Progressive Overload

This guest post was brought to you by Jonny Brooks of Brooks Power Systems.

Now, if you’ve read any of the previous posts (which you probably haven’t, so go do your homework now) you’ll know that I like to think about training as stimulus and adaptation. Stimulus being our training session, and adaptation being whatever kind of gains we’re looking for. Knowing this, in order for us to keep increasing our adaptations, we must increase the stimulus. No new stimulus, no greater adaptation.

The method we use to increase stimulus over time is known as progressive overload.

“Progressive overload – A gradual increase in volume, intensity, frequency or time in order to achieve the targeted goal of the user.”

Probably the most famous story and example of progressive overload is the myth of ‘Milo of Croton’. Milo, a 6th century wrestler is known for lifting a baby calf every day, until it eventually became a fully grown bull. As the calf got heavier. Milo’s muscle and strength increased to accommodate.

Whilst this myth is great for understand that we need to be increasing our weights used over time, the matter of fact is that it just isn’t that linear. One of my clients last night hit a 7.5kg deadlift PB after a 3 week program, which lands her at 120kg. If progress was linear and simple, at that rate in a little under 3 years she’ll have surpassed Eddie “The Beast” Hall’s all time deadlift world record of 500kg. Nothing’s impossible, but…

Why is this? As with everything, there’s a catch. Progressive overload is great until you realise, after a certain amount of time, your efforts are rewarding you with less and less results. Introducing, the law of diminishing returns:

After a while, most people will hit a plateau. Where there increased inputs and efforts are getting 0 results, or perhaps even sending them backwards. This is where we need to be smart, and use techniques such as the ones following to eek progress out wherever we can.

Training Density

Density is one of my favourite ways to get people moving through plateaus. It’s duration/volume. Let’s say that your session contained 20 working sets, and took you 60 minutes. If we can take that session time down to 50 minutes, whilst maintaining the load/technique of the session, we’re progressing again.


We often here volume defined as sets x reps x load, but I like to think of training volume in a much simpler way, the number of difficult sets per muscle per workout or per week. Once we know this, we can increase volume in a few different ways. The first way I would suggest is to add in 2-4 sets per week across two sessions in the form of 1-2 new exercises, and the second being to add an additional working set to 2 of your pre-existing exercises (the reason I tend to use the first is when constantly adding sets to an exercise it’s more difficult to maintain loading)

Training Frequency

A great way to second-handedly increase training volume is by increasing frequency, aka the amount of times per week you train a certain muscle. The added benefit of this is that  when volume is correct, increased training freuqnecy has been shown to increase hypertrophy and strength gains.


This one is easy to forget as we focus a lot on pushing weight and volume up, but increases in technique is a sure fire indicator of progression. Moving heavy weights with perfect technique is always the goal.

Introducing The Double Progression Method

Double progression is one of the most simple method for progressive overload that I use in my own training, Let’s take for example we’re doing 4 sets of 8-12 reps on an exercise. You would always start at the lower end of the rep range (using the same weight for all sets) and try to drive it up to the top of the rep range, so you start by doing a 4×8 and after a few sessions, hopefully, end up with a 4×12. Happy days

Rookie Mistakes

  • Doing too much too fast. Nobody has ever squatted 2 plates for reps in their first few days of training.  Take advantage of your beginner gains (also known as the novel stimuli principle).
  • Don’t mistake loading at the sacrifice of form and technique progression. Sure you can throw an extra 5kg on your bench press every week, but if your form has gone to shit that’s not a progression.
  • Trying to progress everything at an alarming rate. Most people over-estimate what they can do in a few months in the gym, and under-estimate what they can do in a few years.

Thanks for your time everybody, and I hope this was helpful.

– Jonny

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