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Progressive overload, explained: Michael Ashford's tips for mixing up your workout routine

Michael Ashford

The motivation to workout, to exercise, and to live a healthier lifestyle can come from many places. For some, it’s a dire doctor’s warning. For others, it’s a realization that they want to move better, breathe easier, and feel stronger. For me, motivation came from a picture.

In 2012, I was on the beach with my family when my wife snapped a picture of me with my son, and when I saw that photo, I knew I had to change. In that picture, I saw a guy who was not doing everything he could to be there for his family for as long as he could possibly affect, and I committed to changing right then and there.

I became a certified personal trainer several years after that beach vacation, having dramatically changed my lifestyle to one that prioritized health and fitness. One of the most game-changing lessons I learned as I studied to become a personal trainer was the foundational importance of working progressive overload into our fitness routines.

Let’s say you’ve been working out and exercising consistently for several weeks, maybe even several months, and things have been going well. You’ve perhaps lost some of the weight you wanted to lose, or you’ve noticed a bit more definition in your muscles, and you think “This is working!”

Then one day you find yourself on the treadmill trudging along or doing the same rotation of exercises in the gym and you begin to feel that nagging sensation lurking behind you. You’re stalling out. You’re losing motivation.

It happens to just about everyone, no matter your skill level, your age, or how you choose to exercise. We all hit a wall or plateau at some point, and they can be extremely demotivating. It is at this point where progressive overload can help you fend off the demotivation monster.

Progressive overload is a simple concept: It is the process of changing the variables of your workouts to vary the demands you’re placing on your body. OK, let’s simplify it even more. Progressive overload is simply a fancy term for switching things up to make progress.

For weightlifters, so often the focus centers on weight — how much weight you’re lifting — and how that number is changing (presumably, going up) over time. Yes, weight is a variable that we can manipulate, but it has a cap. There’s only so much weight we can physically lift.

So, in an effort to continue to make progress, we adjust other variables like:

  • Number of sets: rather than sticking with the standard three sets of each exercise, add more sets per move. Consider reducing the number of moves you do for each workout and focus on just a few exercises at a higher set count.\
  • Number of reps per set: the typical weightlifting routine will have you doing three sets of 8-12 reps per move. So, switch it up to generate different results. Consider ramping up the number of reps per set to 12-14 to promote improved muscular endurance or drop the reps down to 4-8 to promote muscular strength. As you might guess, you’ll have to adjust the weight as well.
  • Rest period duration: the heavier the weight you’re lifting, typically the more rest you should give your body in order to restore your energy output levels for the next set. However, you can shorten your rest period duration to keep your heart-rate elevated, which will promote cardiovascular strength. Just make sure you don’t sacrifice form.
  • Rep tempo: too often, when we think about reps and sets, we think about fast movements. However, one of the most underrated ways of “switching it up” is to reduce the tempo of your reps. Slow down the movement (and consequently, the weight) to increase your muscles’ time under tension, which can help you make significant progress.
  • Frequency of workouts: it’s easy to get locked into a set routine and not deviate. Monday is chest day. Tuesday is back day. Wednesday is leg day. And on and on. Consider, for example, switching your leg routine to focus on push motions one day and pull motions another, repeating twice a week to hit your major muscle groups with more frequency, but be mindful of your overall volume so as to not overdo it.

Those are some examples for resistance training, but progressive overload can be applied to any exercise modality.

For running, rather than going out and running six miles every day, perhaps you switch it up and instead do hill sprints, or you go a shorter distance, but you increase the intensity of your pace.

If you’re a swimmer, the same approach applies. Do sprint work in the pool (similar to hill sprints), shorten your rest periods between laps, or slow the pace down and try to stretch out how long you can continuously swim. 

If you’re into bodyweight workouts, no worries! You can still change up so many of the variables. Try slowing down your bodyweight moves, or try to push out more reps per set, or add more sets. The ideas are the same no matter how you choose to work out! 

There are so many different variables that you can change, even within the same workout, to continue to challenge your body so that you progress in new and different ways. Usually, as a personal trainer, I recommend changing up at least one variable in your workouts every 4-6 weeks.

Now, it must be said that progressive overload isn’t always a positive thing, so you have to be careful. For instance, if you’re trying to lose weight and you stall out, it is very common to resort to extreme calorie cuts or doing more and more cardio to jumpstart your results again.

And this is unsustainable, as there eventually comes a point where you simply cannot eat less or run any more. So, in this instance, changing your workout routine all together might be the variable that you adjust.

The best thing about progressive overload is that it can be adjusted depending on where you’re at in your health and fitness journey. The only competition you have to worry about is yourself, and remember, there’s no shame in starting over, no matter how many times it takes.