Strategic workout planning can make all the difference.

By Julia Malacoff
August 19, 2018
Photo: UfaBizPhoto / Shutterstock

Developing a regular workout schedule is a challenge. But once you've got that on lock? You'll want to ensure you're getting the most out of your sweat sessions. But if you just show up to the gym and autopilot through some moves, you're probably not optimizing your time-and you likely won't see progress. (Related: How to Work Out Less and See Better Results)

There's just one thing that stands in the way. Meet: progressive overload. Though it might sound like a super-technical term, progressive overload is a pretty basic strength and conditioning concept that's easy to incorporate into your workouts-and the benefits are real.

"Progressive overload is basically increasing the difficulty of your workouts by increasing volume, intensity, or resistance in order to work toward achieving your goals," explains Lauren Lobert, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach. The idea is to keep inducing physiological changes, you have to keep challenging your body. (An easy way to remember it: Challenge equals change.) This is most often seen in weightlifting workouts, but it can also apply to circuit training sessions and aerobic exercise, like running.

"The concept is fairly intuitive because as exercises get easier, you tend to make them harder by going faster or slower, doing more weight, or doing more repetitions," says Lobert. "Progressive overload is that exact idea, in a more planned and specific fashion." (Need help with the planning part? This is how to build the perfect circuit training workout.)

You might be thinking: Duh, of course I make my workouts harder every now and then. But do you do it consistently? "Progressive overload requires planning and consistency," says Lobert. In other words, you'll need to keep track of your workouts, how much you're lifting, and how many reps you're doing if you want to do it properly. "If you have no idea how many repetitions or what weight you can do for an exercise and don't do the exercise consistently, then progressive overload won't be successful."

If you're not already doing this, there's a pretty convincing reason why you should: "Progressive overload is necessary to continue to see improvements," says Lobert. "As you train longer, you will need to continue to progress your workouts in order to see results. Doing the same thing over and over will not create the changes you wish to see in your body or your performance." Basically, it keeps you from hitting a plateau. (Also see: Why Some People Have an Easier Time Toning Their Muscles)

So there you have it. If you want to look and perform better, you'll need progressive overload. Luckily, there are several ways to get started.

1. Add resistance.

This is probably the most obvious way to put progressive overload to work. "If you start with 20-pound dumbbells, move up to 25," says Katie Collard, C.S.C.S., a trainer and coach at Cut Seven, a workout studio in Washington, DC. "Continuously lift heavier weights as your body gets stronger at each exercise." Keep track of the progress you make from week to week, and you're likely to notice you're getting stronger, little by little. (Getting stronger is just one of many health benefits of lifting heavy weights.)

2. Introduce a new element.

At some point, adding more weight isn't going to be an option. So what happens next? You have a few choices.

  • Add instability. "Change the type of equipment used or perform the exercise on an unstable surface," suggests Collard. Maybe you do TRX push-ups instead of regular ones, or chest presses on a Bosu ball instead of a bench. "This forces you to have more control during the exercise, activating the supporting, smaller muscle groups around the one targeted by the move," she adds.
  • Switch to a single-sided exercise. This actually combines adding weight with adding instability. Standing on one foot (or one arm in a push-up) makes you unstable and increases the weight carried by one limb, notes Collard. (Just think about how hard pistol squats are.)
  • Progress the exercise. If the exercise you're doing is starting to feel easy, maybe you want to switch to a tougher variation. "Over time, you could move from a bodyweight squat to a goblet squat to a front squat, increasing the complexity of the exercise," says Travis Barrett, C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning coach. By adding new equipment in different positions, you can challenge your body in new ways.

3. Play with frequency, reps, and workout design.

How quickly you do your workout, how many reps you perform, how many sets of different exercises you do, and even how often you work out are also fair game here.

  • Add reps. "If all you own is one pair of 20-pound dumbbells, the easiest way to progress a movement is to increase repetitions," says Collard. "When 10 reps become easy, increase to 15, then 20, to reach muscle failure."
  • Change the intensity. There are a few ways to do this. "Some of my favorite ways are to increase your range of motion, do isometric holds, or focus on eccentric lowering," says Lobert. "For example, to increase your squatting intensity you could go deeper into your squat, hold for three to five seconds at the bottom before standing back up. Or go slowly on the way down, focusing on taking a full five-second descent." Collard is also a fan of this method, especially for building strength. "There are two parts to every exercise: concentric [contraction of the muscle] and eccentric [lengthening of the muscle]," she explains. "You become stronger in the concentric movement when you challenge the eccentric movement. For example, if your goal is to do a pull-up, start with a negative pull-up, slowly lowering yourself (the eccentric part of the movement) from above the bar. Eventually, you will progress to a full pull-up. (Fun fact: The eccentric part of an exercise is what's more likely to make you sore.)

  • Group exercises together strategically. "You can overload a certain muscle group by pairing two exercises together," says Collard. (See: What Is a Superset?) "For example, do 10 reps of a chest press, then push-ups, repeat." This would put the focus work on your chest and triceps. To focus on glutes, try pairing a hip thrust with a lateral band walk. (BTW, here's more info on how to get a bigger, stronger butt with strength training.)

The Bottom Line

If you want to speed up your workout results-either performance-wise or aesthetically-progressive overload is a must. Give any or all of these strategies a try, and recruit a trainer to help if you get stuck or aren't sure what to do next. Before you know it, you'll be PR-ing like a boss. You can thank us for those sore muscles later.

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