Want To Put On Muscle? This Trainer's 4-Week Progressive Overload Plan Is The Answer

If you’ve ever Googled “how to gain muscle?” there is no doubt the term “progressive overload” popped up. At its core, progressive overload training is a style of strength training where you gradually increase the amount of stress placed on your body during exercise. But what does that really even mean?

If you want to build bigger muscles, lose weight, and/or lift heavy, you have to gradually place more load and stress on the body to force that initial change and growth in the muscle fiber, explains Kendra Madigan a personal trainer at Physical Equilibrium. Progressive overload training is the way to do that, she adds.

Meet the experts: Kendra Madigan is a dancer and certified personal trainer at Physical Equilibrium. Kate Georgiadis, the founder of LIFT, a New York based fitness initiative.

This article will delve into why progressive overload training works and how to implement it into your routine—along with expert tips on how to prevent injury. Plus, you'll get a four-week full-body training plan designed by Kate Georgiadis, the founder of LIFT, a New York-based fitness initiative focused on empowering women through individual and group training.

Progressive Overload, Explained

With progressive overload training, you want to gradually increase the amount of stress your body experiences during exercise to increase your strength. “This can be achieved by increasing the weight, repetitions, frequency, or intensity of exercises,” says Georgiadis, who explains that this style of training forces the body to adapt to a higher tension than it has previously withstood.

During exercise, your muscles will tear slightly, Madigan says. When the tears heal, it makes the muscle bigger. “So if you’re not lifting heavy enough, you’re not going to get that progressive result that you’re looking for,” she says. However, if you progress too fast and don’t give your muscles time to heal these tiny tears, you risk injury.

So what’s the sweet spot when it comes to increasing weight? For your baseline, you want to begin with a manageable load. “If you think, ‘I can probably do 15 pounds’—start with 10 or 12.5 and make sure you can [manage] that,” says Madigan, “Always start low and go high.”

How (And When) To Increase Load

Next, you want to incorporate incremental load increases. This can look different for everyone, depending on how fast your body is adapting, your experience level, and the frequency you work out.

Increasing the number of reps or volume is one way to bump up your load, but that can become time-consuming as it requires you to lengthen your workout time, so increasing weight tends to be the more common route people take. “For a beginner who starts tracking their weights, the best approach is to keep consistent parameters. Trying to change the reps, weights, and sets each week can be confusing,” says Georgiadis. “I suggest keeping the reps and sets the same over the first four weeks and trying to increase the weight while maintaining proper form.”

To do this, once you can perform your current workout and move your current load with proper form easily, up the weight by 2-5 percent, she recommends. This could be a weekly or biweekly increase, or based on performance and feel.

If you want to go by feel, Madigan recommends doing sets of eight to 12 reps where you are at exhaustion for the last two reps. “You’re going for that exhaustion phase, so that’s how you judge where your weight should be,” she says. Some trainers call this phase “to failure,” but Madigan prefers the word exhaustion. “If you can only do five reps of something, take the weight down a little bit, build your strength until you can get at least 10 reps in, with the last two reps going to exhaustion,” she explains.

Georgiadis gauges when her clients should bump up their weight by having them do a few extra reps. “Every week, I usually push my clients to try to get a few more reps with the weight they are using (do 15 reps instead of 12), and if they can do that, I will increase the weight on the next set or in the next session,” she says.

Four-Week Sample Progressive Overload Training Plan

To help visualize what a progressive overload training schedule would look like, Georgiadis designed the sample full-body plan here. But remember, listen to your body and only increase when you can perform the moves for the full amount of reps with the correct form.

Week 1


How to:

  1. Stand with feet about shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward. Choose your preferred position to rack dumbbells, such as holding one in each hand at sides, holding one on the upper back for a back squat (shown above), or holding one goblet-style at the chest.

  2. Engage core and inhale as you bend knees, push the hips back, and lower into a squat so that your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as low as you can without letting the chest fall forward).

  3. Exhale as you push through heels to return to starting position. That’s 1 rep. Do 3 sets of 8 reps with your selected weight.

Dumbbell Chest Press

How to:

  1. Lie face-up with knees bent and feet flat on floor.

  2. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, extend arms directly above shoulders, palms facing toes.

  3. Slowly bend elbows, lowering weights out to the side until elbows form 90-degree angles.

  4. Drive dumbbells back up to starting position. That’s 1 rep. Do 3 sets of 8 reps with your selected weight.


mixed race woman using exercise machine in gym
JGI/Tom Grill - Getty Images

How to:

  1. Hold the bar with palms forward and hands wider than shoulders. When arms are straight, lean back 30 degrees and stick out chest.

  2. Pull up until the bar touches upper chest by drawing the shoulders and upper arms down and back. Breathe out as you pull up. Squeeze the back muscles at the top.

  3. Pause for a second and lower to the start position with control. That's 1 rep. Aim for 3 sets of 5 reps using your bodyweight.

Romanian Deadlift

How to:

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-distance apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of thighs.

  2. Hinge at hips and lower down, with a slight bend in knees, until the dumbbells reach your shins. Keep your spine neutral by looking forward, not up.

  3. Squeeze glutes and core as you reverse the movement to return to starting position. That's 1 rep. Do 3 sets of 8 reps with your selected weight.

Week 2

Increase loads slightly by about 2-5 percent

Squat: 3 sets of 8 reps with weight about 5 lbs. heavier than week 1

Dumbbell Chest Press: 3 sets of 8 reps with weight about 2.5 lbs. heavier than week 1

Pullup: 3 sets of 6-7 reps (bodyweight)

Deadlift: 3 sets of 8 reps with weight about 5 lbs. heavier than week 1

Week 3

Increase load slightly again

Squat: 3 sets of 8 reps with weight about 5 lbs. heavier than week 2

Dumbbell Chest Press: 3 sets of 8 reps with weight about 2.5 lbs. heavier than week 2

Pullup: 3 sets of 6-7 reps (bodyweight)

Deadlift: 3 sets of 8 reps with weight about 5 lbs. heavier than week 2

Week 4

Increase by 1-2 reps

Squat: 3 sets of 9 reps with weight about 10 lbs. heavier than week 1

Dumbbell Chest Press: 3 sets of 9 reps with weight about 5 lbs. heavier than week 1

Pullup: 3 sets of 8 reps (bodyweight)

Deadlift: 3 sets of 9 reps with weight about 10 lbs. heavier than week 1

Where Deload Phases Come Into Play

While you may be tempted to keep pushing to harder and harder resistance every week, it is important to deload during a progressive overload cycle too to prevent overtraining and plateaus. “Deload weeks are periods of reduced training intensity and volume, giving the body time to recover and prepare for more intense training,” says Georgiadis.

She recommends incorporating a deload week every four to eight weeks. She says that she tries to time her clients deload weeks with their vacations so the rest can happen naturally in their routines.

Pros Of Progressive Overload Training

During your fitness journey it can be easy to get stuck in a routine. But if you do the same thing each week you will just maintain your current strength and fitness. In order to improve (get stronger, fitter, lose weight, etc.) you must advance the challenges on your body. Following a progressive overload plan allows you to effectively continue to grow, increasing muscle mass and overall athleticism.

Cons Of Progressive Overload Training

Increasing your intensity too fast is a common cause of injuries, trainers agree. “Allow for rest and recovery, adjusting as needed based on how you feel and perform,” says Georgiadis. “Overtraining can be avoided by listening to your body, ensuring proper nutrition, maintaining hydration, and getting adequate sleep.”

Madigan also says it is important to remember to eat and recover to get the most out of the work you are doing and avoid injury. She explains that when you overtrain, you get more tired and less hungry, “That is just a recipe for an injury,” she says, “So always take the recovery. It’s as important as the workout.”

Beyond taking rest days and listening to your body, there are several other ways to prevent injury while doing a progressive overload style plan. One is by planning your training around your menstrual cycle. The different phases of your cycle can make working out easier and harder, so for some women, a completely linear progressive overload training plan might not work.

“On weeks when hormonal changes make it challenging, it's entirely acceptable not to increase the weight or reps. Instead, you can maintain the current level of intensity and then aim for progression in the following week when you might feel stronger and more capable,” says Georgiadis.

She recommends doing high-intensity workouts and strength training during your follicular phase, doing controlled, linear strength training during ovulation when there is an increased risk of injury, and doing moderate to low intensity exercise during the luteal phase. (Read all about cycle syncing at the link ahead!) “This approach not only respects the body's natural rhythms but also supports sustained progress in training without risking injury or burnout,” she says.

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