New Research Reveals The BEST Progressive Overload Method

Progressive overload.

You’ve probably heard of this topic being preached on TikTok and other social media sites as the best way to maximize muscle growth. But what exactly is it? To keep things simple, progressive overload involves continually increasing muscle tension over time to cause growth and adaptations.

The two most common ways to promote progressive overload are to increase the load lifted or the number of repetitions performed. Recently, a new study compared these common methods.

I believe it is worth it to dissect this paper and discuss other potential training strategies you might use to elevate your physique and strength. And whether we should consider increasing sets or training frequency to progressively overload the muscles.

Table of Contents

  • The Research Breakdown
  • Trained Individual Research
  • Different Ways But The Same Gains?
  • Is It Better To Increase Frequency or Sets?
  • Can You See Strength Gains?
  • Outro

The Research Breakdown

A new paper in the International Journal of Sports Medicine compared the effects of progressive overload on muscle strength in 39 previously untrained individuals in resistance training by comparing the impact of increasing load versus increasing repetitions.¹ While this may not apply to most of you reading this, don’t worry; I will also add research based on trained individuals.

The subjects were trained by doing four sets of unilateral leg extensions 2 to 3 times per week for ten weeks with one leg. They adjusted the weight loads to continuously reach failure in every set of 9 to 12-rep ranges. The other leg was trained differently.

They also performed reps to failure each set, but instead, they stuck with the same weight from the first session. So, to reach failure, they were progressively overloaded by increasing reps instead.

By the end of the ten-week study, subjects progressed from an average of 9 reps per set to 15 reps. To keep the tests fair, the number of dominant legs was divided between the conditions, and subjects alternated which leg was trained first in every session.

Unlike some studies I’ve read, this research’s test subjects were subjected to the same conditions, with each leg being trained differently. Because of this, genetics, nutrition, and outside lifestyle differences are less likely to muddle the study results.

Strength gains on the leg extension were similar between both conditions. Muscle hypertrophy, indicated by the vastest lateralis growth, was also similar between the conditions. This suggests that increasing reps was as effective for muscle growth as increasing the weight load.

Figure 1: Chaves TS, et al. (2024)

Trained Individual Research

While the individuals in the new study were untrained, an older study from 2022 used 43 individuals with at least one year of consistent lower body resistance training experience.²

Subjects performed four sets of four movements (back squat, leg extension, straight-leg calf raise, and seated calf raise) twice weekly. One group aimed to increase the load while keeping repetitions constant, and the other group aimed to increase repetitions while keeping the load constant.

The study assessed one repetition maximum (1RM) in the Smith machine squat, muscular endurance in the leg extension, countermovement jump height, and muscle thickness along the quadriceps and calf muscles. The results were similar to those of the untrained group in that both types of progression training were viable strategies.

Figure 2: Plotkin D, et al. (2022)

I did find it interesting that the results also showed that rectus femoris growth modestly favored rep training, whereas dynamic strength slightly increased with load training. Overall, the data indicates that increasing load or reps can be similar for building muscle in untrained and trained people.

I’d say that this research doubles down on proving that multiple different training strategies are available for you to maximize muscle growth and also opens up some questions as to which one you should consider as part of your training regimen.

Different Ways But The Same Gains?

This part will not be as much about using progressive overload across training sessions; instead, it will break down the multiple different training strategies you could use in a training session.

If you were to use a rep range similar to many of these research articles, typically in the 8-15 rep range, this could open up multiple training paths for you to progressively overload your muscles.

The most common pathway is to use the same weight across sets and then train to failure within a rep range. While this is a fantastic option and can definitely help you achieve your goals, there are other options I think you should also consider, such as increasing the load across sets, resulting in fewer reps.

A study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology compared individuals who had one leg trained more traditionally.³ At the same time, the other leg was subjected to either crescent pyramid or drop set training.

Figure 3: Angleri V, et al. (2017)

Despite both legs performing different styles, they achieved similar results in muscle growth, muscle hypertrophy, and strength. Another alternative I would recommend that you check out, as broken down in a 2022 paper, is to decrease the load across sets.

All subjects trained curls to voluntary failure with these variables. On the first set of each exercise, all subjects used a weight they could only do for a maximum of ten reps.

The control group kept the same load on all the sets, the second group decreased the load by 5% on the final two sets of each exercise, and the final group decreased the load by 10% on the final two sets.

When tested, all groups saw similar increases in muscle thickness and improvements in their 10-rep maximum. What I found to be the most exciting part of this research was that the group that decreased the load by 10%, despite also training to failure and seeing similar improvements, rated their training sessions subjectively as being slightly easier.

The main takeaway is that many different pathways to muscle hypertrophy exist, and as long as you are willing to stick to one long enough, you can see significant results.

Is It Better To Increase Sets or Frequency?

Progressive overload simply means training hard to stimulate adaptations consistently. However, simply increasing sets or training frequency won’t necessarily help to achieve this.

For example, say you perform four sets of squats during your workout; the next workout with squats, you decide to add another set.

Let’s say you had enough muscle stimulation in the first session without the additional set. In that case, you will most likely go easier on the earlier sets to “save yourself” for your last set, thus making them less effective.

The only thing that the extra set that you added is doing is increasing the work that you’re doing, making it harder to maintain sufficient tension throughout every set. This same principle applies if you decide to try increasing workout frequency.

Let’s say you perform the same workout we discussed above; if all you do is add another training session in a week, assuming sufficient adaptations were stimulated from the first session, all these sets will result in less muscle fiber recruitment and overall tension.

So, all this extra session does is create more work, not results. Eventually, if you try adding too many extra sets or training sessions, you’ll start to run into issues with recovery. 

This doesn’t mean that it is set in stone that you should never increase sets or training frequency. In another 2024 study, results indicated that adding four or six sets per week every two weeks elicited greater lower-limb strength in resistance-trained individuals over a 12-week training period compared to performing the same number of sets weekly.

This journal isn’t definitive proof that you have to add sets across weeks since all groups progressively overloaded by increasing the load on their sets throughout the program. Still, it is worthwhile to experiment with this training style and see if it would work for you.

It is totally okay to do the same number of sets and use the same training frequency every week; it is normal and pretty common. I would recommend that you occasionally add changes every couple of months.

If you want further programming information to maximize your gains, I highly recommend you check out our SFS Hypertrophy Training Program below.

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Can You See Strength Gains Using Progressive Overload?

Let’s circle back to the new research paper and the paper about the trained individuals. We can see that the strength gains were similar between increasing the resistance and the rep count despite having different skill levels.

However, when most people think of strength, myself included, they think about the maximum amount of weight you can lift. Based on my experience, this is best done with lower rep ranges and higher loads.

In this study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers tested individuals pre- and post-study for one repetition maximum (RM) strength in the bench press and squat, upper body muscle endurance, and muscle thickness of the elbow flexors, elbow extensors, and lateral thigh. Over the course of eight weeks, both groups performed three sets of seven exercises for the major muscles in the upper and lower body.

One group adjusted loads to keep training to failure in the two—to four-rep range, while a second group adjusted loads to keep training to failure in the 8—to 12-rep range. The conclusion showed that bench press and back squat strength gains favored training with two to four reps.

Figure 4: Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. (2015)

From this, we can deduce that strength-related adaptations can be maximized by training closer to your one rep max.

Outro

Hard training produces adaptations that help us increase the weights we use and the reps we do. While using one technique is more than sufficient for producing results, I think there are a few reasons why you should consider using a mixture of both to achieve better results over the long term.

By diversifying our training methods, we can stimulate our muscles from various angles, reduce the risk of plateaus, and improve the chance of balanced development. For example, higher reps and workout frequency can benefit muscle density and size, whereas lower reps are better for strength gains. 

A mixed approach also keeps things fresh and engaging. If you have any questions about the new progressive overload training research, please feel free to leave a comment below. If you feel like I missed something, feel free to add it to the comments below!

References

  1. Chaves TS, Scarpelli MC, Bergamasco JGA, Silva DGD, Medalha Junior RA, Dias NF, Bittencourt D, Carello Filho PC, Angleri V, Nóbrega SR, Roberts MD, Ugrinowitsch C, Libardi CA. Effects of Resistance Training Overload Progression Protocols on Strength and Muscle Mass. Int J Sports Med. 2024 Mar 12. doi: 10.1055/a-2256-5857. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 38286426.
  2. Plotkin D, Coleman M, Van Every D, Maldonado J, Oberlin D, Israetel M, Feather J, Alto A, Vigotsky AD, Schoenfeld BJ. Progressive overload without progressing load? The effects of load or repetition progression on muscular adaptations. PeerJ. 2022 Sep 30;10:e14142. doi: 10.7717/peerj.14142. PMID: 36199287; PMCID: PMC9528903.
  3. Angleri V, Ugrinowitsch C, Libardi CA. Crescent pyramid and drop-set systems do not promote greater strength gains, muscle hypertrophy, and changes on muscle architecture compared with traditional resistance training in well-trained men. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Feb;117(2):359-369. doi: 10.1007/s00421-016-3529-1. Epub 2017 Jan 27. PMID: 28130627.
  4. Lima BM, Amancio RS, Gonçalves DS, Koch AJ, Curty VM, Machado M. Planned Load Reduction Versus Fixed Load: A Strategy to Reduce the Perception of Effort With Similar Improvements in Hypertrophy and Strength. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2018 Oct 1;13(9):1164-1168. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2018-0072. Epub 2018 Oct 22. PMID: 29584518.
  5. Enes A, DE Souza EO, Souza-Junior TP. Effects of Different Weekly Set Progressions on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Males: Is There a Dose-Response Effect? Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2024 Mar 1;56(3):553-563. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000003317. Epub 2023 Oct 5. PMID: 37796222.
  6. Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. “Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 29, no. 10, Oct. 2015, pp. 2954–2963, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25853914/, https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000958.

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