By David Nogle, I.S.S.A. Certified Personal Trainer, I.S.S.A. Certified Nutrition Coach, Runner

Today I want to write about the process of becoming a more fit person. Doesn’t that sound vague? Well, it is. This topic is a dive into a process called “progressive overload.” This is the process that- knowingly or not- most people go through in the entire process of developing fitness. On some occasions, one might even go through this process in a situation that involves becoming a less healthy person. That’s why it’s something that’s good to be aware of, as progressive overload may explain the “why” to an unintentional regression in training. This blog will cover a deep dive into what progressive overload is, why it’s important, and some tips on how to use it to improve your program (or get some insight into why your trainer does certain things).

Progressive overload is the process of increasing weight, intensity, and/or time of a workout over the course of days, weeks, or even months. Progressive overload is necessary for proper progression, preventing injury, and avoiding plateaus. Increases in volume of no more than 10% are necessary to continuously develop fitness and avoid getting hurt. There are multiple phases we go through in each cycle of training which takes place workout by workout. While we work out, we stress our muscles and central nervous systems. This creates a response known as General Adaptation Syndrome. Our body is of course fatigued, so we will heal. After we are healed back to our original state, our body will continue to build muscle and/or fitness to compensate for whatever was stressed. This explains why we need to workout to increase our fitness- rather than our DNA just maximizing our potential for no reason. If we don’t workout, we are subject to whatever amount of stress we encounter in our day to day lives, which for sedentary individuals is rather minimal at times. Our bodies do not have a need to use valuable calories and nutritional resources to improve anything. In that situation, we remain in a less healthy and less active state where our body will store unused calories as fat instead.

Progressive overload is a tool used to gradually increase physical states of stress at a rate that is continually challenging yet does not lead to a regression, or “overtraining.” The image below demonstrates the ideal cycle of progressive overload. 

As seen above, the arrows point to the moments you would workout. See, while we generally think of ourselves as getting “better” while working out, that isn’t actually the case. We are intentionally fatiguing and stressing ourselves so that our bodies go back to this General Adaptation Syndrome and repair those muscles, tendons, ligaments, or literally anything else in our body that may have been used in the workout. Where the “fitness” line rises is where we are recovering, then we go beyond our original fitness in an effect called “overcompensation.” This is an effect woven into our DNA. A key takeaway here is that the recovery process is often overlooked and should be considered just as important as the workout.

With that, there can be times where we train harder than we should, and reduce our physical state through exercise induced muscular damage. This happens by fatiguing at a quicker rate than we are able to heal. This can get tricky, because if it is done subtly over time, you may not be in pain or notice it at all. What you will notice is a gradual regression which may seem like a complete mystery. After all, it is confusing that after following a program perfectly one could end up in worse condition than before. Yet progressive overload explains and demonstrates how that is possible. The graph below expands on the original, and visualizes different scenarios that can take place in progressive overload. The blue line demonstrates a typical and ideal cycle, while the red demonstrates overtraining.

To properly integrate progressive overload into your program there are a few things you could do. Of course, the most obvious tip is to get a personal trainer. Trainers are trained in this process and keep close tabs on progress. While working with hundreds of clients over time, trainers learn what typical progression cycles might look like for different individuals. Also, a trainer will know how to correct a program if an issue comes up. Secondly, watch for signs of overtraining. This can include irregular fatigue, inability to perform as previously able (even on the same plan), mood changes, mental burnout, and rapid weight loss. Finally, make sure to make consistent increases in volume around 70-80% of the time when desiring active progression.

Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva, obtained by