Overload in Strength Training - Get Stronger by Overloading

Young woman lifting weight
Young woman lifting weight. T.T./Getty Images

If you lift weights, you probably follow some kind of strategy for working all of your muscle groups. Certain exercises done for a certain number of reps and sets and using a certain amount of weight and doing those exercises two more times a week.

Many of us follow this kind of strategy when lifting weights without knowing where these rules came from. So, where do these strategies come from? How can we know if they're right for our fitness level and goals?

It's true that we pick up information from everywhere - Books, websites, magazines, friends, what we see other people do at the gym, but all of these resources have to rely on some kind of foundation to give us this information.

That foundation comes from the basic principles of strength training which teach us exactly how to lift weights for the best results. Those principles, known as F.I.T.T., include the frequency of our workouts, the intensity of our workouts, the type and the duration or time of our workouts.

From those principles, the most important when it comes to lifting weights is the intensity of your workouts. To get the most out of strength training you want to give your muscles more than they can handle, or you want to overload them.

When you lift enough weight, your muscles become stronger and you become fitter.

Here's what you need to know about overload.

The Basics of Overload

Overload may sound like a bad thing, like maybe you're overdoing it.

But, what it means is that the intensity of the exercise must be high enough above normal for physiological adaptation to occur.

In other words, if you want to see results when lifting weights, you have to lift more than your muscles can handle.

The only way your body changes is if the muscles are taxed to the point where it must grow stronger to lift that weight.

That overload will cause the muscle fibers to grow stronger and, sometimes, bigger in order to handle the extra load.

How to Overload Your Muscles

Overloading really has to do with how much weight you lift when you're strength training. If you're a beginner or you haven't lifted weights in a long time, you don't have to worry too much about how much weight you're lifting.

Everything you lift is considered overloading your muscles. In fact, you may not need any weight for some exercises to get that training effect. Sometimes just body weight may be enough to tax your muscles.

Essentially, that means it almost doesn't matter how much weight you lift because anything is more than what you were doing.

Once you're consistent with your workouts, overloading gets a little more specific and you have to continue to work harder from workout to workout to get that same training effect.

Below are the elements you can manipulate to keep progressing and avoid hitting a plateau.

  • Choose your reps: The number of reps you do depends on your goals. But, changing the reps you do can help keep your muscles working in different ways. If you usually do 15 reps, for example, dropping those reps down to 10 and increasing the weight you're using changes that exercise. These are the rep ranges that correspond to the most common goals:
    • For general fitness - 8-15 reps
    • For more endurance - 12 or more reps
    • For muscle mass - 6-12 reps
    • For strength - 6 or fewer reps
  • Choose your sets: Again, the sets you do are generally based on your goals but, like your reps, you can easily change the number of sets you're doing in order to mix things up and add intensity. These are the general set ranges recommended for different goals:
    • For general fitness - 1-2 sets
    • For more endurance - 2-3 sets
    • For muscle mass - 3-6 sets
    • For strength - 2-6 sets
  • Choose your weight: Once you know how many reps and sets you're doing, you can focus on how much weight to lift, which is the essential ingredient to overloading your muscles. So, how do you choose the right amount of weight? If you're an experienced exerciser, you probably know a general weight to choose for each exercise. Start there and do the number of reps you've chosen. If you get to 12 and you could keep going, you need to increase your weight for the next set. The idea is that the last rep should be difficult, but not impossible and you should be able to do it with good form. If your form slips, stop early or try a lighter weight next time around. For beginners it's best to err on the side of using lighter weights rather than heavy weights. You can always increase the weights once you get a feel for the exercises.
  • Keep track:  Keeping a strength training log can really help with your weight workouts. That way you can track from week to week how much weight you're lifting and if you're seeing progress or you need to change things up a bit.

Progressing

Part of overload is progressing over time. Too often, we do the same workouts again and again, but in order to keep overloading the body, you have to keep progressing. That means you need to take your exercises to the next level.

That might mean going from knee pushups to toe pushups, for example, or progressing from a chair squat to a dumbbell squat.

As soon as something starts to feel easy, it's time to up the ante so you're always overloading your muscles and adapting to get strong and fit. Just take care 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 or even changing the order of your exercises. Almost any change will make a difference in your workout. Learn more about how to change your strength training workouts so you're always making progress.

Sources:

Bryant CX, Newton-Merrill S, Green DJ. ACE personal trainer manual. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise; 2014.​

Senter C, Appelle N, Behera SK. Prescribing exercise for women. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2013;6(2):164-172. doi:10.1007/s12178-013-9163-1.

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