5 Ways to Program Progressive Overload

Fitness programs should have a purpose. A quick Instagram search will reveal a myriad of fitness programs and workout movements of varying degrees of “fancy,” but in my professional opinion, a workout program should be three things: progressive, functional, and work towards a specific goal. 

When I program for clients, I program with those three components in mind. The next three blog posts will break down each of these principles, starting with the concept of progressive overload. 

What is progressive overload? 

Progressive overload is a simple but crucial concept. Progressive Overload is how we overload our body in comparison to what it has experienced previously. It is how we create new stimulus in hopes that muscle tissue adapts to training. When you’re following a progressive overload program, you are continuously increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system to in turn increase muscle size, strength, and endurance. 

The simplest explanation: In order to progress, you must make your muscles work harder. A successful fitness program builds on itself week after week. 

How do you progressively overload the muscles? 

There are several ways to overload the muscles when following a progressive overload program: 

  • Load: Load is one of my favorite ways to approach progressive overload. Load refers to the amount of weight you’re lifting. There are a number of ways to approach load. You can increase weight week-over-week and use that same increased weight for all of your sets. You can increase weight with each set. Or you can do more weight with more volume. However, as someone gets stronger, it becomes more difficult to implement this form of progressive overload as strength gains slow down over time, so I look to other methods for overload.

  • Volume: Volume is your reps x sets. So if you have 3 sets of 10 squats, and you do all 10 squats at 100lbs, your total volume is 3,000lbs. When you increase volume, you increase time under tension – you spend more time under load. Ideally, you’re also increasing your load along with volume to get ideal progressive overload. So you may do 3 sets of 8 reps one week, then bump up to 3 sets of 12 or even four sets of 8 the next.

  • Increase Intensity: To increase intensity, you’re moving faster. Your programming may have you resting two minutes between sets one week, then move to 90 seconds between sets, then 60 seconds the week after that. Alternatively, increased intensity happens when you’re increasing reps but decreasing the rest period. So you may do 3 sets of 8 squats with a 90 second rest one week, then switch it up to 4 sets of 6 squats. That’s still 24 squats, but at four sets, you’re spending more time under tension and therefore increasing your intensity.

  • Tempo: I love a good tempo. Tempo is the time spent in each phase of a movement: concentric, eccentric, etc. Everything else about a workout may stay the same, but the tempo has changed, which puts you under tension longer. For example, you may have a 3 second “lower” in squat which slows that movement down. Or you may pause at the bottom of the squat or lower your deadlift over three seconds. I program a lot of tempo for clients as I believe it’s one of the most effective ways to gain strength and stability.

  • Variation: Variation refers to doing a variation of a previously programmed exercise to target the muscle group from a different angle. That may mean switching from a back squat to a front squat or a back squat to a box squat. I tend to reserve variation for more advanced clients as I like to build a foundation first, but some version of variation appears in all of my programming. 

What if I’m not following a progressive overload program? 

If you’re not incorporating progressive overload – you’re doing the same sets of 10 reps at the same weight week after week – you’re probably not progressing towards your goals. It’s that simple.Hire a coach for a few months to get your programming in order or else start changing up your programming on your own – increase your reps or loads, increase your intensity, try a different variation. While you may have initial results by keeping things the same week after week, your body will adjust and no longer be challenged by the workout. A workout program should always be progressive. 

There you have it. A high level overview of the concept of progressive overload and how I use it in my strength training programs. Progressive overload can be applied elsewhere as well, such as in aerobic conditioning as well. It is a worthwhile concept to have a basic understanding of. 

If you’re looking for a progressive overload program, check out Strong By Sarah, my strength training program built for women who want efficient + effective workouts. It’s a template program that builds on itself week after week (i.e. progressive overload!) and gets results. 

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