Not Seeing Fitness Results? It’s Time to Try Progressive Overload

David P. explains progressive overload

You (tirelessly) rise morning after morning for your workouts. Yet, despite your persistence, your muscles remain stubbornly stagnant. Nothing is changing. If you’ve experienced this frustrating loop before, you’re not alone. From pro athletes to those just beginning to work out, it happens to everyone. The reason: you’re probably not including enough (if any!) progressive overload in your training. 

Attaining your health and fitness milestones isn’t solely about determination and consistency. Just showing up will only do so much. If you have big goals, you’ll only start seeing major gains and changes once you follow a structured plan built off a paramount principle—progressive overload. Plenty of scientific evidence points to it as one of the most effective ways of building muscle and strength. 

Never heard of progressive overload before? Don’t sweat. I’ll walk you through the nuts and bolts of this training principle, explaining why it’s the missing ingredient in the quest for the results you’ve always craved.

The Missing Link: Progressive Overload

At its core, progressive overload is the art of continually challenging your body to adapt. It’s not about endlessly repeating the same routines or engaging in sporadic bursts of effort. Rather, it’s the act of calculated escalation to demand more from your body over time. To accomplish that your workouts must be progressive, with a strategic structure that pushes you to work harder or recover faster. Whether you’re looking to lift heavier weights, complete more repetitions, or perfect your exercise form, the principle remains constant. 

Without it, you’ll find yourself in a repetitive loop, continually frustrated by your lack of progress. Your muscles grow complacent, your strength gains stop, and your goals remain out of reach. The secret to overcoming this plateau and turning your fitness journey into a success story lies in actively embracing progressive overload. It’s the key to unlocking your body’s true potential, regardless of your age, background, or fitness level.

Understanding Progressive Overload

In its simplest form, progressive overload is a training technique that nudges your body to adapt and evolve by incrementally increasing the challenge (and stress) it faces over time. Overloading the muscles causes adaptation, which causes gains. This powerful principle is key to seeing muscle growth, feeling stronger, and unlocking a fitness transformation in your body and capabilities. 

But how does this principle show up in your workout routine, and why is it an indispensable component of your fitness journey?

Progressive overload shows up in your workout routine through the manipulation of 4 main variables: the load (amount of weight lifted), the volume (number of sets and reps), the time under tension/technique (duration of each rep), and the intensity (shortened rest times, finishers, etc.). Though it’s most often applied to strength training, it can also show up in structured cardio training—particularly if it’s interval-based training. 

Playing with these variables in a structured way beckons you to lift heavier weights, complete more repetitions, or perfect your exercise form gradually. It’s your reminder that complacency is the enemy of progress. When you embrace this principle, you’re committing to constantly pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. 

This principle is the secret sauce behind those awe-inspiring before-and-after photos, the dramatic increase in your squat, and the newfound confidence in your physical abilities.

The Consequences of Neglecting Progressive Overload

One of the most detrimental outcomes in fitness is the dreaded plateau—a stagnant phase where your progress grinds to a frustrating halt. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know how demoralizing it can be. Plateaus are the main reason people stop working out altogether. 

Most people fall into a repetitive cycle where they perform the same exercises with the same weights, repetitions, and tempo over an extended time. Initially, you may experience gains as your body adapts to these specific demands. However, your body will become exceptionally efficient at handling this consistent load. Humans are built to adapt quickly—which means you’ll soon be able to perform these exercises without expending as much effort. This newfound efficiency may sound appealing, but it’s precisely what leads to stagnation. Your muscles no longer encounter sufficient stimulus to grow, and your strength reaches a plateau. 

Plateaus are not just physical obstacles; they can also be mentally taxing. The frustration and disappointment that accompany stagnant progress can erode your motivation and enthusiasm for your fitness journey. It’s disheartening to put in the effort and dedication only to witness minimal or no results. I’ve been there, and, in all honesty…that hurts worse than the plateau itself.

Understand that plateaus are not a sign of failure—they’re an indicator that your body has adapted to the current demands. It’s a sign that it’s time to level up and apply progressive overload. By consistently elevating the challenge of your workouts, be it by increasing weights, repetitions, refining technique through tempo, or upping the overall intensity, you reintroduce the challenge that compels your body to respond and grow.

This is where most people think…”I just need a new exercise routine.” While that MAY be true…what most people need is to first adjust the variables in their current routine until they’ve hit their PEAK (max intensity and potential at their current level). It’s then that they should de-load and switch routines.

The Transformative Power of a Progressive Program

So what does progressive overload look like in practice and where can you find it on obé? 

Unlike the randomness often associated with isolated fitness classes, a progressive program offers a meticulously designed roadmap tailored to your goals. That’s what separates working out from training (yes, there’s a big difference!). 

Training programs like BodyComp (all 4 volumes!), Gym Strong, Training Essentials, and Simply Strong are all built on the principle of progressive overload, so you can feel gains and get stronger as you go. These progressive training programs are designed to take you from A to Z without any wasted effort. Yes, it’s challenging—but worth it. 

Your personalized plan is built on the same principle—populating progressive classes that get more difficult over time to ensure you’re challenging yourself. Find these classes on the ‘Schedule’ tab of the obé app, or the homepage if you’re on web.  

Whether you’re trying a program or following your progressive plan, compare the process to a puzzle. The pieces (aka workout classes) progressively become more complex, demanding, and rewarding. Each session builds upon the last, ensuring that you continually challenge your body in the correct amount. You’ll ditch hitting the same muscle groups too many times or being overtrained. This strategic approach not only maximizes results but also safeguards against the pitfalls of burnout.

A solid progressive program should last 3-6 weeks before changing the routine. While it may seem boring to stick to the same 3-4 workouts each week during a progressive routine, the novelty will come from the changes in variables (LOAD, VOLUME, TEMPO, INTENSITY). If you remain steadfast and focus on these variables, your results will be quick to follow. Personally, I only use progressive programs when I’m actively seeking noticeable results. They have yet to fail me. 

Next Steps

There you have it, a beginner’s guide to progressive routines. Let’s do another check-in. How does this post make you feel about your current routine? Do you think there are variables you could change that could help you reach your goals? If so, why not check out obé’s new Personal Training option! You get paired with one of the obé coaches who will build a custom program using our incredible collection of workouts tailored just for you. Oh, and I’m one of the coaches.

Whether you look for more support or do it on your own, just remember: Progressive overload is the quintessential catalyst for achieving fitness results. It’s the force that propels you beyond your limits, strengthening your body and increasing your strength. 

With a progressive program, you say farewell to stagnation and embrace an exhilarating journey forward. The program acts as your faithful guide, ensuring you stay on course, even when the journey becomes arduous. Oh, and another benefit? It takes away the dreaded “analysis paralysis” of constantly trying to figure out what class or workout to do. That’s enough for me to say: sign me up. 

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  • David Pegram

    Part educator, part motivator—coach David is an experienced strength training, boxing, running, and endurance instructor. NASM-certified and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, he’s your go-to for a comprehensive approach to all things fitness.

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