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Progressive Overload: A Steady Track to Muscle Growth

Progressive Overload: A Steady Track to Muscle Growth


How do you know if you’re getting stronger in the gym? Most of us are aware that over time, we have to increase our weight and/or reps, but how do we know how much weight to add, and when to add it?

In the world of fitness, progressive overload is one of the most necessary aspects to improve one’s performance. “Progressive overload” is a term, widely used within strength training, birthed by an Army Physician named Thomas L. DeLorme, who used this method to rehabilitate soldiers who sustained orthopedic injuries. Dr. DeLorme implemented this idea of progressive overload by having soldiers perform multiple sets of various strength exercise, where they were tasked with lifting their 10 repetition maximum. Over time DeLorme gradually increased the resistance (weight). This experiment produced more successful results than its predecessors. The program was quickly adapted and is currently still found in many practices such as physical therapy and personal training.
Now we will dive in to what exactly progressive overload is, its benefits, and its safety and concerns.What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is the idea of gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts over time by modifying the acute variables of the workout (weight, sets, reps, duration, rest, etc.) A gradual increase in intensity prevents a lull in muscle growth while promoting muscular hypertrophy (Adams, 2021).

And what is muscular hypertrophy? Typically with a rep range between 8-12 for 3-5 sets, training for muscular hypertrophy is training for muscle growth. When the goal is to increase muscle mass, the amount of resistance chosen is important. If you can easily complete 12 repetitions of an exercise for 3 sets, this might be a signal to increase the resistance level. If you can barely complete one set of 8 repetitions, you’ll likely need to decrease the weight. In order to continue to challenge your muscles each week, intensity should be increasing over time.

So now we know that increasing intensity is integral to muscle growth, but how much should we be increasing at a time? Before you add another plate on the bar, take note of the 10% rule. In summary, the 10% rule says that the intensity of your workout should increase by no more than 10% each week (Adams, 2021). For some, 10% might be too much to add each week, and that’s okay! As long as you’re steadily increasing the intensity and challenging yourself, you’ll be on your way.

Benefits of Progressive Overload

In order to make progress within any training program, the body must constantly be challenged and broken down in order to recover and adapt so that it can handle the new resistance being placed. This principle is what makes the idea of progressive overload so important. By following progress overload, many people have seen improvements within athletic specific training, weight loss, etc. One of the biggest testimonies to progressive overload is body re-composition.

Body re-composition is the idea of trying to lose body fat while trying to gain muscle mass to replace the fat loss. Many times, people begin this journey of body re-composition and see results with their initial strength and conditioning program. Over time this program becomes easier and fewer physical changes are achieved – this is called a plateau. In order to get past this hump and continue seeing desired results, progressive overload becomes vital. Once an individual is able to properly implement progressive overload, they will be able to break this plateau and continue to see results while staying injury free.Safety Tips 

When thinking of progressive overload, you must remember its purpose is to break down the body. However, breaking the body down too much can result in injury or long-term complications. Here are some rules to follow when trying to perform progressive overload:

Rule #1 – To safely progress an exercise, make sure you are properly performing it. If the exercise is not being performed properly certain aspects of the body may over compensate, resulting in injury. If you’re not sure about your form, personal trainers are a great addition to help you correct or maintain form.

Rule #2 – When progressing a workout it’s important to do it gradually. If you try to make drastic progressions you run the risk of injury due to your body not being able to handle the excessive stimulus that you have placed amongst it. One of the safest ways to progressively overload is to increase the stimulus at most. 5%-10%. For example, if you’re looking to progress your 10-repetition max of 135 lbs., the safest method would be to increase the weight to a 10-repetition max of 141. Of course, you may not be able to get 10 repetitions of 141 lbs. Off the bat, the safe thing to do is do as many as you feel safe and comfortable doing so.

Rule #3 – When doing progressive overload, it is important to know your limits and have a spotter if trying to push closer to those limits. During progressive overload you are typically working at pretty intense level of exertion. This amount of exertion can result in a period of fatigue which can contribute to one potentially failing on their attempt. In order to prevent injuries from occurring due to muscular fatigue and failure on a barbell, having someone to spot you will be a great resource. If you are unable to find someone to spot you, safety racks and pins are great mechanical spot you can use.

Progressive overload applies to more than just resistance training (Gay, 2018). For any triathletes and marathoners reading, you know this to be true; you can’t jump right into running 20 miles a day if you haven’t ran consistently in weeks. Keep in mind that progressive overload and the 10% rule applies to you too; gradually and consistently increase the distance or intensity of your workouts to build up to where you want to be. For example, if you run 10 miles one week, try 10.5 or 11 the next, or if you run for 50 minutes a day, try for 55.
Whether you lift, run, swim, or bike, following the principle of progressive overload will get you great results. Consistently challenging your body to do 10% more will get you that much closer to achieving your goals and surprising yourself with what you can accomplish.


Adams, A. (2021, July 16). Progressive overload explained: Grow muscle & strength today.; National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Gay, C. (2018, April 24).Progressive overload: Get stronger in a healthy way.; Mayo Clinic Health System.

Shannon McGoey, CPT is a personal trainer at Merritt Clubs Eldersburg.

Lameak Barrett, CPT is a fitness team leader at Merritt Clubs Downtown.