The Importance of Progressive Overload for Muscle Growth

Progressive overload is a method that helps athletes overcome the situation of reaching a plateau. It combines a set of principles that push athletes to reach their maximum potential.

By Zander de la Rey
Edited by Tom Amitay

Published March 6, 2021.

Many people who train regularly are familiar with the experience of reaching a certain level that they can't seem to exceed. It can be quite frustrating because you need to keep improving in order to stay motivated.

Progressive overload is a method that helps athletes overcome the situation of reaching a plateau. It combines a set of principles that push athletes to reach their maximum potential. But before we discuss progressive overload, let's understand the processes our muscles go through when we train and also when we don't.

Muscle Atrophy and How to Avoid it

When you don't exercise, engage in physical activities, or live a sedentary lifestyle, you lose muscle mass. This process is called muscle atrophy, and it happens because the body breaks down muscle cells that aren't active.

When the human body is put under physical stress (stimulus), it responds. Whenever we train hard, we break down our muscles in the process, and our body responds to this training/stimulus by repairing the damaged cells and making the muscles stronger than before.

Adaptation

Adaptation is a process in which your body gets used to a level of training and stimulus. If you don't increase your training level, you will reach a plateau since your body's stress, and stimulus are no longer adequate to create the desired response.

Experts believe adaptation occurs after 12-16 weeks of going through the same exercise program. You can remedy this by using the progressive overload method to keep on making progress without reaching any plateaus.

Progressive Overload Explained

Progressive overload provides simple principles to improve training and avoid adaptation. I recommend using these techniques gradually and over time. Do not over-stress the body or use all the techniques at once:

  1. Frequency: Increasing the number of training sessions per week.
  2. Intensity: Using heavier weights on your next training session.
  3. Tension: Increasing the duration of repetitions of every exercise you do (Time under tension).
  4. Volume: More reps, more exercises, and even more sets in your next session.

Reach Your Full Potential and Avoid Injuries

If you implement these four simple principles in your training routine you'll soon experience a significant improvement. Even if you've been training for years and feel as if you've reached your maximum capacity, progressive overload can help you reach new heights and motivate you to train harder.

It is very important to mention that you must consult with a professional trainer to make sure that while you increase frequency, intensity, tension, and volume, you do so in a controlled manner, so that your body doesn't suffer unnecessary injuries.