The importance of progressive overload


Progressive overload (PO) is defined as ‘the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise/training’.


Hopefully, if you are reading this blog then you will have a basic understanding of what this means and how it fits into your plan. In essence, it means lifting more load and increasing volume over a period of time to create a greater stimulus and results.


However, you may not know where this concept first originated. Dr. Thomas Delorme is popularised as being the first person to come up with PO when he was working with WW2  veterans. While he was aiding them in their rehabilitation he found that veterans would recover much faster and gain much more strength and muscle mass when he increased their reps, sets and load with their exercises. This was much more effective than just keeping the sets, reps and load the same.


He then went on to study this concept and wrote books on the science behind it. As it grew in popularity PO was adopted by bodybuilders and powerlifters and is now used by athletes all over the world.


Anyway, history lesson over.


Training is a stress on the body and for resistance training the body adapts by becoming stronger, increasing muscle mass and improving efficiency, of the given movement. By following the same training plan for weeks on end without any changes in load, reps or sets, you will start to see a reduction in adaptation and therefore diminishing returns from training.


So, to continue to see more results in your training you should look to create more stress so that the body adapts in a positive way, but how can we practically implement this?


We need to lift more load, do more reps, more sets and increase volume. Now we can’t do this all at once but when planning your training you can periodise it in a way which allows this over time.


An example could be that every four weeks you add in an extra set for all exercises, or keep sets the same but increase reps. Similarly, every four weeks you can aim to gradually increase the load you are lifting.


An example of 4 weeks PO training on the back squat could be…


Week 1 4×5 – RTF -2 (reps to failure)

Week 2 4×6 – RTF -1

Week 3 4×7 – RTF 0

Week 4 (de load) 3×6 – RTF – 3



We could get really geeky and go into the fine details but it’s simply important to remember your program should evolve and progress over time. However, this progression needn’t always be linear, deload weeks will require you to reduce load and volume but are essential for your recovery and long term progress.


It would be very difficult to continually increase your load and reps week on week but with a well-planned program that incorporates PO and deload weeks you can make excellent progress. Now you may get things wrong, you may add in too much or too little but don’t be scared to change things and record the data.


MRV (maximal recoverable volume) refers to the ceiling of volume you can do whilst allowing your body to recover and make progress. However, if you exceed this amount your recovery could be negatively affected, you could pick up niggles and injuries, regress with your performance and ultimately become over trained.


I would advise that you are consistent with logging your training, listen to your body and be aware of your performance in the gym. Then if you start to exceed your MRV you will be able to make the changes needed such as reduction in exercises or frequency of sessions etc.


You can also look at other variables like nutrition, supplementation, and sleep etc. which all play a part.


Hopefully, that hasn’t created more questions than answers and next time you write a new training plan you will be better prepared to consider how progressional overload can help you get the best results possible.


If you have any questions about anything discussed in this blog, don’t hesitate to get in touch:


Coach Chris ‘Training plan nerd’