What is Progressive Overload and Why Does It Matter When It Comes to Your Exercise?

So, you’re finally getting into an exercise routine and your progress up until this point has been great. Increased strength, more stamina, and feeling better in general. But then you start to notice that you’re not getting the same results as before…you’re not feeling as strong as those first few months, your energy becomes stagnant, and heck, maybe even your endurance starts to decline. What gives? How can your consistent efforts be causing a regression?

Today I’ll shed some light on progressive overload including what it is and some tips on how you can implement the concept to continue to progress with your exercise.

What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is classically defined as the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.  (For my explanation I may use stress and stimulus interchangeably)

When a stimulus is provided to the body, the many systems (nervous system, pulmonary system, endocrine system, cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, etc.) react to that stimulus and elicit a specific response. Since we are referring to exercise, and I’m assuming resistance training specifically, let’s keep this in the context of the musculoskeletal system, even though all of the systems I just mentioned will be affected by the stimulus.

So in order for there to be a long term adaptation for the specific goal that we are trying to achieve (increase strength, increase muscle mass, increase muscular endurance to name a few), there must be the appropriate amount of stress/stimulus provided to elicit those specific adaptations. If there is too little, then no change will occur in the tissue (muscle), if there is too much, there could be an adverse effect (injury, overtraining symptoms, etc.).  And this is where progressive overloading comes into play.  If you’re able to provide just enough stimulus to elicit the desired effect, then you’re right on track, but over time our bodies are really good at adapting, so a little more stimulus will be needed in order to continue to see the adaptations occur.

Now the question becomes, how much and how do you figure that out?

Tip #1 - My advice would be to first get a baseline.  This can be done safely by doing a sub maximal (submax) assessment to see where you’re currently at.  So if you’re assessing strength for let’s say chest press, do a proper warm up (light weight for 6-8 reps), then move to a more challenging weight to where you could do no more than 8 reps.  If you fail below 8, that is ok. From there, you will get a good idea or ballpark of where your max weight is. Then you can use that to program your working weight for a specific regimen. Continuing with strength as the goal, you would do anywhere from 60-90% (depending on your fitness level - beginner to advanced) of your max weight for 2-6 sets of 4-8 reps (again those variables depending on your fitness level).  Now this is by no means a set in stone rule that must be followed 100% of the time, but it will more than likely set you up for success to consistently see progress.

Tip #2 - In addition to the set parameters, another, more subjective, measurement is what is called the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale.  This is essentially you paying attention to how intense the exercise is during your working set. Ideally for a progressive overload to happen, you would consistently be at an 8, 9 or 10, most of the time during your exercises.  Now there are plenty of variables that could affect this including how you’re feeling at the specific point in time, which can be due to a number of things (nutrition, sleep, hydration, previous exercise, etc.), but it is still a decent indicator of how intense you’re pushing yourself.  

Just remember as a general rule of thumb, never push through pain and never exhaust yourself until there is a serious issue, it’s not worth it and you have your whole life to train!  But if you’re scared to push yourself or always staying with the ‘light weights’ then you may never see progress. So experiment and trial and error your way through the process to find your sweet spot and reap the benefits.

Action Steps:

  1. Find your current baseline with one of the 2 tips above (ideally both)

  2. Come up with a plan or program that will gradually increase the intensity over time (6-8 weeks)

  3. Once the program is complete, reevaluate your baseline

  4. Repeat as necessary until goal is achieved

Now this is very over simplified, but the concept remains the same. Steady, incremental increases will result in your body continually adapting and progressing. Unfortunately there will come a time where you will hit your max and you will have to maintain what you have, but until that point comes, there is always room for improvement. Start implementing these tips today to improve your efforts!


And if you don’t know where to get started or don’t want to think about any of this, reach out and I will be happy to see if we’re a good fit to work together. I’m currently offering a new online service, so you don’t have to be located in Chicago in order to work with me.  Here are some of the benefits:

  1. No longer have to go to a gym

    • Gyms can suck sometimes. I am able to modify and accommodate at home workouts with ease. 

  2. Scheduling is a non issue

    • No time to meet in person? Online training to the rescue.

  3. Stronger accountability and support

    • My time is freed from commuting and the hustle of in person training, which means more support and focus.

  4. More cost effective

    • No more gym overhead or travel cost.  Quality training at a fraction of the price.

  5. Can work with the best

    • I can be anywhere at anytime, which means YOU get the best without worrying about how to get to me. 

  6. Loved ones can be taken care of 

    • Too much variance in this industry and not all trainers are created equal.  Now your friends and family can work with quality even if they don’t live close. 

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m excited to be able to offer this service. If you have questions or still don’t get what online training is, feel free to contact me at ryan@continuedperformance.com.