Progressive Overload - Five core principles to building muscle

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”

The value one gains from teaching someone a skill far outweighs simply providing an individual with the finished product. If you are scratching your head and not quite sure how this applies to the fitness industry let me rephrase this quote.

“Send a client a workout, they’ll break a sweat. Teach a client the basic principles of training, and they'll progress towards their training goal”

With the abundance of fitness videos and content available in the palm of your hand it’s easy to fall into the trap of training without intent and consistency toward a specific goal. The notion that these stand alone workouts are a great way to ‘lose fat and gain muscle’ is utterly and entirely a myth. This infamous style of “training” is born from pop culture icons, social media influencers and massive fitness corporations that seek to use your lack of training knowledge to misguide you and make a quick dollar off you. Now you might be thinking “at least some form of movement is better than none at all” Although this argument is true and holds a degree of merit, be honest with yourself though. Would you be proud of yourself showing up to the gym and spending countless hours working hard and seeing very little or no results whatsoever?

Throughout this blog and training guide you will learn how to incorporate core progressive overloading principles into your program that will help increase your overall strength and improve your body composition.

Before we dive into these principles we must first understand what progressive overload means and how we can achieve it.

For a muscle to transform and become stronger or larger there are key elements that must exist. Nutrition, muscle recovery, muscle hydration and of course muscle stimulus. In this blog we will be exploring the element of muscle stimulus and discussing aspects of hypertrophy training (training to build muscle through intentional stimulus). This refers to the intentional stress we place on our muscles (resistance training) that causes the body to undergo a transformation and positively adapt (grow) to the given stimulus over time. The most productive to consistently better this is through progressively increasing the stimulus once the muscle has had time to recover from the last stressor - alas the concept of progressive overload


A way you could progressively overload in your program without having to increase the weights used could be through increasing your repetitions per set, sets per exercise or both of these in conjunction on a weekly basis. This will minimize the chance of muscles adapting and plateauing to a given stimulus. This method may be useful for someone who is uncomfortable with using heavy weights on their own, someone who struggles to engage and contract (feel) the muscle being used when going heavy or someone who is older or new to the gym and is prone to having weaker joints.

Practical example of this could look:

Repetition = “1 x rep of a bicep curl”

Set = how many reps are completed back to back between rest periods


When referring to intensity in the realms of resistance training we are not speaking about a HIIT style of training or an intense form of cardio. In fact it couldn’t be further from this, rather we are referring to the amount of load (weight) being used. Increasing the weight on an exercise over a specific duration of time will yield positive results in strength and muscular adaptations as the demands on the body are incrementally increasing and therefore force the body to adapt to manage these stressors. This form of progressive overload is the most obvious and commonly seen in the gym. Far too often individuals make the mistake of starting their programs out ‘ego lifting’ (Lifting far more than they can bare) which in hand can be detrimental to their fitness gains. Rather than being an ‘ego lifter’ start lighter and seek to incrementally increase the weight week on week over a longer duration of time and observe the results. Typically, for my clients I work on increasing the intensity (weight) for major compound lifts placed at the beginning of their sessions as their bodies are primed to handle these demands and not yet fatigued from prior stressors as they later would be.

Practical example of this:

Week 1:

5 x sets 5 x reps of Barbell Deadlifts: 100kgs

Week 2:

5 x sets 5 x reps of Barbell Deadlifts: 105kgs

Week 3:

5 x sets 5 x reps of Barbell Deadlifts: 110kgs



Tempo training focuses on increasing the overall time that a muscle is placed under by enforcing parameters that control the speed in which a subject moves through a repetition (time under tension - TUT) Frequently increasing your ‘TUT’ will therefore allow you to progressively overload and positively stimulate muscles without having to increase the intensity (weight) of a movement. Tempo training is also a useful method for learning control in movement patterns and can be used as an essential tool to break through lifting plateaus. There are various ways we can mix up the stimulus of TUT, here are four examples

Eccentric control:

An eccentric contraction is the lengthening of a muscle group whilst it is being placed under load. The easiest example to understand of how this may look can be observed in the lowering phase of a bicep curl until the bicep is completely lengthened and extended.

Practical training example:

3 x sets - 10 x reps of bicep curls with 2 seconds of eccentric control on each rep

Concentric control:

A Concentric contraction is the shortening motion of a muscle group,iIn this instance, the shortening of a muscle group that is placed under load. An example of this again using the bicep curl, would be the “upward” (flexion) phase of the lift, until the dumbbell has traveled from the hip (entended) all the way to the shoulder (flexion).

Practical training example:

3 x sets - 10 x reps of bicep curls with a 2 second concentric contraction on each rep

One and one half reps (1&½)

A One and one half rep in their most simplistic form is when you perform a full rep of a movement then proceed to complete a half rep in the same repetition. One full rep of this scheme in its entirety is considered one repetition. An example of this, again usining the bicep curl could be through completing one full bicep curl (one concentric contraction and one full eccentric extension) along with half a bicep curl (half concentric contracting and half eccentric lengthening) then repeating this process for the prescribed amount of repetitions in your set until completed.

Practical training example:

3 x sets - 10 x reps of 1&½ rep bicep curls

Isometric pause reps:

An isometric pause involves a muscle pausing and squeezing at a specific range in the movement, generally used during the hardest phase of a prescribed exercise to obtain maximum results. An example of this could be squeezing the bicep at the top of the curl whilst the bicep is at full contraction.

Practical training example

3 x sets - 10 x reps of bicep curls with a 2 second pause at the top of each rep followed by 2 seconds of eccentric control.


Keeping track of how much time we are resting between sets is a vastly underlooked and unappreciated component of hypertrophy (muscle building) training. Tracking rest periods isn’t always the most exciting aspect of training but it is crucial if you are looking to fill in any blanks within your current program. Through decreasing the periods of time we rest between sets we are teaching and demanding our bodies to recover quicker between sets resulting in the subject to become more 'metabolically fit’. Essentially this means that the overall work capacity of the subject has improved as more work is achieved in a much shorter span of time. Traditionally, decreasing rest periods is a strategy reserved for isolated movements (movements that require only one joint in action recruiting an isolated muscle group such as a bicep curl or a quad extension) because fatigued muscles can be trained effectively and safely through placing focus on isolation, higher volume (reps), lower intensity (weight) and shorter rest periods.

Practical training example:

Week 1

3 x sets 10 x reps bicep curls *60 seconds rest between sets*

Totals: 3 minutes rest - 3 x sets - 30 x reps

Week 2:

4 x sets 10 x reps of bicep curls *40 seconds rest between sets*

Totals: 3 minutes rest - 4 x sets - 40 x reps


The trend above demonstrates that in the same amount of time spent resting that the subject has improved the workload by 10 x reps. Thus, the overall volume of work has increased.


When combining a few aspects or all of the previously discussed core principles and methods of progressively overloading in a training program we are in essence increasing the total amount of volume (sets x reps x weights x TUT X rest) and demand placed upon our bodies and in return our bodies are forced to adapt (grow) to the applied stimulus

Practical training example:

Spike Fitness 4-week Minimal equipment training guide
Download PDF • 20.91MB

Click the link and download the Spike Fitness 4 week minimal training guide for four weeks of free coaching with examples on how this applies into a structured program along with my private video library of exercise demonstrations.

Now that you understand the fundamentals behind progressive overload and have obtained a sense of clarity in the science behind building muscle, ensure you steer clear of any misinformation within the fitness industry and avoid becoming an ego lifter.

I hope this helps!

Speak soon,


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