Adding Progressive Overload to Your Workouts

2009 Trish loved to workout. She wanted to run fast, have the muscle definition of a bodybuilder, the booty of a Brazilian goddess (without the jiggle), and be really strong and athletic.

Your girl just had no idea how to achieve all that. Never mind the fact that these were a lot of goals to tackle at once.

Yet, I tried, tried, and tried my hardest to achieve them. I worked out multiple times a day, six days a week, and ate healthy all the time (granola bars are healthy right?). I was fit and healthy in the general sense, but I was nowhere near my goals.

You must teach your body to expect harder work overtime if you want to see changes.

Many years later, I learned a little something called “Progressive overload,” and it became the number 1 secret ingredient that was missing from all of my athletic endeavors up until that point. 

Progressive overload is the process of gradually overloading your muscles, making a workout more challenging, and giving your body adequate stress to adapt to.

In other words: You must teach your body to expect harder work overtime if you want to see changes. This is what I see so many people miss when they train. They think more workouts is the answer, when instead, a few gradual increases in the following four areas will help you achieve changes in your strength and appearance.


Total Repetitions 

Probably one of the most user-friendly ways to add progressive overload into your weight training is by manipulating total repetitions week to week. 3×10, 6×3, 2×20…they all equal to the total amount of work done. If you’re constantly lifting within the same rep scheme for months on end, there’s a good chance you’ll stop progressing. That is, if you’re not manipulating any of the other variables below. 

There is, however, an inverse relationship to how many total repetitions you can complete and the amount of weight you can lift safely. A 185lbs back squat at 2×3 is not the same as 185lbs of 3×10. 

Challenge your muscles to sculpt and grow by manipulating the total repetitions each week. For example:

Week 1: 

Squat 3×8 Total reps: 24

Week 2:

Squat 4×8 Total reps: 32

Week 3:

Squat 5×6 Total reps: 30

Week 4:

Squat 3×6 Total reps: 18

Assuming that you squat each week at the exact same weight every time, you’ll be putting in more work during weeks 2 & 3 than the others.


I’ve written a lot about tempo training, and it remains one of my favorite variables to play with in my programming. Following the progressive overload principle, you can stay at the same rep/set scheme with the same weight for a few weeks (if you wish), but make it more challenging by slowing the down or pausing during a lift. For example, a 2 to 3-second lowering phase in a squat can feel that much harder because you’re spending more time under tension. In BarbellSTRONG coaching, there is an entire phase dedicated to tempo training. It’s where I’ve seen the biggest leaps in movement efficiency, technique, and muscle growth.

Rest: Work Intervals

I often remind my clients that the rest periods are just as critical to the workout itself, because how long or little you recover can determine your results. It’s possible to defeat the purpose of a training session by resting too long or too little, which is why having someone handle the minutia of your programming can be so beneficial. 

For simplicity sake, 3-5 minutes rest is ideal for strength goals. If you’re training to powerlift for example, the heavier weights require that much recovery in between.

If your goal is hypertrophy, 1-2 minutes between sets is sufficient. If your goal is energy development or endurance, then you can play around with 45seconds, 60 seconds, or two minutes in between sets. It depends on your goal and the aim of the workout.


Ahhhh intensity. Don’t make the mistake of thinking intensity means “go hard until you cry or puke” or that you have to lift to failure every time.

Instead, you want to gradually increase the weights you’re lifting each week, month, or training phase, without going to your max weight each time. I remind my clients to leave a little gas in the tank by the last couple of reps. That’s how they know they’re at an adequate weight.

If you want to see progress and avoid injury, you want to use intensity, or load, intelligently and gradually. Hence the term 'progressive overload'.

Sure, it’s fun to test your 1-RM, and it’s great to go all-out sometimes. But if you want to see progress and avoid injury, you want to use intensity, or load, intelligently and gradually. Hence the term progressive.

BarbellSTRONG is the place to be if you want to gradually make progress in your body and strength, while learning about how to lift, how to improve mobility, and enjoy yourself without killing your body in the process. Click here to learn more about becoming a BarbellSTRONG babe!


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