The Ultimate Guide to Progressive Overload

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How To Progress Your Training Without Lifting Heavier

Adding more weight to each and every one of your lifts is often seen as the ultimate method for progressively overloading your training.

However, there are other methods of progressive overload that can be used in order to advance your training and continuously build strength and size.

Sometimes, lifting a heavier weight is simply not possible. You may have been experiencing great progress with your strength and then all of a sudden you hit a wall.

This article will provide 3 different methods that you can use to keep you moving in the right direction when you find that you cannot add any more weight.

Progressive Overload Principles

Progressive overload is the process of gradually placing more stress on the body to ensure that it continues to adapt and improve (1).

The principle behind progressive overload is that, after a while, the body becomes accustomed to the training stimulus and has adapted to the point where it can comfortably deal with it.

Because the body is able to cope with the training stimulus, the rate of adaptation slows and may even cease.

Increasing the amount of stress that the body is exposed to will cause the body to begin adapting once again.

3 Progressive Overload Methods

Increasing the load that you are lifting is one way of increasing stress, however, there are other methods that are equally as effective and can be particularly useful for those who have reached a plateau.

1) Increase Rep Range

Firstly, it’s important to recognize that you can complete more repetitions than is thought “conventional.”

For example, some strength-focused individuals swear by sets of 5 x 5 and would argue that completing more than 5 reps is not of great benefit.

However, one of the most effective methods of progressive overload is increasing the number of reps.

Let’s say you are following a program that incorporates 5 x 5 strength sets and you have been using the same weight for a few weeks. By now, 5 reps at this weight is very doable.

Therefore, it is absolutely fine to add in an extra rep or two, if you can manage. Within a few weeks, you may find that you can complete 8-9 reps at this weight.

The load doesn’t change at all with this method; use the same weight with each session and look to perform extra reps.

Adding reps to each session will evidently make the exercise more challenging and apply a greater amount of stress to the body which will consequently force it to increase in strength.

The general understanding over the years with rep ranges is that 1-5 reps are best for strength development (2), 6-12 for hypertrophy and 12+ for endurance.

While it is true that adding on additional reps may take you out of the specific rep range for strength or hypertrophy, it is in no way detrimental.

In fact, a number of well-renowned strength programs use sets of 15 or more to improve both strength and muscular size.

Remember that to bring about significant change, the goal is to increase the amount of stress that the body experiences. Therefore, moving out of a specific rep range is of secondary importance.

Using a higher number of reps is not only a great way to increase the amount of stress but it can also serve to vary training sessions and keep them interesting.

While adding reps is an effective method of progressive overload, adding reps indefinitely is perhaps not the best method.

By all means, add reps up to a certain point but avoid indefinitely adding reps. Instead, it may be more appropriate to add more weight or use other progressive overload methods.

A good rule of thumb if using the high rep approach is once you can comfortably perform sets of 12 reps over 2 consecutive workouts, add either 5% more for upper body exercises or 10% more for lower body exercises.

This method will ensure you stay within the rep range for hypertrophy and still apply progressive overload in an effective manner.

Tricep workout

2) Increase Sets

Another simple progressive overload method is to increase the number of sets you perform for each exercise.

In a similar way to increased reps, increasing the number of sets will add more stress to the working muscles which will force them to adapt.

Volume is a crucial factor in hypertrophy (3) and also for testosterone and human growth hormone production – therefore, it should be a key consideration in all hypertrophy training programs.

There are many training programs that utilize high sets in – some good examples are German Volume Training (GVT), Gironda’s 8 x 8 and FST-7.

German volume training is an extreme example of high set training as the program focuses on 10 sets of 10 reps with many of the exercises.

Meanwhile, Gironda’s program uses 8 sets of 8 reps while the FST-7 concentrates on 7 sets of 10-12 reps.

While these types of programs may be effective, it is important to note that they are unsuitable for beginners & novices and should only be used by those who are at an advanced level.

The reason for this is that firstly, beginners do not need this kind of volume in order to make significant adaptations in strength and size.

For beginners, making progress is fairly straightforward as their body has never experienced a strength training stimulus previously. Therefore, a small amount of stress can bring about large changes (4).

Secondly, if too much stress is applied, overtraining is a distinct possibility. Overtraining occurs when training volume is too high and the body is unable to deal with the associated stress.

Not only will the body fail to adapt and improve, regressions in performance, strength & size may occur. In addition, a greater level of tiredness & fatigue may be experienced.

Those who have trained for a prolonged time period are best suited for these types of programs as their body is already highly conditioned and can, therefore, more effectively deal with the training stimulus.

For beginners, it is absolutely fine to add a set or two to their exercises and use this as a method of progressive overload, however, extreme set workouts should be avoided.

3) Reduce Rest Periods

For those of you who use a stopwatch and time your rest periods between sets, consider this final method of progressive overload.

The amount of rest that is taken between sets is dependent on the weight lifted and the number of repetitions performed.

For strength work (1-5 reps), the recommendation is to rest for 3-5 minutes between sets while for hypertrophy (6-12 reps) the rest period is shortened to 1-2 minutes.

By reducing the rest periods between sets, the body begins consequent sets in a below optimal state as the shorter time period does not allow the body to fully recover.

Lactate levels and hydrogen ions numbers may be slightly elevated and pH levels may not have normalized which means that you carry over some fatigue into the following sets (5).

Performing sets in this state once again places a greater amount of stress on the body and therefore leads to incremental adaptations to strength & size.

Bodybuilding workoutProgressive Overload Applications

While all 3 of these methods are undoubtedly effective for bringing about significant change, they should not all be utilized at the same time.

As discussed earlier, overtraining is a possibility if the level of applied stress is too high. Adding sets, reps and reducing rest periods simultaneously will add excessive stress.

Instead, focus on one method at a time and use this method until you begin to see progress slow or stall. Once you have reached this point, switch to another method and repeat the process.

Finally, it is vital that you understand that overloading the body must be gradually progressive.

This may seem like an obvious statement to make, however, far too often individuals attempt to progress too quickly and end up overtraining.

Progressing too quickly can predispose you to overtraining. Once again, this comes down to the fact that the body is unable to deal with rapidly increasing demands and stresses.

In the same way that it is important that you are gradual with increasing weight increments, be gradual with adding sets, reps and reducing rest time.

Instead of attempting to add 5 reps immediately, focus on just 1 or 2 more reps each session. Similarly, start by just adding 1 set to each exercise rather than adding 3 or 4.

Final Word

It is very possible to make substantial progress with your strength training without focusing solely on the amount of weight you are lifting.

Gradually adding sets, reps and reducing rest periods will effectively add the stress required to bring about desired changes in strength and size.


1-Lorenz, Daniel S.; Reiman, Michael P.; Walker, John C. (2010-11). “Periodization”. Sports Health. 2 (6): 509–518. doi:10.1177/1941738110375910. ISSN 1941-7381. PMC 3438871. PMID 23015982.

2-Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Grgic, Jozo; Ogborn, Dan; Krieger, James W. (2017-12). “Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31 (12): 3508–3523. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 28834797.

3-Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Contreras, Bret; Krieger, James; Grgic, Jozo; Delcastillo, Kenneth; Belliard, Ramon; Alto, Andrew (01 2019). “Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men”. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 51 (1): 94–103. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764. ISSN 1530-0315. PMC 6303131. PMID 30153194.

4-Baker, J. S.; Davies, B.; Cooper, S. M.; Wong, D. P.; Buchan, D. S.; Kilgore, L. (2013). “Strength and Body Composition Changes in Recreationally Strength-Trained Individuals: Comparison of One versus Three Sets Resistance-Training Programmes”. BioMed Research International. 2013. doi:10.1155/2013/615901. ISSN 2314-6133. PMC 3780552. PMID 24083231.

5-Rahimi, Rahman (December 1, 2005). “Effect of Different Rest Intervals on the Exercise Volume Completed During Squat Bouts”. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 4 (4): 361–366. ISSN 1303-2968. PMC 3899651. PMID 24501549.

Jacob Ladon
Jacob Ladon is a staff writer and former amateur bodybuilder. He has been passionate about bodybuilding since he was 15 years old and discovered the joys of training in the gym. He reports and comments on all bodybuilding related matters.