What Most Lifters Get WRONG About Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is much more than simply adding weight to the bar.

In order to progress in any one area in the gym you need one thing: progressive overload. 

Progressive overload is a term that’s thrown around in nearly every strength circle with certainty, however, it’s also a term that’s often misconstrued. The vast majority of lifters who discuss progressive overload generally understand what the concept entails — a gradual, calculated, manageable, and trackable increase in stimulus to warrant a desired adaptation over time — but they look at it with a very narrow scope. 

What does a narrow scope mean? 

In some cases, progressive overload is thought to only be one thing, like weight on the bar or intensity/load. Yes, those are forms of progressive overload, however, it’s not the only form of progressive overload.

Progressive overload, in short, is a gradual and trackable increase of stress on the body to warrant a goal-oriented adaptation. Overload does not just mean weight on the bar, but instead, stress or stimulus. In the video below, we had adaptive powerlifter and keynote speaker, Chris Ruden discuss progressive overload and how he interprets this concept for himself and other’s training. 

What Is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is any stress that is on the body to warrant a specific adaptation. To take it a step further, the stress placed on the body should be manageable, calculated, scalable, and trackable, as these all provide a game plan for strategically moving forward with the goal at hand. 

The concept of periodization and progressive overload go hand-in-hand. One way to think about these two is to conceptualize periodization as the physical road map you’re working off of and following, and progressive overload then serves as the turns, pit stops, and gas that you need along the way to get you to your destination. Both of these will influence one another based on training goals. 

Types of Progressive Overload

In the video above, Ruden spends a considerable amount of time stressing that progressive overload is much more than adding weight to the bar. So now the question remains, what are some other ways athletes can progressively overload their body in training? 

  • Intensity
  • Frequency (amount of weekly training session, weekly exposures training a muscle/lift)
  • Volume 
  • Range of Motion
  • Time Under Tension (Tempo)
  • Angles of Lifts
  • Type of Resistance
  • Changing Workout Duration
  • Manipulating Rest Periods

These are only a few of the ways you can progressively overload in the gym.

Remember, progressive overload is simply increasing how much is done over a tracked period of time, so all of the above can be used to facilitate desired adaptations. 

2 Progressive Overload Tips

1. Form Over All

Progressive overload can help you achieve goals, but if form, technique, and mechanics are sacrificed in doing so, then efforts could be wasted. When progressively overloading anything in the gym, mechanics should always take precedence, especially when pushing past comfortable limits. 

2. Progressive Overload Is Not Linear

Similar to data points tracked across a macrocycle in a linear periodization model, progressive overload is never linear. You can’t expect, for instance, to increase weight by the same amount every week. There will be highs and lows due to the constant variance of human life — big and small changes in sleep, hormones, diet, and environment are just some factors that will influence your performance.

As you progress in your lifting career, progressive overload becomes much more strategic and varied. You can’t do the same exercises and the same number of sets and reps every week and keep linearly progressing. That often works well for beginners, but eventually, you need to experiment with different methods of progressive overload. 

Wrapping Up

There are multiple ways to interpret and use progressive overload for training. What’s important to always remember is that there is no one-size-fits-all methodology for progressive overload. Everyone will respond differently to various stresses and stimuli, and as a coach and athlete, it’s our job to track, manage, and scale those stresses in a strategic manner to constantly progress. 

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.