Progressive Overload Training | Principle for Muscle Growth

What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is the process in which you continually increase the workload you do in a session, a week, a month, a program and a year. The principle is that in order to continually build muscle you need to be constantly doing more. Every avid gym goer understands this principle but doesn’t necessarily understand how to go about ensuring they are constantly increasing their volume in the correct way.

Two of the most common mistakes are that people either plateau and do not understand the protocols to break through this plateau or they go ‘balls to the wall’ from the start and lack the patience to slowly increase volume overtime.

Some people simply may not understand how to create a sustainable approach to weightlifting or make long term improvements that create continual lean tissue gain!

Why is Progressive Overload Important?


Without a stimulus to promote the physical change you are looking for, you will remain the same. It is important to continually increase the demands you are placing upon your musculoskeletal system in order to ensure you are strong enough to cope with the loads you are lifting. Progressive overloading forces your muscles to adapt to the increase demand placed on them so that they can withstand that demand the next time they are exposed to this.

This is achieved by building muscle!

progressive overload

The Mechanisms of Muscle Growth

Muscle grows through a number of different physiological mechanisms:

Mechanical tension

This is the amount of time a muscle spends moving a load. When you lift weight through a full range of motion you create passive and active tension.

  • Active tension is the isometric contraction you place on a muscle during the movement (squeezing or tensing through the movement).
  • Passive tension is tension created through stretching the muscle (think about the stretch you feel at the bottom of a chest fly). Creating tension through both of these is optimal for muscle growth. Tension through a full range of motion.

Metabolic stress

Metabolic stress refers to the pump and burning sensation associated with exercising. It is created by a cell swelling from blood pooling, metabolic waste such as lactate and a lack of oxygen to the muscle which is down to the occlusion of veins. This process causes physiological changes that promote muscle growth.

Muscle damage

Everybody knows the feeling of being sore and associates that with a successful workout. Damage elicits the release of certain satellite cells, inflammatory agents and the upregulation of IGF-1 which help the signalling of hypertrophic (muscle building) pathways. Just note that sometimes too much damage isn’t a good thing and can have a negative effect, for example if after every leg session you are unable to walk. Don’t be afraid of using weight lifting assists such as padded wrist straps or lifting belts as these will allow you to lift much heavier weights in a safe and controlled way.

So, where does all of the above come into progressive overload?

Well simply put, by creating more tension, stress and damage with heavier weight you are forcing more adaptation.

So in essence, even though our main goal is hypertrophy, we should be constantly aiming to get stronger in all rep ranges.

How can you increase volume?

This is where periodisation plays a huge role. As mentioned earlier, people are unsure how to break through a plateau or burn themselves out in the process of trying, which can lead to a lack of progress and ultimately people quitting.

What is Periodisation? | Workout Sets and Reps Charts

progressive overload deadlift


Periodization is the systematic planning of athletic or physical training. It involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period.

This allows you to alter rep ranges and load in order to ensure you are getting more volume through a muscle group and should help eliminate fatigue and plateau.

There are a number of periodisation strategies:

Stage #1: Linear Periodisation

Linear periodisation is a method where you concentrate on 1 rep range for around 3 to 4 weeks and will usually consist of 3 blocks. What I mean by 1 rep range when it comes to weight lifting, is a category of training style and focus. The rep ranges are generally split into 3 categories; hypertrophy, strength and power. Each of these categories represents a phase of training with linear periodisation. You may structure you program like this:

Weeks 1-4: (hypertrophy) – 12-15 reps
Weeks 5-8: (strength) – 8- 12 reps
Weeks 4-8: (power) – 4-8 reps

In order to increase volume you should be continually trying to lift heavier as your intensity is increased from hypertrophy to strength to power.

The problem with this approach is that you can only concentrate on one phase of training, for example upon completing your power phase and going back to your hypertrophy phase you will have most likely lost some of the adaptations gained when you finished week 4.

This is my no means optimal and probably best suited to a beginner.

Stage #2: Non-Linear Periodisation

The main difference between linear and non-linear periodisation is in the name. You don’t concentrate on 1 rep range which allows you to maintain and increase any adaptations made week to week. You could structure your training like this example workout set and rep chart:

Workout A: 12-15 reps
Workout B: 5-8 reps

If you were training 3 times per week, a 2 week cycle would look like this:

Week 1, session 1: Workout A
Week 1, session 2 Workout B
Week 1, session 3 Workout A
Week 1, session 1 Workout B
Week 1, session 2 Workout A
Week 1, session 3 Workout B

Stage #3: Daily undulating periodisation (DUP)

DUP is a program in which you include all of your different sessions into 1 week/block/cycle, again this allows you to keep on top of the adaptations you have made across all rep ranges and allows you to increase volume. A standard DUP program would look something like this workout set and rep chart:

Workout A: 12-15 reps/Hypertrophy
Workout B: 8-12 reps/Strength
Workout C: 4-8 reps/Power

The good thing about DUP is that it allows you to concentrate on areas of weakness. If your main goal is to build more muscle, you could increase the ratio of hypertrophy sessions, e.g. for every strength and power session you would carry out 2 hypertrophy sessions:

Week 1, session 1: Hypertrophy
Week 1, session 2 Strength
Week 1, session 3 Hypertrophy
Week 1, session 1 Power
Week 1, session 2 Hypertrophy
Week 1, session 3 Strength
Week 1, session 2 Hypertrophy
Week 1, session 3 Power

You get the drift!

If your goal was to increase strength, you would switch the hypertrophy sessions for strength sessions; same would apply for power.

Take Home Message

For any gym goer serious about building muscle, you absolutely NEED to be progressively overloading to advance you physique. The accumulation of small advances in volume over time is going to add up and result in muscle growth.

If you are not incorporating a periodisation strategy then the likelihood is that you don’t know what sort of volume you are getting in the gym or have any structure to your sessions; this simply will not cut it long term.

What you need to do:

Assess what stage you are at in the gym.

Set up your own program using the above strategies or enlist professional help.

Be patient and consistent with lifts, slowly increasing volume over time.



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