One Thing Matters in the Gym

Question: What is Progressive Overload, and why is it the most important principle of your training?


Progressive Overload in its simplest form means making things more difficult over time. Put another way, we only Progress when we Overload. It’s a must when pursuing any sort of physical development.


Our bodies are amazingly resilient. I have a doctorate in physical therapy, and I still think it’s amazing that when we get hurt, our bodies literally heal themselves. Good grief that is freaking sweet. They heal themselves because our bodies have one job: survival. It takes a lot of energy and effort to survive. We have to break down food for energy, breathe, pump a heart, and on and on. Needless to say, the last thing on your body’s agenda is building round shoulders, large glutes, and DEFINITELY larger calves. These are all adaptations. And to a body that’s only concerned with survival, they’re pretty meaningless adaptations. So, we must force our bodies to adapt which requires a stimulus.

So what does progressive overload look like in practice? Let’s say that currently I can do 3 sets of 5 reps with 100lbs on my bench press. Over the next 5 weeks, I want to build up to 3 sets of 5 reps with 110 lbs hoping to get bigger and stronger. Perfect. The principle of Progressive Overload dictates I must overload my body so it can make the appropriate adaptations. These adaptations are increased muscle mass, neural connectivity (strength), etc. One thing is for sure though; we must give our body a reason to adapt…a stimulus. We might perform the following.


Week 1: 3 sets x 5 reps @ 100 lbs

Week 2: 3 sets x 4 reps @ 105 lbs

Week 3: 3 sets x 5 reps @ 105 lbs

Week 4: 3 sets x 4 reps @ 110 lbs

Week 5: 3 sets x 5 reps @ 110 lbs


In this example, the increases in weight and reps are the stimuli (the overload). Notice that during each week, something progressed. I increased both weight and reps as able. I recognize it’s never this easy, but it’s the principle that matters. Each week, the stimulus got a little more intense, but as we make the necessary adaptations, it becomes doable. If I do 3 sets x 5 reps at 100lbs every week, there’s no increased stimulus, no reason for your body to adapt, and no reason to change.


Here’s What I Do


I keep an excel spreadsheet for every workout I do. I can tell you the lift, sets, reps, and weight for every lift I’ve completed for the last 6 years. After a while, it becomes second nature. If I didn’t track these numbers, I’d have no idea where to progress from week to week – month to month. That’s a one-way ticket to years of non-productive training and a profound ability to etch out minimal results. Here’s an example of 4 consecutive weeks of single-leg smith machine lunges.



I write workouts for myself that give a specific number of sets, a specific weight, and a rep range target. Week to week I monitor my progress on each lift. I may add a set for a given exercise each week if able. And once I’m performing at the top end of the rep range for each set, I’ll add weight then start over at the bottom end of the rep range.


The Take Home Message about Progressive Overload

  • Write everything down, so you know when you’ve progressed and where to progress from moving forward.

  • Be aware that over time you must progress load, sets, reps, or some combination of all three (total volume) to see continual improvement over time.

  • Seeing real change with your body takes time. Realize the close correlation between training volume and muscle size, so ease your mind by focusing on the numbers more so than the mirror.


We only Progress when we Overload. Thanks for reading.


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