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Tracking Your Progressive Overload | The How & Why

Mar 25, 2019

Tracking your progressive overload is how you know your workout is working!

Do you go to the gym five times a week and do the same exact full-body workout with the same exact weight, sets, repetitions all the time?

Are you seeing results? Are you happy with how your body has changed?

My guess is your answer will be “no.”

And the reason why could be because you are not tracking your progressive overload.


Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- before and after pic of man

Progressive Overload is the Most Important Exercise Concept

Progressive overload applies to all aspects of training, including weight lifting and cardio.

When used for cardiovascular-fitness programs, it will create physiological changes that affect metabolism and the cardiorespiratory system.

Understanding how to track your progressive overload and applying it to your training will get you results safely and efficiently.


Tracking your progressive overload — What Is Progressive Overload?

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- Man carrying progressively larger calf

With progressive overload in order to get bigger and stronger, you must continually make your muscles work harder than they’re used to.

This involves continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system to make gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance.

So, at the minimum, if the demands on the target muscle groups are not maintained, or are decreased, you will lose size and strength in your muscles.


Tracking Your Progressive Overload – Make Demands 

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- Progressive Overload with dumbbells

The main reason you may be failing is that you’re no longer challenging yourself.

We know that skeletal muscle grows bigger and stronger in response to the training stimulus.

But for further gains, you need to continue making greater demands on your body.

If you don’t progressively overload the muscles and force them to do more than they’re used to, there is no reason for them to change.

The human body will not change unless it’s forced to.

That’s why you can never just take it easy with your training and just coast along.

Once the workouts are no longer challenging, you’ll plateau.

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Tracking Your Progressive Overload — Ways to Increase the Overload

In order for muscles to grow, they need stressors to adapt to.

A stressor doesn’t only include weight.

There are other methods of tracking your progressive overload so that you know your workout is working.

So, applying this concept doesn’t mean that you have to grab the biggest weight that you see and start throwing it around.

And for cardio, it doesn’t mean that you have to start off running 3 miles on your first day either.

Progressive overload is actually the opposite of that.


Tracking Your Progressive Overload – the Bare Minimum

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- Writing in Journal

You should actually start with the bare minimum.

This means you need to be able to move your own body weight efficiently, through all the proper range of motions.

Then work your way up from there.

Keep the progression of your workout organized by writing things down.

Write down what you do in a journal so that you can keep track of your exercises, weights, rest time, etc.

This will make it much easier to remember where you are with all your routines.


Tracking Your Progressive Overload — Types of Stressors

1. Distance

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- woman squatting down onto a container

In the weight training world, distance means range of motion.

Start with your body weight.

Can you lower yourself into a full squat with proper form?

If that’s a problem then you probably need to start with partial range lifts.

The first stressor to place on yourself is increasing your body’s range of motion.

So if you have a problem squatting all the way down, then lower yourself as much as you can with good form.

Use a platform, such as a chair or a bench, that you can lower yourself onto.

Then next week try to go a few inches lower.

Being able to move your own body weight for the entire distance of a lift is a necessity before you even pick up a single weight.

With cardio,  start off taking baby steps and increase the distance gradually.

If you have been a couch potato for a while, start off by going for a short walk.

Go a little farther the next day.

Keep doing that until you feel ready for the next stressor.


2. Efficiency

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- man lifting barbell

This stressor works alongside “distance.” Efficiency is all about technique.

When you use efficiency, you are pushing your body to improve the technique of a movement so that it becomes second nature.

This could mean sitting your hips back farther when squatting, or keeping your chest up at the bottom of a squat.

Even when you start to use weight, you can still use efficiency as a stressor.

Rather than adding weight to a certain lift, use the same weight and push yourself harder to be more efficient.

You will know when your efficiency is improving because the lift will happen more easily.

With cardio, this means swimming or running with better technique.

Maybe try running more on the balls of your feet rather than hitting the pavement hard with every step

When you swim kick your legs more to take some work off of your arms.

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3. Volume

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- using chalk before lifting

Volume is the number of total reps that you do in a workout.

This number can be increased in two different ways.

You can either increase the number of sets or reps.

Or you can even do a combination of both.

Increasing your total sets is the best way to increase your total training volume.

Volume equals sets multiplied by reps, multiplied by resistance.

When you add more sets you’re making progressively greater demands on your muscle tissue.

This might mean doing three sets instead of two for all the exercises in your routine.

Or you can add another movement, maybe from a slightly different angle to emphasize a different area of the muscle.

Related: Concentric vs Eccentric: How Do They Affect Your Squats?


4. Intensity

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- two men deadliftingIntensity refers to how hard you’re working on every repetition of a lift.

You have to add weight to increase intensity.

But don’t do this until you are sure that you have good distance and efficiency.

The most obvious way to increase the demands placed on your muscles is to increase the weight.

If 75 pounds is too easy when curling, adding 5 pounds on each side of the bar can make a difference.

Don’t forget there’s an inverse relationship between load and reps.

When you increase the weight, your reps will be affected to some degree.

That’s normal, you will get stronger with that load and be able to repeat the cycle over again.

But adding weight is not the first priority.

If your form, technique, or range of motion starts to suffer due to the increased intensity, take some weight off.

Related: Are You Working Out Hard Enough? 5 Reasons to Keep Going


5. Density

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- woman resting after working out

You can overload with density by decreasing the amount of rest in between sets.

This will really help build up stamina and endurance.

This can be accomplished using one of two methods.

You can either do more work in a set amount of time or do the same amount of work in less time.

You can time your workouts to see how quickly you finish.

Then the next time you do the same workout, see if you can get it done faster.

Another way to do this is just to keep track of your rest time.

Start off by giving yourself a minute to recover in between each set.

Then gradually reduce it down to 30 seconds.


6. Speed

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- man lifting bar intensely

Your muscles can be overloaded by doing a lift at a faster speed that usual.

This stressor will promote power, especially when this is done with heavy resistance.

But make sure you don’t let your technique suffer!

Technique and range of motion are still the most important parts of your workout.

If your form is compromised then make sure you slow down a little bit.

Your workout won’t be working if you get hurt and can’t do any of your routines.

With cardio, a good way to add speed to your workouts is by doing sprints.

Sprints can be done while running, biking, or even swimming.

Related: Most Common Weightlifting Injuries and 5 Tips to Avoid Them


7. Frequency

This is when you do a particular lift with the same amount of weight but you increase the number of times per week that you do it.

Don’t get too repetitive and take rest time into consideration.

If you overdo it with too much frequency you will overtrain your muscles.

Just like volume, increasing the frequency with which you train a muscle group can increase the overload.

Once again, like volume, that can be too much of a good thing.

This technique works best if you are targeting a weak body part but probably more as a short-term strategy.

This same approach works with cardio.

So if you start running once a week, gradually increase it to twice the next week.

When you feel comfortable and are ready for it increase it to three times per week.


Tracking Your Progressive Overload — Progressive Overload Can Work for You

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- chart of How to Maximize Muscle Growth

Any of these methods can be included in your training.

However it’s best to focus on just one at a time.

Your body will eventually adapt to these methods so it’s good to know you have some options available.

This is especially true when simply putting more weight on the bar just doesn’t seem to work any longer.


Tracking Your Progressive Overload — Add a New Element

Here are a few options that go beyond adding more weight to your workout.

  • Add Instability

Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- push up with one hand on ball

You can do this by changing the type of equipment used or perform the exercise on an unstable surface.

Try TRX push-ups rather than regular ones, or place one hand on a medicine ball while doing push ups so that your body is unbalanced.

The instability will force you to have more control during the exercise, and activate the supporting muscle groups around the one you are targeting.


  • Do a Single-Sided Exercise

This actually combines adding weight with adding instability.

Standing on one foot makes you unstable and increases the weight carried by one limb–those pistol squats take a lot of effort and control.

Related: The Hardest Bodyweight Leg Exercises: 10 Movements to Consider


  • A Tougher Version

If the exercise you’re doing is starting to feel easy, maybe you want to switch to a tougher variation.

You can progress from a bodyweight squat to a goblet squat to a front squat, which really increases the complexity of the exercise.

You can challenge your body in new ways when you add new equipment to different positions.


Tracking Your Progressive Overload — What are Your Goals?

This is assuming your goal is to build muscle.

If your focus is on strength, then you might want to increase the load rather than simply doing more reps.

Those who are interested in increasing muscle endurance may find that higher repetitions combined with increases in reps, not load, is better suited for them.

Increasing total volume might be important to a bodybuilder.

But decreasing the rest time between sets and increasing repetitions may be more beneficial for others.

Endurance athletes concerned with muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness would probably prefer this to gains in strength and power.

The techniques you use should be in line with your fitness goals.

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Tracking Your Progressive Overload -- Dark Iron Fitness weightlifting gloves

Final Thoughts on Tracking Your Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is the most important exercise concept and is a great indicator of whether or not your workout is working.

You can use these stressors one by one, or you can mix it up.

By applying these stressors into your program you’ll have the best chance at reaching your potential and getting the results you want.


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