Progressive Overload: The Key Workout Requirement

Do I have your attention? I mean seriously… do I really have your attention?

I ask because I’m about to explain the single most important factor in getting positive results from any type of workout or any form of exercise.

Are you listening now? Good.

When trying to create the most effective workout routine possible, your goal is to use the frequency, schedule, intensity, volume, and exercise selection that is as optimal as possible for you and your goal.

If you do that correctly, you are pretty much guaranteed to get the best results you can get.

Unless of course you happen to leave out the one component that matters more than everything else.

It’s the component that can turn the most perfect workout program into a useless waste of time and literally make or break your success.

I’m talking about a little something called progressive overload, and it is the absolute key to getting the results you want from your workout routine.

What Is Progressive Overload?

The best way I can explain it is by telling you a very important secret.

You see, the human body doesn’t care that you have some type of workout/exercise goal in mind. It doesn’t care that you want to build muscle, or lose fat, or get toned, or become stronger, or improve performance, or just look great naked.

Your body only knows and cares about 1 thing: keeping you alive and functioning as efficiently as possible. That’s your body’s only real goal.

And, to ensure it meets this goal, your body is both smart enough and capable enough to do whatever is needed of it in order to adapt to its environment.

And it’s this fact that is the basis for all workout/exercise goals to be reached.

What I mean is, the only way your body will ever change or improve the way you want it to is by creating an environment that proves to your body that these changes and improvements MUST be made.

Or, to put it another way, your body will not change or improve unless you force it to.

No matter how perfect your workout is, muscle will not be built, strength will not be gained, and performance will not improve unless you show your body that these are things that absolutely NEED to happen in order for it to survive.

And that right there brings us to something called the progressive overload principle.

The Progressive Overload Principle

The progressive overload principle basically states:

In order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.

Go back and read that again. It’s pretty important.

And what it means is, if you lift the same weights, for the same number of reps, the same way for the next 20 years… nothing will ever happen. Your body will never change or improve in any way.

You will only maintain your current state.

However, if you increase the demands you are placing on your body by increasing the weight being lifted, lifting the same weight for more reps, or just doing something that increases the demands that your body needs to meet, then your body will have no other choice but to make the necessary changes and improvements that will allow it to adapt to this environment and remain capable of performing these tasks.

And these “changes” and “improvements” and “adaptations” come in the form of more muscle, more strength, less fat, more tone, better performance and just the overall results you are looking to get.

That’s what all of these goals are, really… just our body’s adaptive response to the demands being placed on it through exercise.

You’re basically showing your body that in order for it to survive, in order for it to do what you are forcing it to do, it’s going to NEED to make these changes and improvements.

Let me show you exactly what I mean in the specific context of weight training.

An Example of Progressive Overload

Let’s pretend that right now you can lift 50lbs on some exercise for 3 sets of 8 reps.

Now, if you continue to lift that same 50lbs for those same 3 sets of 8 reps for the next 20 years… you will not gain ANY new muscle or strength at all. Why? Because there was no progressive overload.

Your body has already adapted to this tension (50lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps) and has already provided you with exactly as much muscle and strength as you need to be able to perform this task on a regular basis.

Because you aren’t increasing the demands being placed on your body, you aren’t giving your body ANY reason to improve any further.

And, because of that… it won’t.

You can do everything else perfectly, but if you fail to provide some form of progressive overload over time, your body will never see any reason to change.

However, if you were to lift 50lbs for 3 sets of 9 reps (instead of 3 sets of 8 reps) on that same exercise, then a reason would finally exist.

Why? Simple. You increased the tension. You increased the demands. You increased the work your body had to do. Instead of doing the same 3 sets of 8 reps with 50lbs, you worked to do 1 additional rep on each of those sets.

And, while it may only seem like a tiny improvement, it’s EXACTLY what you need to do in order to prove to your body that it needs to improve.

Similarly, if you were to now try to lift 55lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps (an increase of 5lbs)… the exact same type of reason would exist.

You’re basically telling your body: “Hey, look at this. The work you have to do has increased, so you better build some more muscle and add some more strength to compensate.”

This is progressive overload.

Whether you get just 1 more rep on just 1 set, or add 5lbs to all of your sets… it doesn’t matter. Your goal is to somehow beat what you did the previous time.

And as long as you do this as often as you can and cause some form of gradual progression to take place over time, then you are giving your body a reason to continue to change and improve.

As long as that reason is present, results are guaranteed to follow.

At the same time, as soon as that reason stops (or if it never exists in the first place), then your body stops having a reason to continue to improve. No matter how perfectly you are doing everything else, no new positive changes will be made without progressive overload happening.

This Is Why Most People Fail

It’s this lack of progressive overload that is easily the #1 reason most of the people who workout look pretty much the same way today as they did when they first started working out.

It’s a sad sight to see, and you can see it in every gym in the world.

Men, women, young, old, fat, skinny… they are doing nothing to increase the demands being placed on their body. So, their body has no choice but to remain exactly the same.

This is fine if that’s your goal. If you’ve already reached the point where your body is perfect and it looks and performs exactly how you want it to. No more progressive overload is needed then since you just want to maintain your current condition.

But, until the day you reach that point, your primary focus must be on progressive overload.

Does That Mean I Need To Progress Every Single Workout?

Nope. In fact, doing so would be pretty much impossible, at least for a significant period of time. If we could, everyone would be lifting a million pounds for a million reps on every exercise. That’s just not realistic.

However, we should definitely have that mindset and strive to increase the demands being placed on our bodies as often as we possibly can (within the realm of safety and proper form, of course).

Whether that happens every workout, or every other workout, or just once per month or less depends on a ton of individual factors specific to you and your goal.

However, your #1 job is to just make sure it happens.

As long as you’re forcing progressive overload to take place in some form over time, then your body will continue to build muscle, increase strength, appear more toned, or improve in whatever way you are trying to get it to improve.

The Moral Of This Story

So, in case you skipped right to this part because you’re really lazy, here’s the take home message…

If you want to get any degree of positive results from your workout routine, progressive overload is the absolute key.

I don’t care who you are, what your goal is, or what type of workout/exercise you’re doing. If you want it to work, you must focus on making progressive overload happen.

If you don’t, you are guaranteed to fail. If you do, you are guaranteed to succeed. Simple as that.

How Should I Make Progressive Overload Happen?

Now there’s a good question. Let’s take a look at the most common and effective ways…

Workout Progression: When & How To Progress At Weight Training

(This article is part of a completely free guide to creating the best workout routine possible for your exact goal. It starts here: The Ultimate Weight Training Workout Routine)

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About Jay
Jay is the science-based writer and researcher behind everything you've seen here. He has 15+ years of experience helping thousands of men and women lose fat, gain muscle, and build their "goal body." His work has been featured by the likes of Time, The Huffington Post, CNET, Business Week and more, referenced in studies, used in textbooks, quoted in publications, and adapted by coaches, trainers, and diet professionals at every level.