repetitions depending on the amount of energy left.

It is recommended to gradually increase the number of repetitions to minimize the risk of injuries, and the result will not be long in coming.


Use a combination of an increase in the lifted weight and an increase in the number of repetitions.

The first option: for example, on Wednesday, a 100-kilogram leg press was performed six times, then in the next session, a 100-kilogram leg press was performed for seven / eight / nine / ten / eleven / twelve repetitions (based on physical form and strength). When performing even one repetition more than last time, the principles of progressive overload training are respected, and the athlete will soon receive the desired effect.

The second method is used to achieve the maximum number of repetitions for a given exercise. For example, if a 100-kilogram leg press was performed for 12 repetitions, then there is nowhere to move further with this weight, you need to increase weight. Instead of 100 kilograms, 102-105 for 6-12 repetitions is used.

To control muscle growth, you need to clearly know your working weights and the number of repetitions for each of the strength exercises.

In order not to forget anything and not to confuse one with the other, it is recommended to have a special notebook or notepad where you need to record accurate data to focus on previous results and to evaluate your progress. For these purposes, you can also use a mobile app.

If there is not enough energy for the progression of the loads, for example, after overtraining, then additional rest and a gradual return of form are required.

Advanced methods

progressive principle

Consider more complex techniques for increasing the load. You need to be as careful as possible with them since they can do much harm if performed incorrectly. Their use is recommended only to advanced athletes, and for beginners, it is strictly forbidden to use them.

  • Reduced rest time between sets. The basis of this technique is the reduction of rest. For example, if last week an exercise was performed with a break between sets of 60 seconds, then this week for the progressive overload, the bench press is done with a break of 55 seconds. Thus, every week you need to reduce the duration of rest between sets by 5 seconds. Important! You can not immediately reduce the rest by 10-15 seconds, as this can lead to overtraining.
  • Increasing the number of sets in an exercise in one workout. A similar method works exclusively with the previous method and separately has no effect. For example, if an athlete does not go beyond the allotted time when increasing the number of sets, then this is considered progress. However, if you increase the number of sets and, accordingly, increase the time required to complete the exercise, this will not be regarded as progress. You can calculate the progression of the load in percent for convenience.
  • Negatives – considered one of the most effective methods for muscle growth and increase strength. They create a strong tension in the muscles. As a result, fibers are intensively restored and grow.

Negative repetitions can be used only once or twice every 30 days. This is a great way to make progress intensively. Its essence is the slow lowering of the weight for at least four seconds. After that, you can apply the positive phase of lifting, in which you need to quickly jerk to lift the weight up or use the help of a partner who will lift the weight to the starting point so that you can just as slowly lower it. This exercise helps your muscles work out.

  • Cheating is a progression method that involves breaking the correct technique for doing exercise to increase the weight or perform more repetitions. The weight is thrown up with the help of the whole body and then controlled the negative phase. Such a training option makes it possible to overstrain your muscles and make them work at maximum capacity. Such a technique is allowed to be used only by advanced athletes since, for beginners, it can cause injury and permanently incapacitate.

The Only Real Progressive Principle

progressive overload principle

Is there a progression in an increase in the number of sets? Yes – if the increase takes place within the periodization, when the volume increases, then the weight of the projectile changes upwards, and the volume decreases.

For example, in the bench press, you do 100/8/3 – weight/reps/sets, after 2 weeks 100/8/4, after 2 weeks 100/8/5, and then +5 kg and reduce the number of sets 105 / 8/3. It is difficult to call a simple increase in volume a progression; moreover, its limit will be reached very quickly.

Reducing rest between sets is not an effective tactic aimed at muscle gain.

Putting more discs on the bar is a 100% progression, but in conditions when 90% are training at home with their own body weight or with small weights, this can’t be done. However, still, everyone wants to grow. And therefore, many have switched to multi-repetition training (20 + reps), which is exactly as effective for gaining muscle mass as any other, if the set is completed to failure.

This is what we can definitely consider being a progression. So what is progressive overload?

This is an increase in the number of repetitions in the set with the same weight without distorting the technique of performing the movement.

You probably noticed this, and scientists as well recorded the increase in strength and muscle mass in response to both a high load of 6-8 repetitions and 20+.

Let us explain what we mean. You press the barbell per 100 kg for 8 repetitions and 60 for 20, and so when you push 110 for 8, then you will probably already take 60 for 24 or 65 for 20. Isn’t it progressive overload?

As it turned out – this works in the opposite direction, i.e., you get to 60 for 24, and you’ll probably already have 110 for 8.

The bottom line

In any condition, we can still progress, both in strength and in muscle mass. Of course, a lot depends on the experience and volume of previously gained muscle mass, but beginners and people with an average level of fitness will definitely be able to.

Additionally, see how to build the perfect circuit training.

What is more, find out how to build killer delts.