Have you ever felt stuck along your fitness journey? Like you’re not getting any stronger? You’ve likely hit a plateau, but don’t panic: It happens to most of us! The important thing is that you know how to get unstuck, and that’s what we’re here to talk about. One of the simplest ways to do it is with progressive overload.
Your body is all about efficiency. It will expend as little energy as possible to keep you alive. Your body is also resilient. It will adapt to the physical demands you place on it and that’s it. If you don’t make any changes, you won’t see any changes. This is when you hit that dreaded plateau.
Your body is doing what it does best. It’s learned how to adapt to the stress of your (not so) new training program. So, if you want to see more changes in your body, you’ll need to add more changes to how you train.
And that, everyone, is where progressive overload comes in.
What is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload is a combination of two important training principles, and it’s right in the name:
Progression is a gradual and systematic process in training stress to maintain overload that facilitates continuing physical adaptation.
Overloading is to strategically apply an increased load or stress on a tissue or system—in this case, we’re talking about your muscles—that’s above your normal load.
Put those two things together, and you’ve got progressive overload! It’s the golden rule to strength training. Gradually increase the load placed on a given muscle over time and you’ll trigger the desired adaptations in the form of getting stronger and building muscle mass.
Our coach Bryan puts it simply and says it’s all about “pushing muscles past their point of comfortability to bring about a desired physiological change over the duration of a fitness program.” Sounds about right!
Here’s another way to look at it: Your muscles get bigger and stronger when you challenge them. To continue challenging them over time, you need progressive overload.
6 Tips to Gain Strength and Overcome Your Plateau
There are a number of ways you can use progressive overload to get stronger. Here are six suggestions.
1. Increase Your Reps Over Time
If you bench press for four reps and it’s no longer feeling challenging, bump it up to six or seven reps and see how that feels.
More often than not, a simple way to make any exercise more difficult is to simply do it a little bit more.
2. Increase the Weight Over Time
Does a 100-pound front squat no longer give you the burn it used to? Then it might be time to increase the load to 110 or 120 pounds.
Your muscles have adapted to 100 pounds, which is a great thing because it means you’re getting stronger! Now, it’s time to increase the intensity.
3. Increase How Often You Train
We caution you to approach this one strategically, because more of a good thing isn’t always a positive. However, increasing the frequency of your sessions and adding in even just one extra day a week can make a huge difference.
Be sure to switch up your movements and the muscles you’re targeting, so that you don’t run the risk of overuse, which can lead to injury.
Individually, these first three approaches are already pretty powerful. Put them together, and you’re even more likely to overcome that frustrating plateau by using progressive overload.
Now that we’ve got the basics of progressive overload out of the way, there are some other less obvious variables to consider when trying to increase stress on the body.
4. Change the Tempo of Your Movement
This is a simple but often overlooked way to use progressive overload: Take whatever you’re doing, and do it slower. This is called tempo work.
A simple push-up becomes ten times harder when you slow down the descent to a three-count. A back squat will challenge you far more if you slow down the negative (read: the lowering phase) to a count of five.
Similarly, you can increase the tempo and do things faster to increase the intensity. (You don’t know cardio until you do squats for time.
5. Increase Your Range of Motion
Let’s go back to push-ups, as an example. Your standard push-up has your hands on the ground, and at the bottom of the movement, your chest is supposed to touch the ground.
Now, imagine that instead of putting your hands flat on the ground, you hang onto two dumbbells, which lift you up a couple of inches. Then, in order for your chest to touch the ground, you actually have to go into a deficit.
That’s how you increase your range of motion.
6. Decrease Your Rest Time
Rest is good! It can also be used strategically as a form of progressive overload to help you push through a plateau. If your squat programming has you resting for two minutes in between sets, try reducing that to 1.5 minutes instead, and see how it feels.
There are definitely more methods to explore, but let’s not get too carried away—this is just an introduction, after all!
While progressive overload can be hard work, Tempo, a total gym experience, can at least take some of the load off.
Tempo will not only gradually increase your weight over time based on your performance (that’s right, no math or guesswork for you!), but it will also track your total volume week-over-week to ensure that you’re making progress.
That means you’ll easily see target ranges for your pace, range of motion, and rep schemes. In addition, you’ll have the chance to join in on progressive programs that are built around these variables that our expert coaches develop and will guide you through from Day 1.
How Do You Know How Much Weight to Load?
Pace/tempo, range of motion, and reps are generally easy to prescribe, but knowing how much weight to use is not as straightforward.
Your weight/load will be highly individualized based on your fitness goals and your fitness level or experience. However, you can safely start experimenting with manipulation of just one variable at a time to see what best suits you.
For example, once you feel comfortable with a specific movement and can consistently and safely execute the full range of motion (which Tempo and our coaches can help you with) at a specific weight, try adding a little more weight and slightly scaling back your rep count.
Keep in mind that certain muscle groups can bear more weight added than others—you’ll likely be able to add more weight to your squat than you would your bicep curl, for instance. And remember, you don’t need to add a ton of weight to your movements for them to be beneficial. Incremental overload, or small amounts of volume increase overtime, will add up!
“Your weight/load will be highly individualized based on your fitness goals and your fitness level or experience.”
How to Overload Your Lifts Safely
Getting started with progressive overload isn’t tough, but there are some things to consider so that you can incorporate it safely and successfully into your routine:
- Perfect Your Form
Make sure you’ve nailed your form—this will allow you to improve your range of motion and do it correctly. (Remember, Tempo can help you out with that.)
Conduct an initial baseline test and regularly repeat that test throughout your training to track your progress (something else that Tempo can help with). By setting up a baseline test, you’ll have an apples to apples (er, maybe squats to squats) test to see how much you’re improving.
- It’s You vs. You
Comparing yourself to another person won’t help you reach your goals—it’s just you today versus the you of yesterday.
- Be Patient
You won’t see progress overnight. Be kind to yourself and try not to load on too much too quickly. If you’re just starting out, change one variable at a time to adequately measure your success. And take time to rest—it’s just as important as training!
In fact, taking it slow is our coach Natalia’s biggest tip for progressive overload.
“Do it very incrementally so that the body does not get overworked and injured. Change one thing, then stay with that one change for enough time as it takes for your body to get used to it before progressing,” she says.
Staying on Tempo
You’ll never reach the end of your fitness journey, and some days you’re going to feel discouraged, burnt out, or just over it.
Remember to surround yourself with people who are going to support you. We here at Tempo can be part of that support system. Reach out to us, and if you’re already a Tempo member, don’t forget there are a ton of people who are going to cheer you on in our Official Tempo Facebook Group!