Is Progressive Overload Necessary?

Mindlessly training at the gym does not lead to proper results- this is where progressive overload comes in.

Bodybuilding is the art and sport of molding your body to get that perfectly sculpted look. Proper results do require one to follow a tried and trusted technique. 

Progressive overload is THE ONLY WAY to get muscular growth.

In fact, without progressive overload, you won’t grow any muscle at all.

In this piece, we will try to understand what progressive overload is, how it works, and more importantly – is it necessary for muscle development?

Understanding Muscle Structure

Before we can look at progressive overload by itself, it is important to first understand how our muscles are structured.

When bodybuilders speak of muscles, what they are really talking about are the skeletal muscles. These are the muscles that make up most of our muscular mass. They are special because we have voluntary control over them, i.e., we can directly control them as per our will.

The structure of skeletal muscles is fairly simple. First off, they are known as skeletal muscles because they are directly attached to the skeleton. It is for this reason that these muscles are directly responsible for movement.

At the very core, we have muscle fibers that are made of muscular tissue. These fibers are ‘bundled’ together to provide a lot of strength.

This whole package is enclosed in sheaths known as fascia. At the ends, the fibers are connected to the bone through fibrous tissue known as ligaments. There we have it, a simplified look at the muscle structure.

Is Progressive Overload Necessary?
Is Progressive Overload Necessary?

How Muscles Grow Under Pressure

The next thing that we need to understand to make sense of progressive overload is how our muscles grow under pressure.

As we work our muscles, they undergo tiny bits of damage at the microscopic level.

Note that this absolutely does not mean that the muscle gets damaged. Actually, far from it. This microdamage basically means that the muscle was put under excessive pressure. As a form of retaliation, the body’s white blood cells begin the repair process.

It is the repair process where all the magic happens. As the muscles are being repaired, the body adds extra layers to the fibers – making them effectively stronger than before. In such a situation, the muscles become better adjusted to that same amount of work. This is how our muscles grow under pressure.  

The Principle of Progressive Overload

We already understand how excessive work leads to an improvement in muscle quality.

The muscles basically adjust to the new workload. In biological terms, this is known as muscular hypertrophy.

Now let’s consider a gym-goer. Let’s say the person is a complete beginner and on their first day, they start with 10-pound weights.

After a week of consistent training, their muscles would have grown accustomed to the 10-pound weights.

Consider what happens if the person continues to lift the same amount of weight. That’s right. They will stay at the same level of strength. In other words, there won’t be any real gains.

This is because the muscles constantly need new challenges to conquer. If not provided, the muscles quickly adjust to their new workload and the progress graph starts to go flat.

What we’ve discussed here is known as the principle of progressive overload. As time goes on, muscles need to be progressively overloaded with either increased weight or repetitions or some combination of both. 

Why Progressive Overload Works

In very simple and straight terms, progressive overload works because that’s simply how our muscles are naturally built. It is important to keep in mind that our muscles are living and breathing objects. They have a particular nature. The nature of the skeletal muscles is that they are very responsive to external stimuli. 

We can understand this using two phenomena:

The first is where a well-built person loses muscular mass. Athletes and bodybuilders that are forced to take lengthy bed rest due to injuries or some other reasons, end up losing a big chunk of their progress.

This is the body’s natural response. Biologically speaking, it is termed muscular atrophy. Because the muscles did not have regular work for a long period of time, they readjusted to their new environment.

The opposite is what most new guys at the gym encounter. As the person starts to lift, their muscles quickly readjust and grow stronger to handle the new stress better, as already mentioned, this phenomenon is known as muscular hypertrophy.

Ways To Progressive Overload

Proper progressive overload is necessary for a well-sculpted body.

Progressive overload comes in four broad heads namely:

  • Intensity
  • Volume
  • Frequency
  • Tension

Let us take a look at all four one by one.

Intensity is what most people think of when they are thinking about progressive overload. An increase in weight that we lift is known as intensity. Increasing intensity is one of the most common ways that people try to overload. Whether that’s the best for you will obviously depend on a lot of factors. Keep in mind that this is just one of the four ways.

Next, we have volume. This simply means the number of repetitions and/or the number of sets we do. Sometimes instead of increasing the weight, it is better for us to stay the wait but increase the volume of work. This helps the muscle get enough time to adjust appropriately. 

Frequency is how many sessions we do per week. Increasing the frequency, meaning more workout sessions per week is also a great way to progressively overload. 

Last but not the least, we have tension. Tension is often described as the duration of each repetition in any given exercise. Increasing the duration for each repetition in any exercise also results in an overall increased overload. 


Coming back to our question, is progressive overload necessary – yes it is. Without progressive overload, you simply will not grow muscle- period.

Any amount of muscular development needs an increase in muscular workload. It follows that for consistent growth over a long period of time, muscles need to be overloaded progressively.    

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