What To Do When Progressive Overload Stops Working

Progressive overload not working anymore is a common occurrence for those that take a linear approach to training and only focus on adding weight to the bar all the time.

Progressive overload is probably my favourite principle when it comes to bodybuilding or improving  body composition. It’s an incredibly simple concept, easy to apply even for a beginner (and especially beneficial for a beginner) and gives a good marker in which to track progress. 

It sounds simple in practice however as with most things involving human physiology there comes a point when you will see diminishing returns which can be very demotivating, this is true from both a performance and aesthetic point of view. There also comes a point when for some people progressive overload stops working altogether. 

What to do when progressive overload stops working? When progressive overload stops working you will need to do one of three things:

  1. Change your exercises
  2. Change your routine
  3. Change your performance or body composition goals. 

Progressive overload is a tried and tested method that does produce results, if you find it stops working then instead of giving up on the method it will be time to look at it from a new angle and see how you can continue to utilize it and see results.

What Is Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is a principle that is applied to muscle building, it involves tracking certain aspects (weight lifted, rest periods, reps, sets) and improving on all these aspects over time. The reason this is applicable to your physique is because the body is very good at adapting and evolving, not to the point that if you drop someone in the ocean they will automatically develop gills and be able to breathe underwater but it can develop short term adaptations to help you survive in everyday scenarios. 

If you run one mile, your body might not be used to it so your breathing is heavy, you sweat a lot, vision might be blurry etc.. if you run a mile on a daily basis however your body will adapt to make this task easier, your lung capacity will improve, heart rate will stay steady and your leg muscles will develop to handle this.

If you then however decide to run 3 miles, you will likely have the same issues you had when first running that single mile. This is because you body likes to develop to a point where it can handle the same daily stresses that it faces, but not any more than that and that is the important thing to always keep in mind when you are looking to transform your physique. Your body likes to maintain a certain level and this is very much dependent on the stresses that you put it through.

Something the above doesn’t factor in is genetics, some people are naturally able to run long distances or hold muscle mass easily and this is simply down to genetic factors which are out of the individuals control. If you are naturally a small, skinny guy that can run long distances but want to instead have muscle mass then you will need to give your body a reason to change and this is where progressive overload comes in. 

By consistently adding new stress to the body overtime you are giving it a reason to adapt and then maintain this new level, if you work your way up to a 225lb bench press from a 75lb starting bench press you can guarantee that your physique will look significantly different and progressively overloading your muscles overtime is the way to elicit this growth. 

Different Types Of Progressive Overload

The most common and realistically most effective type of progressive overload for building muscle is to keep adding weight to the bar. If day after day, week after week, month after month you are adding weight to your lifts then it is inevitable that you will need to build muscle mass in order to maintain this.

Consistently adding weight to the bar should be the overall goal for anyone looking to build muscle or improve body composition, it’s simple logic that someone who squats and deadlifts 400lbs will likely have more muscle mass than someone who can only manage 100lbs in each of these lifts.

This is also a great tactic to use because it’s a visual motivator every time you get in the gym, if you are using a certain set of dumbbells for an exercise then the logical movement is to make it to the next set up, once you move up the rack like this it will act as an incredible motivator as you can always see the next weight that you want to aim for.

This isn’t going to be true for all exercises though, a bicep curl has less potential for increasing weight than a deadlift for example because the bicep is a much smaller muscle group than the back and legs so you do need to pick your exercises to progress with this method on logically. 

You will get to a point when adding weight for an exercise is no longer achievable and progress plateaus, the next step in progressive overload is to then add reps and sets. Progressive overload is about challenging the muscle with a stimulus that it’s not used to, therefore if you bench press 225lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps a way to progressively overload the movement without adding weight is to work up to 4 sets of 12 reps for example.

With this method it will also assist with increasing weights, if you have added an extra set with reps over the space of a few months then you will have likely developed the capacity to increase the original weight and start again at 235lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps. Continuing in this way is likely to see progress continue for extended periods of time.

One final factor to look at is the time it takes to complete an exercise, one form of progressive overload will be to reduce rest periods over time which will mean your muscles are doing more work with the same weight. If you typically take 1 minute rest in between sets you can look to reduce this to 45 seconds and make your muscles work harder with the same weight and reps. And alternative method for progressive overload could be to make and exercise longer whilst keeping rest periods the same by using time under tension.

Time under tension is a whole topic in itself but it is basically how long a set lasts, if you blast out a set of bicep curls in 30 seconds then a progressive overload technique would be to extend this set to 45 seconds by lowering the weight slower with each rep for example. This will place the muscle under a different kind of stress then it is used to an again stimulate muscle growth as a result.

Use Substitute Exercises

Progressive overload not working? use substitute exercises

Once you have been incorporating progressive overload into your routine for a long period of time you will get to the point when you simply can’t apply any of the techniques above and this is due to the law of diminishing returns. In the beginning you might be able to add 10lbs to your lifts almost every session depending on your starting point and this is because the actual effort required is within the bodies capabilities.

Once you get to the point however where you are lifting some serious weight your progress will slow and start to stall, if you could keep adding 10lbs to a lift every session you’d eventually get to a point where you can lift a house, extreme example but obviously this isn’t in a humans capability.

Therefore once progressive overload stops working for a certain routine the first thing you should look to do is change that exercise to a close substitute. Using the bench press and squat as an example if you replace the bench press as your main exercises with an incline bench press you are opening up a new area to apply progressive overload.

The movement is identical and still hits the targeted muscle of the bench press however you will now be prioritizing the upper chest which would have previously been a secondary target. With the squat you could switch from a back squat to a front squat, again it is still the same movement however you will be targeting different muscles, instead of targeting the hamstring and glutes a front squat will target the quads. 

Switching exercises will always be a way to keep progressive overload fresh and allow you to constantly challenge the body, by the time you exhaust all exercises it’s fair to say you’ll have a pretty complete physique and will eventually get to the point where you just want to maintain it.

Change Your Routine

This is similar to the above however instead of targeting new exercises you will instead switch up your entire routine. This can result in drastic changes to your physique if you have been doing the same thing for a long period of time. Even with progressive overload if your body gets used to the same routine and the routine starts to become easy then it’s likely your body has adapted to it and as mentioned earlier will look to maintain that level. 

This is where you will look to switch up your routine entirely and look to start the progressive overload method with different circumstances. If you follow a leg routine that goes squats, leg press and leg extensions your body will be used to this, if you then reversed this order and placed leg extensions first you can guarantee that by the time you get to squats you won’t be able to lift anywhere near enough as you could when you were placing this first in your routine.

Your goal would be to now improve your squat whilst having it structured later in your work out. This will not only provided a fresh mental challenge but will be a legitimate new angle in which to approach progressive overload. 

As long as you are challenging your body to a similar standard as before you won’t lose previous strength or size by switching routine, you will instead just develop at a different rate and by changing routines you might actually find that you respond better to a different stimulus. 

Change Your Goal

The final strategy you can apply when progressive overload stops working for you is to change your workout goals. This is something you should look to do from time to time anyway whilst having one key goal in mind (eg gain 5lbs of lean muscle mass), this sub goal would be the way you go about reaching the main goal. 

If you are currently focusing on gaining strength and have hit a  genuine plateau whereby you simply can’t apply progressive overload then it would be beneficial to take your mind away from this target and shift it over to a new goal which could be improving muscular endurance and stimulating muscle hypertrophy. If you are training purely for strength then you will be training in rep ranges of 1 – 5 reps per set, that is targeting primarily fast twitch muscle fibres, your muscles however are made up of many different fibre types that get exhausted at differing levels.

If you wanted to develop your physique then you would want to target more muscle fibres to stimulate muscle growth, therefore you could now change your training focus to targeting sets in the 8 – 12 rep range. You are not going to suddenly lose strength by doing this and it will open up a whole new route to allow for progressive overload.

If you then get stronger in this rep range it will definitely have a carry over to your original goal, you can then go back to your original strength building phase and test your previous levels. Chances are that focusing on a different goal (as long as it is relatively related to the original) will be of a benefit to your original goal in the long run.

What Next

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