Progressive Overload: The What, Why & How

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February 5, 2021

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When you’re working out, challenging yourself is key if you want to see your strength and fitness improve - especially if you’re doing a weightlifting program in the Sweat app like BUILD or Strength & Sculpt! 

Your body adapts each time you exercise and if you don’t make your workout a little bit harder each time, you’ll limit your ability to grow and may experience a workout plateau. But, how do you take the difficulty up a notch without overdoing it? Meet the progressive overload principle.

What is progressive overload?

Progressive overload is a way of gradually dialling up the stress you put on your body while exercising over time, or “overloading” it in an effort to grow your muscles and become stronger. 

This principle is made up of four different elements: volume, intensity, density and frequency.

By introducing progressive overload into your exercise routine, you’ll maximise your performance and achieve muscle growth.

Let’s learn how it works and some simple ways to integrate the overload principle into your workouts.

Putting the “progress” in progressive overload

The progressive overload principle has been around for a very long time and remains an important part of many training programs for athletes, gym-goers — and members of the Sweat Community following programs like  BUILD or Strength & Sculpt!

Those who are familiar with these Sweat programs will know that each week the workouts change and build in intensity. This increased pressure on your body is thoroughly and strategically planned and is key to smashing your goals and measuring positive changes in your performance. 

If you’re new to lifting or want a refresher, there are 12 Beginner weeks in the BUILD program to prepare your body for the main program, where the intensity steps up a notch! 

In Strength & Sculpt, there are exercise substitutions you can use if you don’t have the right equipment or want to reduce the difficulty.

You’ll also notice you’re provided with suggested reps or weights for all of the primary movements which gradually change over time (this means that the intensity has increased).

Remember, nothing is achieved overnight — progressive overload takes hard work, measurement and patience.

Understanding how progressive overload works

Gradually increasing the stress on your body triggers its natural, adaptive responses. These responses only kick in when the body is placed under a certain level of pressure. As the pressure increases so does your body’s strength and performance. Hence the term: gains. All it takes is a bit of planning and strategy to track your progress and keep moving forward. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten!

Growing your muscles and boosting performance

So, what does progressive overload actually mean when it comes to working out? Progressive overload requires a gradual increase in volume, intensity, density and frequency.

Basically, doing more sets and/or reps (volume), lifting heavier weights (intensity), completing your powerbuilding workout in a shorter amount of time (density) and increasing the number of workouts you do each week (frequency).

Volume: More reps, more sets

Doing more sets or reps is an easy, achievable way to include progressive overload in your workouts.

When five reps becomes easy, increase it to six. Follow the same logic for your sets to make sure you’re still being challenged in each workout. Both BUILD and Strength & Sculpt have in-app rep guides to help you make progress. 

It might be tempting to increase your reps across the board, but monitor each part of your body separately. Your legs might be stronger than your arms, or vice versa. That’s totally OK and very normal!

Tracking your progress is really important when it comes to increasing volume. Take note of what you lift in each BUILD workout in the Sweat app. You can record your number of reps completed and weights lifted in increments of 0.5kgs by hitting the arrow button once you're done with the exercise.

Be realistic and track each part of your body separately. Once workouts become easy, gradually increase your reps or sets to continue muscle growth and log your progress after each workout.

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Intensity: Gradually upping your weights

When it comes to growing your muscles, lifting heavier weights is important, but it’s still only one piece of the puzzle.

Lifting heavier weights will help increase the intensity of your workout and put your muscles under more stress. You can opt for slightly heavier weights for each individual exercise as your body gets stronger.

Little by little you’ll see progress and an improvement in performance. If you’re new to lifting weights, it’s important to understand how to measure the difficulty and where to start.

RPE (rate of perceived exertion), is a subjective rating of the perceived effort of an exercise (aka how hard it feels to YOU on a scale of 1-10) and is a great way to measure the intensity of your workout. 

You’ll find the RPE next to each exercise in the BUILD program, and although the progressive overload in Strength & Sculpt is based on increased reps, you can also increase your weights if you feel comfortable doing more.

While increasing the intensity by adding weight is an important part of progressive overload, using it alone could see your progress plateau or lead to soft tissue injury. It’s also not physically possible or sustainable to simply add more weight every single session or week. 

So, consider combining the four different elements of progressive overload and follow the guidance in the Sweat app.

Gradually increase your weights over time, and keep a record of what you’re lifting so you can measure your progress.

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Density: Putting the “work” into your workout

Workout density combines volume and duration, referring to the amount of time it takes you to complete your workout.

Let’s say your lifting session typically involves doing 10 sets of three reps in roughly 15 minutes. Increasing the density of your workout would mean completing the same amount of sets and reps,  but in 13 minutes. 

This doesn’t mean rushing through your reps, but gradually reducing the REST time between sets. Usually rest for three minutes? Rest for two and a half. Keep an eye on the clock to track your time, or choose a short tune on your workout playlist for in-between sets.

Alwaysfocus on form, make sure you use the gym equipment correctly, and focus on your breathing as you lift. Don’t rush.

Frequency: Get set to spend more time at the gym

Those following the Strength & Sculpt or BUILD programs will be aware of the recommended lifting sessions per week and which areas of the body to focus on when.

But, of course, your training journey is unique and it’s totally fine to increase the frequency of your training. This could be an additional resistance, HIIT or low-intensity cardio session. Just be realistic and make sure you’re not overdoing it, which can lead to injury and unwanted setbacks. No one wants that!

Increasing your workout frequency is only effective if you’re able to recover properly, so be mindful of this when adding in extra sessions. We recommend following the progression within each Sweat program.

Strength and muscle improvement actually happens in the time between your gym sessions, so if you don’t recover properly from a lifting or powerbuilding workout, your performance and growth will suffer rather than improve. Be realistic about how many sessions you can and should be doing.

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Challenge equals change!

Progressive overload sounds a lot more complicated than it really is. What it ultimately boils down to is continually challenging yourself over time to perform, grow and feel your absolute best. 

It’s important to remember that while progressive overload involves four elements — volume, intensity, density and frequency — you absolutely don’t need to increase all of these at once. 

Log your progress in the Sweat app, work hard and remember you’re in this for the long game. The results will come!

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A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


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