What Is the Principle of Progression in Weight Training?

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If you are trying to build strength, build muscle, and improve your endurance, advancing your weight training over time is key to seeing progress and avoiding a plateau. This concept is known as the principle of progression.

The principle of progression in endurance training holds that there is an optimal level of overload—increased stress on your muscles—that should be achieved, as well as an optimal time frame for this overload to occur.

The progression principle says that there is a perfect level of overload between increasing too slow and too rapidly.

Of course, if you are happy with strength training only a few times a week with little variance in weight, duration, and muscles worked, it's OK not to follow the principle of progression.

What Is the Principle of Progression?

The principle of progression states that as your body adapts to your exercise routine, you have to change it up. This can mean gradually increasing the weight, duration, or intensity of your weight training in order to see growth.

Understanding the Overload Principle

The overload principle says that the intensity with which an exercise is done must be high enough above the individual’s normal range for any desired physiological adaptation (muscle growth) to occur.

Put simply, if you want to see results when lifting weights, you have to lift more weight than your muscles can physically handle at the time.

The only way your body physically changes and grows is if the muscles are taxed to the point where they must grow stronger to lift that weight. When the muscle fibers are taxed in this manner, it causes micro-tears in the fibers. When you rest, these repair themselves and grow back stronger than before. The overload process causes the muscle fibers to grow stronger (and sometimes bigger) in order to handle the additional weight.

Why It's Important

Progression is a natural part of any exercise routine. Runners push themselves to run farther and swimmers dare themselves to swim faster, just as people lifting weights may want to be able to lift heavier or longer.

It's important to regularly make headway on your strength goals by following the principles of progression and overload. If you stagnate at a set weight, eventually, your muscles won't break down and build back up stronger—they'll simply maintain their strength.

Progression and Overload

Progression is a key aspect of overload. Often, people do the same workouts over and over again, which results in a level of familiarity that can slow physical progress. In order to properly overload the body, progression is key.

Once an exercise starts to feel easy, it's time to up the ante so you're regularly overloading your muscles and adapting.

It is also important not to always work at high intensities, which could lead to overtraining. Sometimes progressing is as simple as changing the exercise you're doing to something different.

Types of Progression

There are different types of progression you can employ to advance your workout, including exercise frequency, intensity, and duration.

Frequency

How often you work out can depend on a number of factors. Two to three days per week is the recommended frequency for full-body strength training.

If you start off lifting weights just once a week, you can progress by upping it to two or three. If you split your strength workout between the upper and lower body, you might try incorporating an additional day for each.

Intensity

Intensity is how hard you work out during a session. Variables that affect intensity can include the type of exercise, number of sets and reps, and amount of weight you lift. You can adapt the intensity of your workout to your strength goals.

As a beginner, start off with lighter weights, more reps, and fewer sets. As you advance, you might start using heavier weights with fewer reps per set or a higher number of sets with a modest amount of repetitions in each.

Duration

The duration of your workout is also malleable. If you are doing a full-body weight lifting session, it may take you longer to complete your desired number of sets and reps for each muscle group. Split or targeted workouts, on the other hand, may take less time.

You can try working out for longer with similar weights to what your body has adjusted to, or add more weight and work out for a shorter period of time.

How to Practice Progression

When your workout becomes easy or you feel like you could keep going after completing your desired sets and reps, it may be time to change it up.

An effective way to progress is to hit your target reps and sets for an exercise, then increase the weight by a small amount the next time you perform the exercise. For example, if you do three sets of eight reps at 60 pounds successfully, up the weight to 65 pounds on a subsequent attempt.

It's unlikely you will be able to hit the new target each time. If you only do six or seven reps after increasing the weight, that is still considered a success. Your goal should be to outperform your previous try even slightly. Even though it might not be consistent, a little progress is still progress.

Targeting similar muscle groups with different exercises is also an effective way to build strength. For example, if you are working your triceps, try including skull crushers, tricep dips, and other tricep exercises in your routine instead of sticking to just one.

Tips for Progression

The progression principle instructs that the overload process should not be increased too quickly, or improvement is unlikely to occur. Progression should be small and incremental. Overload that is increased too rapidly can result in injury issues or muscle damage.

For example, jumping from 50 pounds to 100 pounds in one session is too much for the body to handle. Instead, stick to small increases. Exercising above the target zone is counterproductive and can be dangerous—potentially resulting in injuries.

You shouldn't expect to increase your weight or reps at every workout or even every week. Building muscle takes time. But if you've been lifting the same for a few weeks or months, it might be time to switch it up.

Potential Challenges

While consistency is crucial when weight training, you shouldn't attempt to train hard all the time. Pushing yourself too hard too often will lead to overtraining, which can be both physically and mentally draining.

Overtraining is when a person believes that the harder and longer they lift weights, the better they'll get. On the contrary, continual stress on the body and its joints, as well as constant overload, can potentially result in exhaustion and injury.

The body needs ample time to recover between sessions. Be sure to incorporate regular rest days throughout your week to give your body a break. If you still want to move, try including stretching sessions or yoga on these days.

A Word From Verywell

Progression in weight training takes time. When you first start a new workout or set a new strength goal, it can be hard not to move too fast or demand too much of your body from the start. It's important to have patience and remind yourself that you can only progress as quickly as your body will let you. As you challenge your body in healthy, productive ways, remember to practice good form and listen to your body, taking rest days as needed.

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  2. National Strength and Conditioning Association. Determination of resistance training frequency. Updated May 2017.