Overload in Strength Training

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If you lift weights, you probably follow some kind of strategy for working all of your muscle groups. You likely do certain exercises for a specific number of reps and sets, using a certain amount of weight, and doing them a certain number of times per week.

Many of us follow this kind of strategy when weight lifting without knowing where these rules came from. Yet, understanding why we do exercises a specific way can help us get the most out of them. What is the theory behind overload lifting?

Overload Lifting Basics

There are basic principles of strength training which teach us exactly how to lift weights for the best results. These factors are known collectively as the F.I.T.T. principle and are based on key training variables, including the:

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

The most important of these principles 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.

Does Overload Lifting Hurt Muscles?

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

The only way your body changes is if the muscles are taxed to the point where they must grow stronger to lift that weight. Overload causes the muscle fibers to become strong enough to handle the extra resistance.

If you want to see results when weight lifting, you have to lift more weight than your muscles are accustomed to. This is how your muscles become stronger and you become fitter.

That said, it is also important to use proper form when overload lifting. If the weight is so much that you are sacrificing your form to complete the exercise, it is too heavy and may do more damage than good.

How to Overload Your Muscles

If you're a beginner or haven't lifted weights in a long time, everything you lift is considered overloading. In fact, you may not need any weight for some exercises to get a training effect. Your body weight may be enough to tax your muscles.

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 the same training effect. Below are the elements you can manipulate to keep progressing and avoid hitting a plateau.

Your Reps

The number of reps you do depends on your goals. But changing the reps can 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 to 15 reps
  • For muscular endurance and stability: 12 or more reps
  • For muscle gain (hypertrophy): 6 to 12 reps
  • For maximal strength and/or power: 6 or fewer reps

Your Sets

Like with reps, the sets you do are generally based on your goals. But 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 to 2 sets
  • For more endurance: 2 to 3 sets
  • For muscle mass: 3 to 6 sets
  • For strength: 2 to 6 sets

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. How do you choose the right amount of weight?

If you're an experienced exerciser, you probably know a general weight to use for each exercise. Start there. Do the number of reps you've chosen and, 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 weight once you get a feel for the exercises.

Continuing to Advance

In order to keep overloading the body, you have to keep progressing rather than repeat the same workout over and over again. You need to take your exercises to the next level.

This might mean going from knee pushups to toe pushups, for example. It could also involve progressing from a chair squat to a dumbbell squat. Sometimes it's as simple as changing the exercise you're doing or even changing the order of your exercises.

As soon as an exercise 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.

Almost any change will make a difference in your workout. Learn how to change your strength training workouts so you're always making progress. Just take care not to always work at high intensities, which could lead to overtraining and injury.

Track Your Progress

Keeping a strength training log can help you track how much weight you're lifting from week to week. This makes it easier to see whether you're making progress or if you need to change things up a bit to get better results.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Bellinger P, Desbrow B, Derave W, et al. Muscle fiber typology is associated with the incidence of overreaching in response to overload trainingJ Appl Physiol (1985). 2020;129(4):823-836. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00314.2020

  3. Impellizzeri FM, Menaspà P, Coutts AJ, Kalkhoven J, Menaspà MJ. Training load and its role in injury prevention, part i: back to the futureJ Athl Train. 2020;55(9):885-892. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-500-19

  4. Baz-Valle E, Schoenfeld BJ, Torres-Unda J, Santos-Concejero J, Balsalobre-Fernández C. The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained menPLoS One. 2019;14(12):e0226989. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0226989

  5. Kreher JB. Diagnosis and prevention of overtraining syndrome: an opinion on education strategiesOpen Access J Sports Med. 2016;7:115-122. doi:10.2147/OAJSM.S91657

Additional Reading
  • Bryant CX, Newton-Merrill S, Green DJ. ACE personal trainer manual. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise; 2014.​
  • Senter C, Appelle N, Behera SK. Prescribing exercise for women. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2013;6(2):164-172. doi:10.1007/s12178-013-9163-1.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."