Progressive Resistance for Strength Training

Young woman flexing bicep in gym, close-up, side view
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Progressive resistance is a strength training method in which the overload is constantly increased to facilitate adaptation. Progressive resistance is essential for building muscle and getting stronger.

Your body adapts to exercise and needs to be constantly challenged in order to continue to see muscle growth and improved levels of fitness. Doing the same thing day after day may maintain the muscle and strength you have already built, but you may stop seeing improvements.

Methods of Progressive Resistance

There are many ways to achieve progressive resistance:

Alter the Weight

One of the easiest ways to progress is to increase the weight you're lifting. Do the same number of reps and sets each week, but increase the weights. You should only increase the weights by 2 percent to 10 percent of your one-rep max (1RM) load at a time.

The 1RM load is the maximum amount of weight you can lift one time. For example, if you can lift 50 pounds once, you should only increase the weight you lift with each rep by 2 to 5 pounds each week. You don't want to overdo the increase in the load.

Change the Rep Scheme

Progress your liftin by increasing the number of reps while using the same weight for each workout.

Alternatively, you can decrease the number of reps. Intermediate to advanced trainers can lift heavier weights for fewer reps, known as heavy loading. When doing heavy loading, you increased the rest time between sets to three to five minutes.

Switch Up Your Sets

Increase the number of sets to add more volume and progress. A typical weight training workout will involve about two to four sets of each exercise.

If you're a beginner, one set may be enough to build strength and endurance but, as you get stronger, you'll want to eventually work your way up to two to four sets, resting about 20 seconds to 60 seconds, depending on how heavy you're lifting.

You can also shorten the rest between the sets. If you're doing straight sets, e.g. three sets of squats or three sets of pushups, you'll typically have a rest of about 10 seconds to 60 seconds between sets.

One way to challenge your body and increase intensity is to shorten the rest between sets. If your form starts to suffer, increase the rest period or drop a little weight.

Increase Time Under Tension

Lengthening the time under tension is another way to progress. Time under tension is how long your muscle fibers are under stress. Use the same weight and reps, but slow down the exercise—for example, one count to lift the weight, three counts to lower the weight.

Slowing down the lowering phase is called eccentric training and this tactic may have additional benefits for muscle growth.

Number of Workouts

If you have been doing strength workouts two to three days per week for six months, you have reached the intermediate level. You may want to add another day per week to your workout schedule to challenge your body more. This will add more overall volume of work, which is another way to progress.

While it may be tempting to add more training days from the start, allowing your body to build up tolerance to volume slowly can improve adaptations without overtraining.

When to Add Progressive Resistance

It is wise to switch up your workout programming every few weeks. Choose one or two methods of progressive resistance to apply to your workouts and stick to them for 3 to 4 weeks to see results. Within each period, keep track of your progress. You should try to increase your success in each training session.

For instance, if you choose to add weight in order to progress your resistance, try to increase the weight you lift each session while performing the same number or range of repetitions. Do this for four weeks.

Next, you might decide to add repetitions while sticking around the same weight. Alternatively, you can combine increasing repetitions while slightly increasing weight lifted. This is a very common way of adding progressive resistance. You can still switch up your training by changing the rep or set scheme every few weeks.

An example would be to work on increasing your deadlift weight within a repetition range of 3 to 5 for a total of four weeks. Next, you can aim to increase your deadlift weight within a repetition range of 8 to 10 for a course of four weeks.

When increasing the repetitions in each set, you'll likely need to decrease the load you lift during lower rep schemes. Try to end each set feeling like you could have done one or two more reps at a maximum. This will ensure you are challenging yourself enough while protecting you from overdoing it.

A Word From Verywell

Adding progressive resistance is part of any successful strength and muscle-building regime. There are several ways to accomplish this, and it is wise to cycle between the methods for variability and a better chance of continued success.

If you have trouble understanding the concepts of progressive resistance or knowing when to change your routine, seek guidance from a personal trainer. You can obtain professionally designed programs or have one created especially for you and your needs.

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.
  1. National Strength and Conditioning Association. The Role of Progressive Overload in Sports Conditioning.

  2. Mangine GT, Hoffman JR, Gonzalez AM, et al. The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiological Reports. 2015;3(8):e12472.

  3. Suchomel TJ, Wagle JP, Douglas J, et al. Implementing eccentric resistance training—part 1: a brief review of existing methods. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology. 2019;4(2):38.

  4. La Scala Teixeira CV, Evangelista AL, Pereira PE de A, Da Silva-Grigoletto ME, Bocalini DS, Behm DG. Complexity: a novel load progression strategy in strength training. Front Physiol. 2019;10:839.

  5. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Van Every DW, Plotkin DL. Loading recommendations for muscle strength, hypertrophy, and local endurance: a re-examination of the repetition continuum. Sports. 2021;9(2):32.

Additional Reading
  • Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2009;41(3):687-708. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181915670.

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."