Progressive Overload: What it is and How it’s done

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Are you applying Progressive Overload in your workout routine? Are you among those who are missing out on Progressive Overload technique’s benefits? Progressive Overload is the key that will drive your muscles to grow. Without progress in your exercises, whether it is called repetition or additional weight, you will not see long-term benefits. There is no other way.

The bodybuilding process does not require you to exercise every time to the maximum of your strength. However, what is required is continuous improvement and continuous progress in strength levels. Remember that muscularity and strength are two concepts that go hand in hand. And, in order to build bigger muscles  “ gotta lift some heavy ass weights”, as Arnie always said.

What is Progressive Overload?

An important but often neglected step in creating a weight training program is to choose a progressive plan or progressive overload, ie a gradual increase in intensity over time.

Progressive overload starts from a predetermined level, depending on one’s fitness and strength levels, with the addition of repetitions. When we are able to perform a series of quality repetitions per set, then we add extra weight to make our sets more difficult once again.

Methods of Progressive Overload

It does not matter how much or at what rate you progress, as long as you make progress. With that in mind, choose a method that best suits your fitness style, rather than following something you will give up after 2 weeks. You can choose more than one of the following methods for different exercises, as long as you do not complicate things!

For complex / multi-joint exercises the ideal range of repetitions is about 6-10, while for isolation / single joint exercises, as well as some machine and / or pulley exercises, you will find that about 10-15 repetitions work better.

However, these numders are not written in stone, so if while exercising you reach, for example, the 10th repetition, do not necessarily stop because we told you 6-10, while you can make another 2. There is no problem to go a little higher or a little lower. The point is to find the ideal formula for progress for your own body and to break your personal records every day in the gym!

dumbell row

1st Progressive Method: The 8-12 Standard

It is the golden rule in all exercises and all gyms around the world: 3 to 4 sets of 8-12 reps. There are two different approaches to this standard:

–          The same weight until you see that you reach or exceed in an exercise the 12 reps. Next time add a 5%. If in the 3rd set you fell below 8 repetitions, it does not matter.

–          When you try to break the 8 reps barrier with a certain weight, and in the 3rd set you are exhausted and fall in 5-6 repetitions, reduce it by 10%.

Example for Bench Press:

1st set – 175lbs x 10 repetitions
2nd set – 175lbs x 8 repetitions
For the 3rd drop a ~10% and do:
3rd set – 160lbs x 12 repetitions

If you see that you can hit 12 reps in the first 2 sets, do not reduce the 3rd set. Go for it with as many repetitions as you can. At one point you will have become stronger, and all sets will be with 12 reps and then you will be ready to increase the weights!

2nd Progressive Method: 5×5 Training Program

One of the most popular methods, the 5X5 is perfect for the
heaviest and most complex exercises such as: deadlifts, chest presses, military
presses and bent rowing. It is basically 5 sets x 5 repetitions (5×5). The
method is as follows:

1st set – 60% x 5 repetitions
2nd set – 70% x 5 repetitions
3rd set – 80% x 5 repetitions
4th set – 90% x 5 repetitions
5th set – 100% x 5 repetitions

Where 100% we consider the weight that you can lift with 3-5 repetitions in this exercise. We do not mean 1 Rep Max. So, what you need to do before doing the 5×5 program, is to have somewhere noted what and how much you can lift. When you get to the point where sets 4 and 5 can be performed without significant gasping, then you add a 5% to your total 100% next time.

Example for Bench Press:

If you can execute 3-5 repetitions with 190lbs then:

1st set – 100lbs x 5 reps
2nd set – 120lbs x 5 reps
3rd set – 140lbs x 5 reps
4th set – 160lbs x 5 reps
5th set – 190lbs x 5 reps


3rd Progressive Method: Inverted Pyramid

Start with a weight that allows you to do 6 reps (some start with weights that allow 4 reps and go up to 10 – see the example below for clarification). For the 2nd set, drop the weight by 5-10% and perform as many repetitions as you can. The same for the 3rd set and the possibly the 4th.

Example for Bench Press:

1st set – 190lbs x 6 reps
2nd set – 175lbs x 10 reps
3rd set – 155lbs x 12 reps 

If in the first set you can do 8 or more repetitions with the same weight, it is time to add a 5% to your initial weight.

4th Progressive Method: Pyramid

Start with a weight that allows you no more than 12 reps. In the 2nd set, increase the weight by 5% -10% and perform as many repetitions as you can. The same in the 3rd and in the 4th – possibly – set.

Example for Bench Press:

1st set – 155lbs x 12 reps
2nd set – 170lbs x 10 reps
3rd set – 185lbs x 6 reps

If in the first set you can do 15 or more repetitions, it is time to add a 5% to starting weight.


Progressive overload, in whichever form is applied, either via more repetitions or adding more weights, or even whole sets, is a critical factor is your muscle growth and fitness journey. You cannot live without it whether you choose to focus on cardio training to improve your endurance or weightlifting to increase your muscle strength and mass. Progressive overload is foundational!

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