Despite what a lot of the bodybuilding mags or websites say, the primary driver of muscle growth isn’t muscle confusion, soreness, “metabolic conditioning,” or time under tension etc.
No, the main driver of muscle growth is this:
Progressive tension overload (or in simple terms, progressive overload)
You can have the most optimal training program in the world. The program can be set up with optimal volume, optimal intensity, optimal frequency and so on. In other words, the program could fit you like a glove!
But if you overlook the component of progressive overload, your workout program, no matter how good it is, will quickly turn into a useless waste of time and will literally break your success, just like that.
So, let’s take a look at this very important component called progressive overload, starting with answering:
What is Progressive Overload?
Okay, so question time:
What do you think is the number one most important thing that your body is prioritizing the most?
Well, to keep you alive and to function as efficiently as possible. Truthfully, your body doesn’t care about your looks, your numbers in the gym, and whether your goal is muscle growth or fat loss. No, it’s only real goal is survival.
And for your body to meet this goal, it will do whatever is needed of it in order to adapt to its environment.
So, the only way for you to change your body the way you want it to, is to create an environment that forces it to adapt to something that will lead to that outcome.
In other words, no matter how perfect your training program is, you won’t build muscle or improve your performance unless you send your body signals that it absolutely NEED to adapt in order to survive.
And this is in exercise science known as the principle of progressive overload:
The Principle of Progressive Overload
This principle is as follows:
To get stronger and more muscular we must disrupt our physiological homeostasis with methods specific to that goal. When it comes to getting a muscular physique the most effective methods are strength training with weights and bodyweight training.
Our physiological homeostasis is simply, the place of balance where our bodies want to be in order to function appropriately.
What this means is that we must disrupt our homeostasis by placing a greater stress on the body than what it’s used to, in order to continue build muscle and strength.
The principle of progressive overload is actually pretty simple, it’s about doing enough training to overload your body and make sure to progress this over time as you adapt and get stronger, faster or more endurable.
A great and well used analogy of this is explained perfectly in the Milo of Croton story:
One day, a little calf was born near Milo’s home. Milo decided to lift the small animal up and carry it on his shoulders. After Milo had carried the calf for a couple of hours, he put the calf down and decided he was done for the day. Then as the next day arrived, he picked up the young calf again, and repeated what he had done the previous day.
Milo continued this strategy for the next four years, lifting the calf onto his shoulders each day as it grew, until he was no longer lifting a calf, but a four-year-old bull.
This resulted in the following development of Milo’s physique and performance:
Fascinating story, right? And the core principle of progressive overload is encapsulated in this legendary tale of Milo and the bull.
To put this analogy into modern day perspective, then let’s say you start out with the barbell empty, weighing in at 45 pounds (20 kg’s) and then one year later you’re lifting 180 pounds (80 kg’s), by then you’ve successfully applied the principle of progressive overload sicne you’re now able to lift 135 pounds more.
Our bodily homeostasis works like a thermostat, always striving to achieve balance. When we impose an overload, like lifting up and carrying a growing bull on our back daily for a few years, we constantly set our thermostat of course by breaking down our musculature.
This starts of a bunch of recovery processes in the body, with the goal to get it back into homeostasis. Throughout this recovery period the body also, during the right circumstances, adapt to further handle this overload better in the future, leading to more strength and muscle mass.
This graph shows just how easy a beginner would be able to make progressive overload when training, i.e. from workout to workout:
So, the take home message of progressive overload is that you should do your best to improve your performance in the gym overtime if you want more muscle and strength.
And of course stick to and be consistent with your training program for a prolonged period of time.
Practical Example of Progressive Overload
Let’s say that today you can lift 75 lbs on a certain exercise for 3 sets of 10 reps.
Now, if you continue to lift that same 75 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps for the next decade (which is a very common thing to see in the gym…) you will not gain any new muscle or strength at all. Simply because there were no progressive overload in place.
Your body has already adapted to doing 75 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps. You’re so used to lifting this amount that your body already have all the muscle and strength required to perform the lift on a regular basis.
If you’re not increasing the demands on your body overtime as it adapts, you aren’t giving your body any reason to improve further.
But, if you instead do 75 lbs for 3 sets of 11 the next time you step into the gym, suddenly you’re placing a bigger stress on your body and it will start adapting again, even if it’s only 1 rep per set.
This might seem like a tiny improvement, but it’s exactly what you need to do over and over again in order to continue making gains. And these tiny improvements will really add up over the course of months and years.
Another way to make progressive overload using this example would be to increase the weights you use to let’s say, 80 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps. This way you’ll also make progression towards new levels of strength and muscle mass, simply because your body needs to build more muscle and strength to compensate for the increased tension placed on your musculature.
This is the pure essence of progressive overload.
It doesn’t matter if you get 1 more rep, 1 more set or 5 lbs more weight, your goal is to somehow beat what you did the previous time. It’s about doing more volume and intensity overtime.
In fact, if you get into the mindset of training like this, results are guaranteed to follow!
The Reason Why Most People Fail
Let me ask you this, if you’ve been in the same gym for a long time, how many people can you think of who look the same now as they did one year ago?
The reason these people look the same is simply because they overlook the principle of progressive overload.
Unfortunately, it’s very common that people don’t do anything to increase the demands on their body. This leads their body to have no choice but to remain the same over the years.
Now, if you’ve already reached the goal you’re after, your body looks the way you want it to, and your performance is where you want it to be, then not training for progressive overload is completely fine.
But if you want to look more muscular and become stronger than what you are now, then training for progressive overload is required.
How to Make Progressive Overload
Okay, so you understand what progressive overload is and why it’s the most important aspect for continuous gains. Let’s now look at how to achieve it.
Progressing Over Your Training Career – Beginner to Advanced
Beginners, novices, intermediates and advanced trainees can make progress on different time scales, this is just the nature of physiological adaptations.
When we are younger at any endeavor, we have the chance of growing more quickly, and as we proceed we start seeing diminishing returns and progress slows down as we get more advanced.
Approximate time of progression over a training career:
A true beginner (between 0-6 months of training) can make significant increases every workout session, like 2-3 times per week.
A novice beginner (6 months up to 2 years of training) might be able to make significant increases every other session – to every week.
An intermediate (2-5 years of training) can probably make significant increases on a session every week – to every month.
An advanced trainee (5+ years) could make small increases on a session perhaps every month, while significant increases would take place perhaps every 2-6 months, or longer if they are very old in the game.
These rates above are only averages. Genetics, lifestyle, recovery and other factors will skew these numbers up or down.
Okay great, but how do you start making progress according to these rates then?
Well, let’s look at that:
When it comes to weight lifting, there’s a bunch of ways in which we can progressively overload our training. And some of these ways are more ideal for certain goals and training experience levels than others.
Here’s a list of the most common methods that are used to induce progressive overload:
1. Increase the weight being lifted
For example, if you’re currently comfortable lifting 75 lbs on a given exercise, you can lift 80 lbs the next time you perform the exercise while trying to keep the reps the same.
2. Increase the number of reps you do with a given weight
For example, if you’re currently comfortable lifting 75 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps, you can do 3 sets of 11 reps with the same weight the next time you perform the exercise.
3. Increase the number of sets you do with a given weight and reps
For example, if you’re currently comfortable lifting 75 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps, you can do 4 sets of 10 reps with the same weight the next time you perform the exercise.
4. Increase the amount of work you do within a given time period
For example, if you’re currently resting 3 minutes between your sets, you can try lifting the same weight for the same amount of sets and reps, but with 2.5 minutes of rest between your sets.
5. Increase the difficulty of the exercise you’re doing
For example, if you’re currently doing normal reps on an exercise with a given weight, you can try to pause each rep for 1-2 seconds using the same weight.
Again, depending on your goal and training experience level, some of these methods will be better suited for you than others.
But in general, for an individual looking to gain muscle and strength, the easiest, quickest and most commonly used methods to make progressive overload with are number 1: increase in load or number 2: increase in reps.
So, what follows now are a few of my (and many others) absolute favorite progression models that works exceptionally well for muscle growth:
Progression Models For Muscle Growth
Single progression of load – Beginner level
This is the most basic progression model out there.
This way of progressing is very effective and fast. Because weight gets increased from session to session.
If you are a beginner, take advantage of this progression model for as long as you can. It’s hands down the fastest way to make progress.
How to implement single progression of load:
1. Pick a weight that you can comfortably hit your prescribed set and rep goal with.
2. On your next workout, increase the weight being lifted with as much weight as possible and hit your prescribed set/rep goal again.
3. Repeat this process until you no longer can increase weight from session to session without losing reps anymore.
Here’s an example of single progression of load in action:
Let’s say you did bench press and it went like this:
- Set 1: 120 lbs – 5 reps
- Set 2: 120 lbs – 5 reps
- Set 3: 120 lbs – 5 reps
Awesome, your program called for 3 sets of 5 reps and you successfully finished all the reps.
Since you reached your goal sets and reps, it’s now time to increase the weight with as much as you can possibly handle and hit your prescribed set/rep goal again.
Now, the next time you hit bench press, you do this:
- Set 1: 125 lbs – 5 reps
- Set 2: 125 lbs – 5 reps
- Set 3: 125 lbs – 5 reps
You see what happened, right? That’s correct, you progressively overloaded with 5 lbs on each set. The key with this progression model is to try and increase with as much weight as possible when you’re still able to.
Now, obviously you won’t be able to make progress like this forever (how awesome wouldn’t that be?) No, once you reach a plateau using this progression model, you’ve progressed passed your current ability to recover and adapt at such a quick rate. So, at this time you can do one of two things:
- Get yourself a few micro plates
- Move on to another progression model
1. Get Yourself a Few Micro Plates
This is what I did, and I’m so happy I did as it allowed me to continue gaining strength for a LONG time to come. Let me explain how.
Once I started to feel that 5 lb increases was getting to heavy, I decided to buy a few micro plates. This allowed me to increase my weight on the bar each workout with only 0.5, 1, 1.5, or 2 lbs per which was AWESOME because I was now able to continue adding weight to the bar. I started by going down to 2 lbs per session, then 1.5 lbs and so on.
The problem with micro plates however is that almost no gym has these lying around, the lowest weight you can find in a gym is usually 2.5 lbs. which for barbell exercises puts you at a 5 lb leap minimum when it’s time to add weight.
So, to be able to micro load your workouts you must buy yourself a set of these micro plates, but I can say with certainty that it’s one of the better investments that I made and I’m confident most people would feel the same. You can check out which micro plates I recommend in this post.
2. Move on to another progression model
Double progression of first reps before load – Novice to intermediate (even advanced) level
By using this progression model your goal is to increase reps within a certain range before you increase load.
The difference between double progression and single progression of load is that double progression allows you to make tiny improvements in reps before you increase the weight.
This slows down the progression a bit, and will be required once you can’t make progress with single progression of load anymore.
How to implement double progression with reps before load:
1. Instead of having a fixed repetition range of say 5 reps, you instead have a target rep range, let’s say 4-6 repetitions.
2. Use the same weight on the bar every session until you reach the high end of the rep range on all your sets, which would be 6 reps in this example.
3. The session after you’ve reached the high end of the rep range (6 reps) on all your sets, increase the weight on the bar by the smallest increment possible. This will likely have you lose a couple of reps per set. But that’s fine, your goal is to now add back these reps over your upcoming workouts.
4. Repeat this process until you no longer can increase weights without dipping below your rep range. So, if you increase weight and start getting 3 instead of 4 reps on your sets in this example, it’s time to change something.
5. If you start dipping below your target rep range using 4-6 reps for example, simply increase your working rep range to, 4-8 reps, once you plateau on that, increase the range again to 4-10 and so on.
Essentially what you’re doing is prolonging your time to progress in weight by getting an extra rep here and there. This is a very powerful strategy that will allow you to make progressive overload for a long time
This works well, since it’s been shown that the rep range you’re using doesn’t matter that much for muscle growth directly.
With that said, the most effective rep range for muscle growth are between 4-15 reps, so working your way up through this large of a range and then restarting with a heavier weight is a phenomenal way to make long-term gains.
Here’s an example of double progression in action:
Let’s say you did bench press and it went like this:
- Set 1: 180 lbs – 6 reps
- Set 2: 180 lbs – 5 reps
- Set 3: 180 lbs – 4 reps
You hit 6 reps on your first set, but then you only manage 5 reps on your second set, and only 4 reps on your third set.
Now, your goal for the next time you do bench press is to try and get more reps. As that day comes, it goes something like this:
- Set 1: 180 lbs – 6 reps
- Set 2: 180 lbs – 6 reps
- Set 3: 180 lbs – 5 reps
Awesome, you added 2 reps to your bench press, sure you didn’t get 6 reps on all your sets. But, you should still view this as a very successful workout, because it’s still progressive overload!
Great, you go home, you eat and rest. Then as you come back to your next bench press workout, the following happens:
- Set 1: 180 lbs – 6 reps
- Set 2: 180 lbs – 6 reps
- Set 3: 180 lbs – 6 reps (even felt easy!)
And then the next bench press workout after that…
- Set 1: 185 lbs – 5 reps
- Set 2: 185 lbs – 4 reps
- Set 3: 185 lbs – 4 reps
You increased the weights, and dropped a few reps, which is completely fine. You now have the goal to add back these reps over your upcoming workouts again.
Will I Always Make Progress Every Workout?
Nope, not every time. There will be workouts where you end up repeating the exact number of reps and weight that you did the previous workout. Sometimes this can even continue for a while, especially as you’re getting more advanced. But the key is to work hard and find ways to add a rep here and there. Micro plates can really help speed up progress though.
Overtime your body has no other choice than to improve if you just adopt the work hard mindset in combination with a well set up training program and progression model.
What’s The Next Step?
Well, I’d like to see you get out there and crush those weights! And while you’re doing that, make sure your nutrition is on point so that you actually allow muscle growth to happen and not just burning yourself out.
Learn how to set up your nutrition correctly by reading this guide next!