Progressive Overload Pitfalls

progressive overload milo

Milo of Croton, 6th Century BC, was supposedly able to carry a bull over his shoulders because as a boy he carried a calf and then progressively larger cattle. Progressive overload isn’t a 21st century concept.

Gaining muscle and getting stronger isn’t terribly complicated but there are some common pitfalls (which I’ve written about previously). Aside from consistency in training, the most important aspect to make progress is progress. This may seem silly and quite basic although this is one area of training I see people messing up all the time. The correct terminology is “progressive overload” which refers to increasing the training stimulus overtime. This is important because the body quickly adapts to a specific stimulus — if you do the same workout using the same sets, reps, and weights your body will become adapted to that stimulus and no-longer show improvements in muscle or strength.

Applying the Principles of Progressive Overload

The goal of progressive overload is to make the workouts harder overtime. There are essentially four variables to manipulate to make this happen: total repetitions, load, tempo, and rest-intervals.

Total repetitions:

kaizmaier bench press progressive overloadThis is simply sets x reps, with the intent of increasing total repetitions. A common pitfall I see with respect to this aspect is being “stuck” in a specific rep range, for example: 8-12 repetitions for all sets whereas in reality it’s quite possible to build muscle using reps as low as 3 and as high as 30. Most training would be beneficial being between 5-15 reps/set but consider trying different rep ranges. Keep in mind there is an inverse relationship between sets and reps if the goal is maintaining a similar or increasing total repetitions: ie. if the goal is 18 total repetitions one can do 3 sets of 6 or 6 sets of 3. Finally, keep in mind that there is also an inverse relationship between total repetitions and load.

Intensity (Load):

The proper weight selection can be quite challenging, even for quite experienced lifters and it’s no surprise a lot of people have trouble with this one. The goal here is a balancing act between choosing a weight that will allow you to perform full range of motion with proper form to minimize risk of injury yet still be sufficiently challenging. As someone new to lifting weights, particularly free-weights, the weight should be very light in-order to learn the form of the exercise. Once the form is down, it’s time to start revving it up – but you don’t want to get hurt of course.

olympic weightlifter progressive overloadSome tips to increase weight yet minimize the risk of injury:

  • Avoid training to failure on compound movements (multi-joint movements such as the squat, deadlift, bench-press, etc.)
    • Most sets should be 1-3 reps away from failure
  • Use a spotter
  • Video record your sets to analyze form

On the opposite side of the folks who are too timid increasing weights are those who are overzealous and sacrifice form using a partial range of motion. For weight selection, you’ll take into account the sets/reps scheme as stated previously, with the goal of being not too heavy, yet not too light. Now’s the time for some self-reflection to see where on the spectrum you lie.

*If you’ve made it this far in the article you might be a bit skeptical as it seems I’m implying you’ll be able to continually increase volume-load (total reps x weight). This can occur somewhat linearly for beginners but for intermediate and advanced lifters they will require more complex programming that has strategically varied volume and intensity with the long-term goal to increase volume-load, although these improvements will occur on the time-frame of weeks to months rather than from one training session to the next.


Tempo basically refers to the rate at which you perform the exercise. The most common mistake I see with tempo, is using the same tempo on all movements…all the time. Faster is easier, slower is harder. It’s no surprise than under the premise of progressive overload, performing the same sets, reps, and weight with a slower tempo would represent a more substantial training stimulus. Most exercises (deadlifts being an exception) have a lowering phase (eccentric) and a lifting phase (concentric) – when altering the tempo you can slow down the eccentric, concentric or both. If your goal is hypertrophy, than you’ll likely want to focus your effort on slowing down the eccentric. The way tempo affects muscular strength is a bit less clear and as such, wouldn’t play much of a role in a strength-focused exercise program1. Adding a pause between the eccentric and concentric is another option, but this only applies when there is muscular tension between the two phases such as in a squat. On the other hand, pausing would be counterproductive when there is no muscular tension between the two phases of the lifts such as in the bicep curl.

ohearn bicep curls progressive overload

Single-joint movements, like bicep curls are a good place to start incorporating tempo-reps. As an aside, he probably didn’t get this jacked just be doing slow eccentrics…

Altering tempo can be fun to mess around with, and can aid in hypertrophy although this is the variable I would probably only alter on occasion, perhaps spending a few weeks doing prolonged tempo repetitions or occasionally incorporating tempo reps towards the end of a workout. Since tempo-reps are particularly challenging it will necessarily require reduced volume and intensity, which is not good for the gains and the metabolic benefits from tempo-reps don’t appear to make up for the reduction in volume-load. Interestingly there are some training facilities that only train in this way, employing the “Slow Burn Method” – don’t fall for this scam…it’s a surefire way to sacrifice your gains.


Rest intervals were saved for last because this topic is semi-controversial. Traditionally, bodybuilders would promote very short rest intervals to maximize hypertrophy although this isn’t supported by the scientific literature23. The primary issue with very short <60 seconds is that they limit both the load and total number of sets that are able to be performed. Since there is a dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy45, it will likely be most important to consider how manipulating rest-intervals will affect your workout volume. Anecdotally, most exercises will benefit from at least 90 seconds of rest, rarely more than 5 minutes and in most cases of training where hypertrophy is the goal ~ 2 minutes seems to be a good balance. As you might be able to deduct, the pitfalls with rest-intervals are similar to those of weight selection — basically too little or too much. In either case, the workout volume will be negatively affected either due to fatigue or simply running out of time in the gym. So how do rest-intervals play into the scheme of progressive overload? If you’re able to decrease your rest-interval from one workout to the next that’s a sign of progress and it also means there’s an opportunity to improve overall volume, so rather than trying to push towards sub-60 second rest intervals, in most cases you’re better off adding reps or weight.


Making gains isn’t all that difficult so long as you keep the basic principles of progressive overload in mind and lift with a full range-of-motion. The name of the game is progress…if you’re physique is stale or your strength is stalled check yourself and make sure you’re applying these principles in your training.

References   [ + ]

1.Roig M, O’Brien K, Kirk G, et al. The effects of eccentric versus concentric resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2009;43(8):556-568.
2.Henselmans M, Schoenfeld BJ. The Effect of Inter-Set Rest Intervals on Resistance Exercise-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy. Sport Med. 2014;44(12):1635-1643.
3.Schoenfeld BJ, Pope ZK, Benik FM, et al. Longer inter-set rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015:1.
4.Radaelli R, Fleck SJ, Leite T, et al. Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(5):1349-1358.
5.Krieger JW. Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(4):1150-1159.