What is progressive overload: Powerlifter doing a squatWhat is progressive overload: Powerlifter doing a squat

Kickoff's certified personal trainers and registered dietitians share detailed analysis, discussion, and how-tos about the questions we get most often


What Is Progressive Overload Training, and How Does It Work?

You may have just searched “what is progressive overload,” but chances are you’re actually already familiar with it! In fact, if you’ve ever worked on strength training or building muscle, then you’ve likely experienced this training principle.

Read on to learn what progressive overload is, its four principles, some examples of it, and how a personal trainer can help.

What Is Progressive Overload?

Brandon Scott Jones saying "So simple yet so brilliant."

The words “progressive overload” might evoke something complicated, but it’s actually fairly simple: Muscle growth can only happen if we gradually increase the difficulty of our workouts. Also known as the overload principle, it is one way to achieve muscle hypertrophy (the increase in muscle mass as a result of exercise).

Meanwhile, if we do the same exercise routine for weeks on end, we’ll get some benefits, but we won’t be building muscle. And if an exercise program is beneath our limits, we can lose our strength.

This is because it’s much more efficient for the body to break down muscles that aren’t being used than to maintain muscles that are larger than necessary. Thankfully, there’s an easy answer: Use your muscles! More specifically, challenge yourself to use them more.

Progressive overload training involves making small, incremental changes to your workouts to challenge yourself – then giving yourself sufficient recovery and rest time so your muscles can repair and grow larger. (Cheating yourself out of rest could lead to overtraining syndrome.)

The 4 Principles of Progressive Overload Training

What is progressive overload: Man starting a sprint

Here are a few different ways you can use progressive overload to build muscle. It may be best to combine a few methods in your training sessions.

1. Increase Endurance

Endurance refers to how long you can exercise at once. Increasing endurance could mean increasing the number of sets in a strength training exercise, or it could mean doing cardio for a longer period of time.

While we often think of progressive overload in terms of strength or resistance training, the same idea applies to cardio as well: We need to do more over time in order to progress.

2. Increase Intensity

Intensity in this context generally refers to speed. If you’re running, increasing your intensity would mean running faster. It could also mean doing a more difficult version of an exercise. For instance, if you’re comfortable doing bodyweight squats, try jump squats. 

While it’s sometimes tempting to try doing an exercise as fast as we can, we almost always sacrifice proper form in doing so. Your goal in increasing intensity is to find the fastest pace you can perform a given exercise while maintaining good form. As with all of these principles, it’s best to increase intensity gradually over time.

3. Increase Resistance

To increase the resistance of a workout, you can increase the amount of weight you’re using, or use resistance bands with bodyweight exercises. When working with dumbbells or other weights, make sure to go up to the next size gradually, only when you are comfortable regularly doing about 10-12 repetitions (reps) with that weight. This is to avoid overtraining.

4. Increase Reps

Finally, we can increase the number of repetitions of any given exercise, which targets muscular endurance. For instance, if you can currently do 10 push-ups, you could work on getting up to 20.

Who Can Benefit from Progressive Overload?

Man shouting "everyone"

Anyone interested in maintaining their current muscle mass or bodybuilding can benefit from applying progressive overload principles to their workouts. And who doesn’t want to keep their muscles?

Some groups may particularly benefit from progressive overload training. For instance, those aged 65 and older are at a higher risk for muscle atrophy, according to physical therapist Jodi Klein of Harvard Health. Muscle atrophy can be countered by progressive overload training.

Of course, this training needs to be done safely and take into account any personal injuries or mobility issues. Klein says, “Focus on exercises you can do safely and consistently, or better yet, enlist a trainer to create a specialized plan based on your limitations and needs.”

Online personal trainers are the most cost-effective way to make sure you’re safely practicing progressive overload training. The personal trainers from Kickoff have a variety of certifications and specializations, so you can choose the right trainer for your needs.

Examples of Progressive Overload Training Goals

What is progressive overload: woman doing core workout

You can modify any exercise program or workout routine to work on progressive overload. More specifically, progressive overloadfitness goals can target your specific needs and preferences.

A training program could contain any or all of the following goals, but try to work on just one at a time to avoid overtraining.

Increasing Endurance

Here’s an example of a six-week cardiotraining program and a six-week strength training program that help increase endurance.

Goal: Run or Walk Longer Distances

Weeks 1-2: Run or walk 3 miles three times a week.

Weeks 3-4: Run or walk 3.5 miles three times a week.

Weeks 5-6: Run or walk 4 miles three times a week.

Goal: Do Longer High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) Workouts

Weeks 1-2: Do a 10-minute strength trainingHIIT workout twice a week.

Weeks 3-4: Do a 15-minute strength training HIIT workout twice a week.

Weeks 5-6: Do a 20-minute strength training HIIT workout twice a week.

Increasing Intensity

Here are two examples of six-week cardiotraining programs that increase intensity.

Goal: Run at a Faster Pace

Weeks 1-2: Run 5k in under 28 minutes.

Weeks 3-4: Run 5k in under 26 minutes.

Weeks 5-6: Run 5k in under 24 minutes.

Goal: Do More Squats per Minute

Weeks 1-2: Do 10 bodyweight squats in one minute.

Weeks 3-4: Do 10 jump squats in one minute.

Weeks 5-6: Do 10 jump squats with a weight in one minute.

Increasing Resistance

Star Wars character asking, "You're with the Resistance?"

Here, we have outlines of how to complete two progressive overload goals: One is a nine-week strength training program and a six-week cardio program.

Goal: Lift Heavier Weights

Weeks 1-3: Do 20 reps of biceps curls with 5-pound dumbbells.

Weeks 4-6: Do 20 reps of biceps curls with 7.5-pound dumbbells.

Weeks 7-9: Do 20 reps of biceps curls with 10-pound dumbbells.

Goal: Increase Resistance During Lunges

Weeks 1-2: Hold a plank for 30 seconds three times per week.

Weeks 3-4: Hold a plank for 45 seconds three times per week.

Weeks 5-6: Hold a plank for 60 seconds three times per week.

Increasing the Number of Reps Per Set

And here are six-week and nine-week muscular endurance programs targeting an increased number of reps per set.

Goal: Do More Bench PressReps

Weeks 1-3: Do one set of 3 reps of the maximum amount of weight you can bench press.

Weeks 4-6: Do one set of 5 reps of the maximum amount of weight you can bench press.

Weeks 7-9: Do one set of 7 reps of the maximum amount of weight you can bench press.

Goal: Do More Burpees

Weeks 1-2: Do one set of 20 burpees four times a week.

Weeks 3-4: Do one set of 15 burpees four times a week.

Weeks 5-6: Do one set of 30 burpees four times a week.

Talk to an Online Trainer About Progressive Overload Training

What is progressive overload: Woman having a video call with a trainer

As we’ve seen, there are a variety of ways to make gradual changes to our workout routines so as to work on progressive overload. And while progressive overload involves building muscle, it isn’t unique to strength training – for instance, you can also work on progressively overloading your cardiovascular endurance.

To ensure your training program is appropriate – that it won’t create unnecessary risk of injury or overloading but will also sufficiently challenge you – it’s a good idea to work with an online trainer. They’ll use their expert training and knowledge to customize a training program that is right for you. Get started with an online trainer from Kickoff for just $3 a day.