Progressive Overload in weights training and how to use it

If it’s tone and definition you’re looking for, then weights training needs to become a staple in your training schedule.


But for many it’s a daunting notion going into the weights area of a gym. 

 – What equipment should you use ?

 – How many sets or reps should you do ?

 – And how does it all work together so you can achieve that tone and definition

you’ve been wanting ?


Firstly, understand that the definition you are seeking is muscles. Definition and tone is the result of reducing body fat and showing the muscle that is underneath.  It is up to each person how much muscle they choose to show.


The second thing to understand is that if you are wanting to change your body shape you will need to build muscle in different areas.  For example – if you have a thicker waist, but want it to appear smaller you will want to increase lat and shoulder size to give the appearance of a narrower waist, or the hourglass figure.


And lastly it is important to be aware that if you are new to weights training, you will see rapid results to begin with.  But after the initial 3-6 months these results will slow.  You are not doing anything wrong. This is normal.  You cannot expect to achieve years of work in 12 weeks.

When it comes to weights training it’s important to understand the concept of Progressive Overload.


Progressive Overload is the plan to increase weights, reps, volume or frequency in your weights training.  Done continuously, these increases will place continued demand on your musculoskeletal system which in turn forces the muscles to adapt by increasing in size and improving strength and stamina.


The body simply will not change unless it is forced to.  The saying “nothing grows in a comfort zone”  is applicable here.  So when it comes to training and changing your body, stepping out of that comfort zone is necessary.


When talking about increasing muscle size for tone, shape and definition you want to work in the 8-12 rep range. 



Lets look at the different methods of progressive overload.

1. Increasing the weight

Probably the most commonly used method.  This involves performing a number of reps with good form and then increasing the weight for the next set. Personally with this method, I prefer to work in a set rep range for a predetermined number of weeks and increase the weight where possible. Before moving down in reps and increasing the weight further and repeating the same technique.  This method ensures we are working both Type I & Type II muscle fibres (that’s a story for another day) 

Don’t be concerned about the reps decreasing as the weight increases, because as you cycle through training programs you’ll find what used to be heavy for 8 reps you can now move for 12 reps because of strength increases.

2. Increasing the repetitions

This method involves increasing the repetitions rather than the weight lifted.  Remembering that to build muscle the recommended rep range is 8-12 reps a set, so if size is what you are aiming for then once you can move the weight for a few sets of 12 reps, you will need to increase the weight which will reduce the reps and begin the cycle all over again. 

3. Increasing training frequency

This refers to how often you train a muscle group.  Increasing frequency will increase the overload.  But it is important to remember that the training is a stimulus and recovery is when the muscle grows – so hitting a particular muscle group to frequently is not a good thing.   Allowing 1-2 days recovery between muscle groups is beneficial. Increasing training frequency is useful for lagging or weaker body parts.  

4. Increasing training volume

Volume refers to sets x reps x weight.  Increasing the volume increases the overload.  Volume can be increased by adding more sets to existing exercises or increasing the number of exercises.  

5. Decreasing the rest time between sets 

Basically this means you reduce the rest between set intervals, which means you do the same amount of work in less time which encourages the body to become more efficient at recovery with anaerobic exercise.  Using this technique may mean you are unable to lift as much weight due to the decreased rest time.  

I generally don’t recommend using this technique for compound lifts and those that are new to lifting. 

No matter the method of progressive overload you choose, there should be some sort of plan that accompanies it.  

A program that details; 

 – The exercises for each training session

 – how many sets you will perform on each exercise

 – How may reps you are aiming to perform on each set

 – Even how much rest period between sets

 – And of course how many weeks will your program last


Taking these things into account and planning for them, allows you to train with purpose, intent and focus and avoids you arriving at the gym wandering aimlessly amongst the equipment.