Why Progressive Overload Is A Must For Muscle Growth

So, you want to see results? Progressive overload training is going to be your new best friend.

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February 5, 2021 - Updated July 9, 2024

Kelsey Wells lime green squat

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are you. Building muscle and making progress with your strength training routine takes time and patience, but there’s a big difference between doing a bunch of workouts simply hoping for the best and actually following a program designed for specific results.

This is where progressive overload training comes in and it’s an absolute essential if you want to achieve muscle growth and see improvements in your strength while avoiding injuries, burnout and workout plateaus.

They say nothing worth having comes easy, but understanding progressive overload can definitely take the confusion out of your workout routine.

What is progressive overload training?

According to The Australian Strength and Conditioning Association, if you want your muscles to adapt and become stronger, it is necessary to gradually expose them to a level of stress beyond what they’re used to, and that’s exactly what progressive overload aims to do.

The obvious way to make strength and muscle gains is to lift heavier weights, but there are several other ways to increase the level of stress on your muscles. Progressive overload can be achieved by adjusting several elements of your workouts, such as increasing your weights, reps, sets, number of workouts, or reducing your rest periods.

Slowly and strategically increasing the stress on your body triggers its natural, adaptive responses that lead to increases in strength and performance, aka gains.

While progressive overload can also apply to training styles like cycling or running, generally we use the term when we’re talking about the strength training progress you make with programs like PWR Strength or Strength & Sculpt, where the workouts are strategically designed to help you smash your goals and level up your strength.

The four elements of progressive overload

There are four aspects of your training you can adjust to achieve your goals:

  • Volume: more reps and/or sets

  • Intensity: heavier weights

  • Density: shorter rest periods or faster tempo

  • Frequency: more workouts

Volume: More reps, more sets

Doing more sets or reps is an easy and achievable way to include progressive overload in your workouts. When five reps becomes easy, increase it to six. When completing three sets feels easy, relish in that feeling, then next time go for four.

Most strength training programs in the Sweat app have specific rep and set recommendations to help you progress gradually, and the tracking feature is there to help you keep tabs. Be realistic and track each part of your body separately as different muscle groups may be stronger or progress faster than others.

Intensity: Gradually up your weights

If you want to lift heavier, at some point you need to try lifting heavier - even if it’s only by a small amount. Lifting heavier weights puts your muscles under more stress, causing microtears that will repair and rebuild, leaving the muscle stronger. Little by little, what was once hard will start to feel easy and you’ll be ready to add even more weight.

It’s easy to track your progression by recording the weights you have lifted in the Sweat app, and some workouts even offer RPE guidance to help you figure out how much weight you should be lifting.

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. Several Sweat programs use RPE to help guide your efforts in each workout or encourage you to record your weights if you want to improve.

The moment when you realise you’re ready to try a heavier weight is so exciting, but it won’t happen in every single workout, nor should you dramatically increase your weights - that’s a recipe for injury! Stick with the gradual and patient approach - progress takes time.

Progressive Overload: The What, Why & How - Picture Panel 3 - Desktop

Density: Cut down the rest or pick up the pace

Workout density is all about tightening up the gaps in your Sweat session. Reducing your rest periods between each set or working out at a quicker pace can significantly increase the difficulty! Some Sweat programs - especially those geared towards heavy lifting - have specific rest periods designed to help your muscles recover enough before your next set.

When you’re lifting heavy, moving quickly can also be impossible (not to mention a recipe for injury). If this is how you’re training, cutting down the rest time or increasing the tempo isn’t advised. But if you’re lifting lighter weights, feel up to it and can maintain correct form throughout, picking up the pace can be an epic way to challenge and fatigue your muscles.

Frequency: Add in another workout

Every Sweat program designed to improve your strength and muscle mass has a set number of workouts available per week and it isn’t recommended that you add any more sessions to your routine - you won’t see any improvement (or may even see yourself going backwardsor getting injured) if you’re not getting adequate rest and helping your body to recover. The gains actually happen in between your workouts, not during them.

In saying that, if you’re only doing a couple of workouts each week and have the time and energy to dial it up, completing another one of the weekly workouts in your program could be an incredible next step!

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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 your muscles beyond what they’re comfortable with. By doing this consistently, you’ll set yourself up to see progress, build strength and smash your goals.

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 in every workout.

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.

Strength & Sculpt with Katie Martin
Katie Martin
Kelsey Wells

* 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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