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How To Incorporate 'Progressive Overload' Into Your Training

Roughly 2600 years ago, there supposedly lived a legend by the name of Milo Croton. Milo was an Olympic wrestler, crowned Periodonikēs, or "grand slam winner,” not just once but five times. How did Milo build up his incredible strength and athleticism? Legend has it that Milo decided to pick up and carry a small calf one day. For four years, Milo continued to carry this calf until it had grown into a massive ox. As the calf grew heavier and Milo returned each day to carry it, Milo’s muscles, strength, and stamina also grew.

So how is Milo’s story relevant today? His strength gains from initially carrying a calf, and over time, an ox, can be attributed to the concept of progressive overload. Progressive overload refers to the increased stress that must be placed on the body over time in order for the body to adapt and is one of the many ways our Made 2 Move physical therapists get you stronger and back in your groove!

The reason Milo’s muscles grew over time was because he was carrying a heavier and heavier ox each week. Our bodies adapt to the workloads we place upon them, which is why we must increase and/or vary training stimuli so that we don’t plateau. If Milo had continued to carry a small calf each day, he would not have gotten stronger unless he walked a farther distance or picked up some water jugs along with the calf. So what are some key lessons we can derive from Milo’s legend? What are specific ways in which we can progressively overload?

Key lessons from Milo:

Milo’s legend can teach us a few key concepts that still hold true today. These apply not only in the fitness realm but in any aspect of our lives we are trying to better ourselves in.

  1. Start small- “The weight on the bar should grow like a calf in a field: slowly, gradually, reasonably” (Clear).

    • Milo did not start off by carrying an ox; he started by carrying a small calf. The same concept applies in the gym, the classroom, or your PT course with Made 2 Move. Whether a novice or advanced athlete, starting small and making minor adjustments to a training program will decrease the risk for injury, support longevity, and contribute to incremental increases in strength over time.

  2. Be consistent- Milo carried the ox for four years.

    • Training is easy in the beginning because of the excitement and novelty. Then the newness wears off and the PRs are smaller and fewer. Find a training program you enjoy and stick with it, even when you face setbacks.

6 different ways we can progressively overload:

The odds of you finding a baby calf to carry around are slim, but what are other common ways you can apply the concepts of progressive overload in a normal gym setting? We will use goblet squats as the movement example for progressive overload.

  1. Increase INTENSITY (weight on the bar or dumbbells)

If you did goblet squats with 20 lbs this week, try a 25 lb dumbbell for the same amount of reps next week.

  1. Decrease rest time between sets

Did you rest 3 minutes between your sets of goblet squats last week? Try resting just 2 minutes and keeping all other factors the same (dumbell weight, reps, form, etc.)

When adjusting rest times, be careful not to shorten or lengthen your rest time so much that you change the stimulus you’re working towards. For example, if you’re training for strength or power, you want longer rest times, but if your shorten them too much, it can become more of a cardio workout.

  1. Increase VOLUME (reps/sets)

    • If you did 12 goblet squats with a 20 lb dumbbell last week, try doing 15 goblet squats with the same 20 lb dumbbell this week!

  2. Increase FREQUENCY (amount of workout sessions per week)

    • If you have been doing 3 gym sessions per week for the past few months, try increasing to 4 sessions!

  3. Increase TENSION (specifically, time under tension)

    • An example of increasing time under tension (aka eccentrics) would be a 3-8 second descent on back squats. If you did 5x5 back squats with a 5 second descent this would take longer than 5x5 at a normal pace, thus the time spent under tension would be greater, forcing your muscles to adapt. Pause squats are another way to increase time under tension


    • Improvement in technique or form is one last one way of progressively overloading that people often don’t recognize. You’re front squatting but are able to get more depth? That’s progressive overload because your range of motion and time spent with the barbell is greater. Progressing in form is especially true for technical lifts like snatches and cleans.

The one detail Milo’s story leaves out is that progress is not linear. In the words of Brett Contreras, PhD, CSCS “No gains from weight training, be it mobility, hypertrophy, strength, power, endurance, or fat loss, will ever occur in a linear nature. The body doesn’t work that way. Adaptations happen in waves.”

Progressive overload is a concept utilized in almost every session and training program we build here at Made 2 Move since one of our main goals in physical therapy is to increase strength. Our therapists strategically manipulate training parameters in a highly individualized way to ensure that you continually progress in your rehab. Which way of progressive overload would work best for you? Reach out to today to learn more about how we could help you be like Milo!


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