PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD // what the heck does it actually mean?
Progressive overload 101
If you’re new to fitness there’s a few common phrases you’ll quirkily learn people love to say along the way. BUT sometimes leave you confused by what they mean.
Progressive overload is a basic principle in fitness. Simply: we need to do a little more over time to increase the stress on our body —> adaptation —> improved fitness.
This is often touted as doing “more over all work” such as lifting volume, weight moved or miles ran.
And while these are all great ways to improve— not everyone is ready to jump into just throwing up more weight each week.
So this goes beyond just weight move and also includes things like —
1) how comfortable we are during a movement, such as improved confidence or body awareness or feeling “safe” under a bar
2) SKILL, fitness is a skill after all. Improving your back squat form counts as progressive overload even if you’re moving the same weight. Or me working on snatch drills to improve form will result in more weight LONG TERM, even if just not right now.
4) Then the more traditional increase volume, reps, sets, days lifted or being able to work at higher RPE’s.
5) and last but not least we can progress in the difficulty of the movement. I gave a few examples of this here. Again, this still counts as progress!! And may be more realistic as you begin lifting or are limited in weights at home!
How often should you go up in weight then?
One of the most confusing aspects about progressive overload is …. how often should you go up in weight? The answer is — IT DEPENDS. If you need to gain skill or confidence in say, your squat — you may hang out at the same weight for a few weeks or month(s) or so till you work through that. But let’s say you are confident and moving well in a movement… then what?
The easiest rule of thumb is to look at LONG TERM progress than week to week alone. Remember, we train largely by RPE (at least if you work with me). So by using this we may go up one week and down another week. But over time, that should go up.
This can be linear. You can see here it is simple, you go up ~5-10 lbs (or 5-10%) give or take each week. These jumps may be bigger in things like squats and deadlifts. Where pressing movements may move slower and need smaller increases or a rep modulation, shown below.
- Week 1: 3×10 @ 135 lbs @RPE8
- Week 2: 3×10 @ 140 lbs @RPE8
- Week 3 3×10 @ 145 lbs @RPE8
This can be linear but with reps & weight (say you are given 3×8-10 range). Below may be a realistic example of an accessory movement or even pressing movement. Those that seem to take forever to make progress in. Over 6 weeks you may only add 5 lbs but you are increasing volume across time and making progress. You can also see here how RPE is a useful tool to see how hard something is and when it’s time to drop reps and increase weight, or increase reps. This is why as a whole, understanding RPE and what it means and practicing it is very helpful and a skill! See the full RPE post for more.
- Week 1: 3×8 @ 50 lbs @RPE8
- Week 2: 3×10 @ 50 lbs @RPE8
- Week 3: 3×10 @ 50 lbs @RPE7 (felt easier, so dropped rep increase load the next week as shown below)
- Week 4: 3×8 @ 55 lbs @RPE8
- Week 5: 3×8 @ 55 lbs @RPE7 (same as week 3)
- Week 6: 3×10 @ 55 lbs @RPE8
Or if we are just starting out as beginners or even intermediate lifts simply making whatever we are doing more challenging. Not everything is adding more weight! Sometimes it’s getting better at a skill
- Bodyweight squat > Goblet squat > Back squat
- 2 Leg RDL > B-stance RDL > Single leg RDL
- Standing split squat > Front foot elevated split squat > Rear foot elevated split squat > Front and rear foot elevated split squat
- Improved squat depth
- Improved deadlift form
And for more science of lifting check out TRAIN. My 90+ page lifting ebook helping you actually understand your lifting/fitness, make your own workouts + >120 demo videos!