Progressive overload is a cornerstone of any strength training program. It is the concept that the body must be exposed to a stimulus greater than it has been exposed to before to adapt and improve. Train the same, remain the same!
Progressive overload can be achieved in multiple ways. We can increase the intensity, the frequency, or we can increase the number of reps and sets we’re doing with a specific weight. These techniques all expose the body to a new and greater stimulus than before. Although there are some benefits that are unique to each method, they are all essentially doing the same thing: they all increase our overall training effect.
The Fundamentals of Volume
Training volume is defined as sets x reps x weight. It is the total work done per session, or per week depending on how you look at it. For example, if someone does three sets of 10 reps at 100kg, that is 3,000kg of volume in that session. Over a training period, an increase in training volume has been shown to increase muscle size,1 and bigger muscles are generally stronger muscles. As volume encompasses intensity, frequency, sets and reps, it is easier and more beneficial to track training volume rather than just to track one of these factors individually. To achieve progressive overload while looking at our training volume, we must manipulate classic training metrics.
Adding intensity (weight) is the least effective method to increase overall training volume. If you go from three sets of 10 reps at 100kg (3,000kg of volume) and add 2.5kg to the bar, you achieve 3,075kg of volume. If you had only added one rep per set, you would achieve 3,300kg of volume, and if you added a whole extra set, 4,000kg of volume.
However, there are unique benefits to increasing the weight used. Upping intensity is usually the main goal for strength athletes, as the competition demands a maximal strength test of a specific movement. Therefore, more intense training is more competition-specific. Increasing volume by adding intensity is probably best done in a strength phase of training, working towards a test or a competition day.
The Right Way to Increase Frequency
Frequency is the number of times you do a specific movement during a week. For example, if you squat twice a week, increasing that to three times a week will increase your frequency. This will increase your volume as well, as you add all the sets you do on your additional day to your current weekly sets. When increasing your frequency, it is best to split your current volume over the new number of days.
Let’s take an individual squatting five sets of five reps, twice per week. That’s 10 total sets. If they want to add a day to increase frequency, they are best off splitting those 10 sets over the now three days of squat training. That could look like four sets of five on day one, three sets of five on day two, and three sets of five on day three. Total volume hasn’t yet increased, but frequency has. After this point, you can add a set on day two and have increased volume in a more manageable way.
Frequency has a unique benefit to the other methods, in that it exposes the trainee to more practice at the movement. This can be especially beneficial to people struggling with technique, or beginners who need to learn a specific movement better.
Linear Progression Using Volume
Finally, adding reps or sets into workouts can moderately increase the volume of training. If one week you accomplish three sets of five with a particular weight and the next week you manage three sets of six with the same weight, you have increased volume. Adding reps or sets are moderate ways to increase volume, but it tends to be the most manageable for most athletes. Saying to someone “Okay, we’ve done five reps with that this week, next week we’ll do six reps” is fairly linear progression, makes sense to most people, and can be very manageable in non-maximal training programs.
This is a good technique for novice athletes, as it creates confidence that they are progressing without having to add more weight to the bar. An effective technique is to add a rep each week for two weeks, then add a set on the third week before returning to the original set and rep scheme but adding weight to the bar. In reality, this is a linear progression, but is less daunting than constantly adding weight to the bar.
See the Whole Picture
Volume incorporates all the classic methods to achieve progressive overload (intensity, frequency, sets and reps) and creates a nice, easy-to-track metric that gives a more holistic view of training. Assessing progress using volume rather than weight on the bar provides a more gradual and effective method of exposing the body to new stimuli. It also avoids the quick plateaus that arise from classic linear programs. If you don’t track your training volume, you are leaving out a key method to assess progress. Why assess just one metric of progressive overload, when you can look at them all together?
1. Schoenfeld, Brad J., Dan Ogborn, and James W. Krieger. “Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Journal of Sports Sciences 35, no. 11 (2017): 1073-1082.