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This Training Method Is Key to Avoiding Plateaus In Your Fitness Journey

Make progress—without overdoing it—with these tips.

By Alyssa SparacinoNovember 8, 2023


What is progressive overload training and why is it important for your fitness goals? Peloton Instructor Logan Aldridge shares what you need to know about the principles of progressive overload training plus how to get started.

Even if you don’t recall every detail of the Tortoise and the Hare fable, you likely remember some of the lessons from this longlasting story. One central theme is patience. It’s something you need in life, when running a race (fictional or otherwise), and when thinking about how to progress toward your fitness goals. That’s where progressive overload comes in. 

The concept of progressive overload not only ensures you aren’t going too hard, too fast, which reduces the risk for injuries and burnout, but also helps keep you on track with steady and consistent improvement, which prevents the dreaded plateau in results. 

So, learn how to keep challenging yourself and push the boundaries (safely!) of what’s possible with progressive overload. Here’s how to do it the right way. 

The Principles of Progressive Overload Training

Progressive overload “involves gradually increasing the stress or demand placed on the body over time,” explains Peloton instructor Logan Aldridge. That demand can come in many different forms including reps, load, resistance, distance, or time. The goal? “To continually stimulate improvements in strength, endurance, or other fitness parameters,” he says. 

You can apply the technique to almost any type of exercise or activity, but progressive overload is most often associated with strength training, resistance training, and muscle-building exercises, explains Logan. “These modalities involve manipulating resistance and intensity, making it easier to progressively overload. While it can be applied to endurance training like running, it may require more creative approaches, such as increasing distance or speed incrementally.”

Woman lifts two dumbbells while working out at home

The Benefits of Progressive Overload Training

The potential gains from structuring your workouts with progressive overload are seemingly endless. Here’s some of what you can expect, according to Logan.

Muscle Growth and Strength

“Progressive overload is essential for muscle hypertrophy, or growth,” he says. “It stimulates muscle adaptation, leading to increased size and strength.” That means whether your strength training style is light weights and high reps or you’re constantly pushing your one rep max, progressive overload can help you tap into that potential. 

Physical Stability

This training style helps improve “the structural integrity of bones, tendons, and ligaments, reducing the risk of injury by adapting these tissues to increased loads,” explains Logan.  Progressive overload doesn’t just strengthen your muscles or your heart, for example, it strengthens all the parts of your body that work in conjunction with your cardiovascular and muscular symptoms.

Injury Prevention

Speaking of injuries, “properly applied progressive overload can contribute to injury prevention by gradually building up the body's capacity to handle stress, reducing the likelihood of overuse injuries,” says Logan. It basically focuses on finding the right balance of stress needed to progress your results without leading to an injury that would just set you back.

Increased Aerobic Threshold

If you’re using progressive overload for cardio training, such as with cycling, rowing, or even hiking, it will “enhance aerobic capacity by pushing the limits of cardiovascular endurance and promoting physiological adaptations that improve aerobic performance,” he says. 

Enhanced Motivation

Without challenge there can’t be change, but pushing yourself past the point of burnout can be equally as unmotivating. “Consistently progressing in your training [with progressive overload] can boost motivation and provide a clear path for achieving fitness goals,” he says. 

How to Get Started with Progressive Overload Training

Now that you grasp all the amazing benefits of progressive overload, you’re likely eager to implement the technique into your own training routine. Here’s how to incorporate the tactic no matter what your fitness goal, according to Logan. And remember, this is progressive, aka gradual, overload, so you don’t want to change multiple factors at the same time. You’d also want to determine a benchmark for success before you decide it’s time to manipulate any variable. 

Increase the reps, sets, or time.  

For strength training or interval training (cardio or strength), an easy way to think about progressive overload would be to increase the number of reps per set or increase the number of total sets and keep the number of reps steady. For isometric exercises or intervals, you could increase the time for effort or decrease the time for rest. 

Increase resistance or load. 

For resistance training or weight lifting, you could apply progressive overload by adding more resistance, such as with a cable machine, or load, by upping the weights you choose. “For example, if you're bench pressing, you can start with 3 sets of 8 reps at a certain weight, and in the next session, add more weight—or increase the number of reps or sets” if you’re choosing to use another variable, says Logan.

Increase Volume

For cyclists, swimmers, or other cardio fans, you can increase your volume of training, aka the total effort put in, which, in this case, could be total distance. So, if running three miles no longer feels like a challenge to you, you might add on .25 or .50 miles during your next workout. 

Increase Pace

Again, this would likely be used for cardio-based goals, such as runners who are comfortably running three miles at a certain pace. To progress, you’d aim to run the same distance at a slightly faster average pace.

Sample Progressive Overload Workout Plan

Ready to try a progressive overload program for yourself? Peloton members can try instructor Andy Speer’s Total Strength or Total Strength 2 programs, which are structured using progressive overload techniques. Or, try this 8-week progressive overload plan focused on increasing your bench press strength, developed by Logan. 

Weeks 1-2

Day 1: 3 sets of 8 reps at 135 pounds; 2 minutes rest between sets

Day 2: Rest

Day 3: 3 sets of 8 reps at 135 pounds; 2 minutes rest between sets

Weeks 3-4

Day 1: 3 sets of 8 reps at 140 pounds; 2 minutes rest between sets

Day 2: Rest

Day 3: 3 sets of 8 reps at 140 pounds; 2 minutes rest between sets

Weeks 5-6

Day 1: 3 sets of 6 reps at 145 pounds; 2 minutes rest between sets

Day 2: Rest

Day 3: 3 sets of 6 reps at 145 pounds; 2 minutes rest between sets

Weeks 7-8

Day 1: 3 sets of 5 reps at 150 pounds; 2 minutes rest between sets

Day 2: Rest

Day 3: 3 sets of 5 reps at 150 pounds; 2 minutes rest between sets

Risks of Progressive Overload Training

Nearly any training method comes with its risks or caveats, and progressive overload is no different. You may experience overtraining or injury, and despite this technique being great for preventing plateaus, you can still find yourself at a sticking point. That said, all of these risks can easily be mitigated by incorporating progressive overload using the appropriate fundamentals. 

“It's important to avoid making too many changes at once, such as increasing both volume and intensity simultaneously,” says Logan, adding that you also want to “pay attention to signs of overtraining.” And a friendly reminder that “adequate rest, nutrition, and proper form are also crucial to prevent injuries,” he says. 

How to Train Safely to Avoid Injury

One of the biggest takeaways to preventing injury, not just when using progressive overload, but any time you’re exercising—no matter if you’re on a long run or while lifting heavy weights—is to be particularly mindful of proper form. “Proper technique is essential, as poor form can lead to injuries when pushing for progression,” says Logan. If you cannot perform an exercise or continue a workout while maintaining proper form, that’s an indication that you need to slow down and likely aren’t ready to progress just yet. Don’t rush it!

Other ways to “prevent injury during progressive overload training include warming up and cooling down [before and after a workout], listening to your body [when it starts to fatigue], ensuring sufficient recovery time between sessions, and incorporating stretching and mobility work,” says Logan. You can find warm-ups, cool-downs, stretching, and mobility classes all on the Peloton App, so injury prevention is always at your fingertips.


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