Progressive Overload Principle

Why I Stopped Seeing Improvements – Is this happening to you?

This winter has been cold. It’s been really cold. Right now the temperature “feels like” -33 degrees (C) and that’s been the norm for at least a week.

Needless to say, I haven’t been running outdoors too often this winter. Call me a wimp – I don’t care. We live 1 block from our gym so it’s just too convenient (and warm) to pass up a running workout on the treadmill in favour of bundling up for an outdoor run.

While my indoor running has been comfortable, it hasn’t made me much faster. I have a very specific routine: Run for 5 minutes at a warm-up speed, then increase the pace by 0.5mph every 5 minutes. After 30 minutes I’m done (sometimes 40 minutes if I’m feeling really good). This routine feels good and leaves me a little sweaty, but it’s not making me any faster.

A friend recently posted a convicting saying on his blog:


I would like to change. How about you?

Why Aren’t You Changing?

Are you looking to run faster like I am? Or maybe you’re more interested in shedding a few pounds? Perhaps you’d like to “tone up”? Or maybe you’re hoping to improve your performance in some other sport or activity?

I’ve got unfortunate news for you (and me)…your body has no clue about any of your aspirations! In fact, it is designed for the most basic of tasks:

#1. Stay alive

#2. Use fewer resources (conserve energy)

On it’s own, your body is not going to change or improve. It is designed to survive, conserve energy, protect itself from harm, and that’s about it. Your body doesn’t really want to lose weight, build muscle, get faster, or anything else. In order for your body to change, YOU need to tell it to change.

Example #1: Stanley Never Changed

A couple of years ago I became friends with a man at the gym named Stanley. He was likely in his 70’s and was one of those people who always had a smile on his face. He loved doing his exercises and he loved being at the gym. I always liked running into him there.


Stanley was healthy but he was changing in the wrong direction.

Stanley wasn’t overweight, but he told me that he was frustrated because he was gaining a few pounds each year and he didn’t know how to stop it.

When I asked him about his diet and exercise routine, Stanley told me that he did the exact same thing every day. He lived on his own so he only had to look after himself. He woke up at the same time each morning, ate basically the same meals, came to the gym and did the same workout, and then went to bed at the same time every night. Wake up, repeat, day after day, year after year.

Stanley was in good shape, especially compared to his peers, but he wasn’t able to make any positive change.

You’ve likely heard this famous quote before,


This is bang on when it comes to fitness. If you’re not willing to change your diet (i.e. the most important factor) and/or the way you use your body (i.e. exercise), then your body is never going to change for the better. In fact, if you don’t intervene then your body will actually begin changing for the worse as you age (and you don’t want that, do you?)

How To Force Your Body To Change

Before we move on I want to emphasize that establishing a clean diet is always first priority. Regardless of what exercise routine you follow, your body is not going to change for the better if you don’t fuel it properly.

Next, I want to introduce a simple, but very powerful principle called Progressive Overload. Basically it works like this:

#1. You challenge your body to move or exercise in a new way

#2. Your body learns that it must adapt in order to meet your demands

#3. Your body changes

#4. You challenge your body in a new way and the cycle repeats

In other words,

Forcing your body to work harder than it’s accustomed to working causes adaptations. These adaptations manifest in different results based on the type of work your body are learning to do.

Example #2: The Springtime Gardener

Imagine tending to a flower garden in the springtime (what a nice thought right now!). That first day you are planting flowers from your knees all day long and in the evening you can barely move. But, after several weeks of gardening you barely notice any soreness at all.


Gardening can be great exercise, but like all activities, it has a limited capacity to produce physical change.

Tending to your garden forced a change in your body. This is the beginning of the progressive overload principle, BUT it is short-lived if you just kept doing the same gardening work. Your body will only strengthen the muscles required to do the exact gardening work you’ve been doing. That’s all.

At this point your body shifts back into survival mode and it stops improving. A new stimulus or demand is needed to force more adaptation and further results. You need to create progressive overload.

The same goes for running on a treadmill, riding a bike, lifting weights, swimming, taking dance classes, or any other physical activity. Your body will only change if you continue to provide it with new challenges.

Practicing Progressive Overload

Good news: Practicing progressive overload is really simple. I like to use the F.I.T.T. formula:

1. Frequency

This one is pretty simple. How often you exercise will place different demands on your body. If you are jogging once per week and are not satisfied with the results then adding a second session might be in order.

On the contrary, training 5 or 6 times per week indefinitely may lead to burn-out and even injury. Reduced frequency can be paired with another variable (see below) to still maintain progressive overload.

2. Intensity

How hard are you working? Lift a little more weight, try increasing your pace, or reduce the amount of rest time you give yourself between exercises. All of these can quickly ramp up the intensity of your workout.


“Intense” workouts aren’t just for super-fit people. It’s all relative…how can you safely increase your intensity?

Keep in mind that this isn’t just for those who are extremely fit. If you like to go walking then you can still increase your intensity – Try speeding up your pace for 30 seconds, then slow down to your normal pace for a few minutes before you repeat.

3. Time

If your exercise routine always lasts exactly 30 minutes then it’s likely time to try a new approach. Try adding 10 minutes to your next workout. Then try a workout that’s just 20 minutes long. Just be sure to adjust your intensity (see above) so that your body can complete the workout and still be challenged.

4. Type

Doing the same exercise routine will not be challenging for very long. Changing the demands placed on your body by adding new movements or simply by changing the order of your selected exercises can be enough to stimulate positive change. Or even better, you can try some of these fun ways to exercise that might be new to you.

Try something new

When is the last time you tried something new?