The Principle of Progressive Overload
Updated: May 27
Due to the principle of progressive overload, over time athlete training plans should include more stress.
If an athlete continues to make gains, adding stress is likely unnecessary.
Week-to-week, athletes should target progressively heavier loads
Performance trends over time are much more important than a single day’s training performance.
What is Progressive Overload
The principle of progressive overload states that to continue making gains the amount of stress must increase as one gets stronger. In other words, we can’t do the exact same thing and continue to get results, we have to do more. More can be more weight, more reps, more sets, more exercises, more frequency, more speed, and less rest (more work per a given unit of time). The concept of progressive overload was developed by Dr. Thomas Delorme while he rehabilitated soldiers from World War II related injuries. He used resistance training and thoughtfully increased the weight to elicit additional adaptations. He referred to this approach as “Progressive Resistance Exercise.” This method became widely adopted by physical therapy programs and it serves as a key principle for strength training.
How Does Progressive Overload Influence a Training Plan
So what does progressive overload mean for a training program? It means that as the athlete’s training age (time training not actual age) increases, the athlete’s program should include more stress. While there are other ways to increase stress, for the rest of this article we will focus on two; volume and load. There is a dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy and volume and strength. In other words when an athlete does more, it generally has a positive effect on muscle size and strength. When should an athlete add volume and how much should be added? An athlete’s training history is a critical factor for answering those questions.
An athlete’s previous training should prepare them for future increases in stress. More volume does not always lead to better results, especially when an athlete is not prepared to handle the increased stress. That is largely because high volumes can lead to more muscle damage and can negatively impact performance. A sudden dramatic increase in volume is not a good idea. That leaves us with this takeaway; if the athlete is progressing, there is less of a need to add more volume. If the athlete is stagnant, a change in the stress and or a gradual increase in the volume should be considered. The goal is to find the goldilocks amount of stress; not too much (athlete struggles to recover), not too little (athlete struggles to progress), but the right amount to produce strength gains.
How Does Progressive Overload Influence Execution of the Plan
We have discussed progressive overload and programming considerations, next let’s discuss implementation considerations. With the training plan in place and the volume dose set, the load on the bar becomes the focus for the progressive overload principle. The athlete should target weekly increases to the weight. RPE (rate of perceived exertion) based training generally does not assign predetermined increases in load so the athlete must manage the execution of the progressive overload principle.
Here is a sample of an RPE based prescription. Competition Squat 5@6, 5@7, 5@8. This means the athlete should do one set of five at an RPE 6, then another set at an RPE 7, then the last set at RPE 8. How does the athlete choose the weights to use for each set? In this case, we recommend the athlete use their recent training results to set targets for their 5@8 weight (top set). If their 5@8 weight last week was 150lbs, the athlete should target a higher weight this week, for example 152-160lbs. The size of the increase will depend on the exercise and the athlete’s training history. Typically newer exercises and younger (training age) athletes mean larger progression jumps week to week.
Once a target is established for the top set (5@8 in this case), the athlete can work backwards to figure out target weights for their first two sets, subtracting roughly 5% each time. If the athlete targets 155 as their top weight, their 5@7 can be 147lbs (95% x 157) and their 5@6 can be 140lbs (95% x 147). When the athlete executes the training, they can make adjustments based on those first two work sets. If 147 is a 6 RPE rather than a 7 RPE, the athlete can increase the weight for the top set. The key takeaway is the athlete should target a higher load week to week, but make appropriate adjustments based on how the day’s training is going.
What happens if the athlete has to adjust the top set down in weight? Does this ruin the training plan because it conflicts with the progressive overload principle? No, it does not ruin the training plan. Having a dip in performance is common. In the big picture, one day’s performance does not matter, trends over time matter. We use trends, not a single data point, to inform us on potential changes to the plan.
In summary the principle of progressive overload dictates that over time training plans need to include more stress to allow for continued progression. If the athlete continues to progress, adding stress is likely unnecessary. When an athlete plateaus, consider changing the stimulus and or gradually increasing the volume. When executing training, athletes should target higher loads than the previous week but make adjustments as needed based on how the day’s performance is going. A single day’s training performance is less important that the trend over time. Over several weeks, the weight on the bar should be moving up. Next we will review the principle of individualization.
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