Whether you love lifting weights or are just getting started with resistance bands, continuously (and gently) challenging yourself can help you succeed. One way to do this is to use the concept of progressive overload. This is when you gradually bump up the intensity of your strength training workouts to increase muscle size, strength, and endurance.
Not only can this help you get results – it can help you push through plateaus as well.
What Is Progressive Overload?
It’s gradually adding intensity when you’re strength training to improve your performance. It applies to cardio, too. It's a helpful way to build strength over time and keep your workouts fresh. You can also use it to build a variety of types of strength, like endurance, speed, or being able to make a movement explosively.
Some people use progressive overload to build endurance, while others have the goal of increasing muscle mass or toning up. Others do it so they don’t get bored with their workouts, or so they can move past a plateau. The result depends on your individual goals.
You can use progressive overload in your workouts in several ways. You can:
- Increase resistance by adding more weight or moving to a tougher resistance band.
- Increase the number of repetitions.
- Do your repetitions more quickly.
- Do longer workouts.
All these things put more stress on the body, forcing it to adapt. Those adaptations make the muscle larger in some cases, or make it stronger. They can boost your endurance, too. These changes are good for you so long as you make them happen gradually.
Can You Gain Muscle Without Progressive Overload?
Research shows that increasing intensity regularly and gradually is what enhances muscles. When you use progressive overload to gently stress the body without causing an injury, it recovers and becomes stronger. That’s why rest days are so important.
If you don’t raise the intensity, your performance may level off in a fitness plateau or even decline. This is why it can be hard to get back to where you were after an injury halts your training.
It’s important to know that simply increasing weight or resistance isn’t the only way to accomplish progressive overload. Do more repetitions or do them at a quicker pace to challenge yourself.
What Are the Benefits of Progressive Overload?
Exercise is good for you, but being able stick with it in the long term is just as important. Think of progressive overload as a way to help you stick with your fitness and health goals.
When you increase strength and endurance, it doesn't just improve your sports performance. It can also delay the start of age-related muscle diseases. And it could improve your mobility as you age, too.
Strength training is linked to a lot of health perks. Not only can it keep your bones strong, but it can ease symptoms of a range of conditions, such as:
- Heart disease
Just lifting weights every once in a while probably isn’t going to give you the benefits, compared to someone who does it often – or gradually ups the intensity. That’s why progressive overload is so valuable.
Can Progressive Overload Be Harmful?
Generally, progressive overload training is good for you. But if you add too much weight, go too fast, or pile on a ton of extra repetitions, you may overdo it. That often means sore muscles, but it could also cause an actual injury. Some injuries cause you to pause training, so they can really interrupt your progress. If you’re training for a marathon or some other time-sensitive event, an injury can be a blow for your mental health as well as your body.
Going slow when you up the intensity of your workouts is vital. This can help you avoid fractures or sprains that can derail your training.
How Can I Use Progressive Overload Training?
First, talk to your doctor about starting to use weights or resistance bands if you’re new to it. Both work your muscles; you don’t have to lift heavy barbells to get a great workout.
Because we are all at different fitness levels and may have other health considerations, it’s important to do what works for you. That means going at your own mental and physical pace.
Here are some tips to include in your progressive overload workout plan:
Warm up. Gentle movement before you actually start strength training can boost your blood flow and prep your body for what’s coming.
Begin slowly. Start with a low weight or resistance bands. If your muscles get tired after doing the exercise 12 to 15 times, you’re probably working with the right amount of weight or resistance.
If you do an exercise 12 to 15 times with the proper weight or resistance, it can build muscle efficiently. In fact, it can work as well as doing three sets. The key is to work that muscle until you feel like you can’t do another repetition.
After a while, try adding more repetitions to your progressive overload workout plan. Once you can do them comfortably, you may want to increase the amount of weight or move to a harder resistance band. Go slow, paying attention to how the moves feel and how you feel the next day. That can guide you as to when you should raise the intensity.
Ease up. Rest days are important in progressive overload training. Give the muscle group you just worked at least a day to restore itself. For example, you may want to work your arms one day and then legs the next day in order to give your arms a break. Or you can switch between exercises on different days. To avoid injury, make sure you’re not working the same muscle group on consecutive days.
Keep watch. Always pay attention to your form. You may want to look in the mirror or consult a trainer to make sure you’re doing an exercise properly. This can help you avoid injuries and work the muscle (or muscle group) completely.
Don’t rush. Whether you’re lifting weights or using resistance bands, move slowly through your full range of motion. Be sure to breathe regularly as you move. This keeps your blood pressure low and gets blood to your brain. It can also help you slow down so you don't rush.
Listen to your body. If you’re working a muscle and it hurts, stop right away. You may want to use a lower weight or resistance, or rest that muscle for a few days. Work so that your body can keep up, while slowly improving without getting hurt.
If you know how to make progressive overload work for you, you can reap all the rewards of staying active. As with any exercise or fitness routine, it’s important to be careful. Going too hard or too fast can cause injuries. Always check with your doctor before increasing your activity level or starting a new exercise plan.