The Progressive Overload Principle, Explained

If your workout program has you doing the same exercises or the same routine week after week, you will likely see little progress after a while because your body is going to adapt to the physiological demands of the workout, and you’ll hit a fitness plateau.

To prevent stagnation in your progress and maximize your gains in strength and aerobic fitness, training plans need to employ the principle of progressive overload. 

In this article, we will discuss the progressive overload principle, why it is important, and how to build your training plan in accordance with the progressive overload principle to maximize your results.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Progressive Overload?
  • How Do You Follow the Progressive Overload Principle?
  • Tips for Using the Progressive Overload Principle

Let’s get started! 

A person running uphill.

What Is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is a principle used in strength training and cardiovascular endurance exercise training plans that involves gradually and systematically increasing the difficulty of your workouts to induce continual progress in your muscular strength, power, speed, and aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

The progressive overload principle of training should be employed in any type of training plan, no matter what your primary fitness goal is (such as building muscle, increasing strength, running faster, increasing endurance, improving body composition, increasing explosive speed and power, etc.).

With progressive overload, the “progressive“ component refers to the fact that you will be increasing the workload from week to week so that your muscles must continually adapt and cannot become accustomed to the workouts you are doing.

When considering aerobic exercise like running, cycling, or swimming, the “progressive“ component of progressive overload training involves gradually increasing the duration of your workouts or training volume from week to week to build cardiovascular, metabolic, and muscular endurance.

A person cycling.

The “overload“ component of progressive overload training refers to the fact that the volume and intensity of the exercises you perform in a workout should exceed the current capacity of your muscles or metabolic systems within reasonable limits. 

When you lift weights that are heavier than your muscles can really tolerate or perform enough sets and reps, you exceed the capacity of your muscle fibers to complete the entire workout without damage; structural damage, in the form of small tears, that occurs in your muscle fibers.

Although it may sound counterintuitive that you are trying to deliberately damage your muscle tissue, microscopic tears are what stimulate the body to begin the process of preparing and rebuilding muscles, which ultimately leads to gains in muscular strength and size (hypertrophy).

The body senses the damage in these “injured“ muscle fibers and sends a cascade of proteins and amino acids to your muscles so that they can assemble new proteins to repair the damage.

A person getting ready to do an overhead press.

This process, termed myofibrillar protein synthesis, or muscle protein synthesis for short, reinforces and strengthens your muscle fibers with the newly manufactured proteins, ultimately rebuilding back muscle tissue that is stronger, larger, and more resilient.

The same can be said with overloading the body with aerobic exercise. Performing workouts that challenge the current limits and abilities of your muscles and cardiovascular system induces your muscles, heart, lungs, and blood vessels to adapt to the burden or stress you have put on them.

For example, long runs for a distance runner can overload the current functional capacity of the type 1 muscle fibers to produce energy (ATP) aerobically and can cause glycogen depletion because the muscle fibers might only be efficient at burning carbohydrates for energy at higher intensities.

Over time, the stress of these longer workouts can lead to favorable aerobic exercise adaptations such as:

  • Increased mitochondrial density in the muscles (to be able to produce more ATP aerobically)
  • Greater capillary density in the muscles (so that the circulatory system is more effective and efficient at delivering much-needed oxygen to your muscles)
  • Improved efficiency of fat oxidation (so that your muscles can burn fat for energy at higher workloads, helping with glycogen sparing)
A person swimming.

How Do You Follow the Progressive Overload Principle?

Although the progressive overload principle in training is pretty straightforward to understand in theory, putting it into practice can be more difficult.

On the “progressive“ side of things, you can progress your workouts by increasing the resistance/intensity, frequency, and duration of your strength training or aerobic endurance workouts.

These changes should effectively continue to overload your muscles, so the “progression“ and overload“ can go hand-in-hand if you do things right.

Let’s examine how to do progressive overload with each of these three workout variables.

Frequency

If you are currently running 2 to 3 days per week or strength training 1 or 2 days per week, an easy way to progress your fitness is to add additional exercise sessions per week. This will increase the training volume stimulus that your muscles and cardiovascular system are subject to.

A class of people using suspension devices.

Resistance/Intensity

The intensity of a workout refers to how hard you are needing to exert yourself and is dependent on numerous factors. 

With cardio exercise, intensity is usually affected by the pace and resistance that you use. For example, to increase the intensity while running, you would simply run faster or uphill. To increase the intensity of cycling, you would increase your cadence to pedal faster and increase your resistance so that your muscles have to work at a higher level. 

Wearing a heart rate monitor is the best way to ensure that you are increasing your intensity because it gives you a tangible biometric to gauge your body‘s response to your workout.

With strength training, the specific exercises you perform and the amount of weight that you lift are the primary factors that affect intensity, but you can also add reps and sets, which will increase training volume, and this can also increase intensity in some ways.

For example, a beginner might perform kneeling push-ups that can be progressed to full push-ups on the feet or even decline push-ups as you get stronger. 

A person running.

You might start by squatting just with your body weight or with 10-pound dumbbells and then gradually increase the weight as you get stronger. 

You might also choose to start including more dynamic exercises such as burpees, step-ups, and squat jumps.

All of these changes can increase the intensity of strength training workouts.

When it comes to the “overload“ side of things, it is important to increase your pace or speed with cardio exercise and increase the amount of weight that you use during strength training workouts when your current workload has become comfortable or starts to feel easy. 

For example, if running at an eight-minute-per-mile pace initially felt difficult but now feels like a comfortable jog, you need to run faster to continually challenge your body. 

Similarly, if you started the chest press with 15-pound dumbbells but that now feels quite easy, and you can get through 12 to 15 reps without fatiguing, you need to increase the amount of weight that you are using.

People mountain biking.

Duration

Increasing the duration of your workouts is pretty straightforward.

With aerobic exercise, simply add minutes or distance to your workouts. With strength training workouts, increase the number of sets and reps that you do for each muscle group or add additional exercises to the lineup for each workout.

Tips for Using the Progressive Overload Principle

In order for the progressive overload principle to be effective, you have to “progress” and “overload” at the appropriate rates.

Progressing and overloading too slowly or too little will make it difficult to see appreciable progress because your workouts won’t be triggering enough of a response to induce physiological adaptations.

If the body doesn’t have to “reach” to do your workout, and if you’re not ramping things up aggressively enough, your muscles will be comfortable and strong enough to perform the exercises without incurring any tears or getting damaged.

People on stationary bikes training with the progressive overload principle.

Without this damage, muscle protein synthesis won’t occur, so the muscles won’t really get any stronger or bigger.

On the other hand, if the “progression” and “overload” are too aggressive, you can increase the risk of injury, fatigue, and overtraining syndrome.

Therefore, to be successful, there needs to be a happy medium in the rate and extent of the progressive overload in your training plan.

Overall, it’s important to listen to your body and use reasonable increases in your training plan so as not to overdo things.

It tends to be most prudent to increase only one of the aforementioned factors (frequency, intensity, or duration) at a time from one week to the next unless you are only going to make small changes across each factor.

In other words, don’t jump from running 1 to 2 days per week to 4 to 5 while simultaneously running faster and longer for each workout.

The general guidelines for increasing running volume, for instance, is to not exceed an increase of 10% from one week to the next. This advice can be applied to other forms of exercise as well, although it’s always best to consider your current level of fitness, what type of exercise you are doing, and how your body is responding.

For some more insight on the 10% rule, check out our article: The 10% Rule: Is It A Valid Way To Increase Your Weekly Running Mileage?

A person running on a treadmill.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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