Overload in Strength Training

Young woman lifting weight
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If you lift weights, you probably follow some kind of strategy for working all of your muscle groups. Certain exercises done for a certain number of reps and sets and using a certain amount of weight and doing those exercises two more times a week.

Many of us follow this kind of strategy when lifting weights without knowing where these rules came from. So, where do these strategies come from? How can we know if they're right for our fitness level and goals?

It's true that we pick up information from everywhere—books, websites, magazines, friends, what we see other people do at the gym, but all of these resources have to rely on some kind of foundation to give us this information.

That foundation comes from the basic principles of strength training which teach us exactly how to lift weights for the best results. These factors are collectively known as the F.I.T.T. principle.

The FITT principle for exercise programming is based includes on key training variables, including the:

  • Frequency of workouts
  • Intensity of workouts
  • Type of workouts
  • Time or duration of our workouts

From those principles, the most important when it comes to lifting weights is the intensity of your workouts. To get the most out of strength training, you want to give your muscles more than they can handle (in other words, you want to overload them).

When you lift enough weight, your muscles become stronger and you become fitter.

Here's what you need to know about overload.

The Basics of Overload

Overload may sound like a bad thing, like maybe you're overdoing it. However, it means that the intensity of the exercise is high enough that physiological adaptation must occur. In other words, overload is what makes your muscles grow.

If you want to see results when lifting weights, you have to lift more than your muscles are accustomed to.

The only way your body changes is if the muscles are taxed to the point where they must grow stronger to lift that weight. That overload will cause the muscle fibers to grow stronger in order to handle the extra resistance.

How to Overload Your Muscles

Overloading really has to do with how much weight you lift when you're strength training. If you're a beginner or you haven't lifted weights in a long time, you don't have to worry too much about how much weight you're lifting.

Everything you lift is considered overloading your muscles. In fact, you may not need any weight for some exercises to get that training effect. Sometimes just body weight may be enough to tax your muscles.

Essentially, that means it almost doesn't matter how much weight you lift because anything is more than what you were doing.

Once you're consistent with your workouts, overloading gets a little more specific and you have to continue to work harder from workout to workout to get that same training effect. Below are the elements you can manipulate to keep progressing and avoid hitting a plateau.

Choose Your Reps

The number of reps you do depends on your goals. But, changing the reps you do can help keep your muscles working in different ways. If you usually do 15 reps, for example, dropping those reps down to 10 and increasing the weight you're using changes that exercise. These are the rep ranges that correspond to the most common goals:

  • For general fitness: 8-15 reps
  • For muscular endurance and stability: 12 or more reps
  • For muscle gain (hypertrophy): 6-12 reps
  • For maximal strength and/or power: 6 or fewer reps

Choose Your Sets

Again, the sets you do are generally based on your goals but, like your reps, you can easily change the number of sets you're doing in order to mix things up and add intensity. These are the general set ranges recommended for different goals:

  • For general fitness - 1-2 sets
  • For more endurance - 2-3 sets
  • For muscle mass - 3-6 sets
  • For strength - 2-6 sets

Choose Your Weight

Once you know how many reps and sets you're doing, you can focus on how much weight to lift, which is the essential ingredient to overloading your muscles. So, how do you choose the right amount of weight?

If you're an experienced exerciser, you probably know a general weight to choose for each exercise. Start there and do the number of reps you've chosen. If you get to 12 and you could keep going, you need to increase your weight for the next set. The idea is that the last rep should be difficult, but not impossible and you should be able to do it with good form. If your form slips, stop early or try a lighter weight next time around.

For beginners, it's best to err on the side of using lighter weights rather than heavy weights. You can always increase the weights once you get a feel for the exercises.

Keep Track

Keeping a strength training log can really help with your weight workouts. That way you can track from week to week how much weight you're lifting and if you're seeing progress or you need to change things up a bit.


Part of overload is progressing over time. Too often, we do the same workouts again and again, but in order to keep overloading the body, you have to keep progressing. That means you need to take your exercises to the next level.

That might mean going from knee pushups to toe pushups, for example, or progressing from a chair squat to a dumbbell squat.

As soon as something starts to feel easy, it's time to up the ante so you're always overloading your muscles and adapting to get stronger and fitter.

Just take care not to always work at high intensities, which could lead to overtraining and injury.

Sometimes progressing is as simple as changing the exercise you're doing to something different or even changing the order of your exercises. Almost any change will make a difference in your workout. You should learn how to change your strength training workouts so you're always making progress.

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Article Sources
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