Improving Your Physical Performance in 3 Steps: #1 The Overload Principle

  • 4 Oct ‘23
  • Bewegen 
  • Editorial OpenUp Medical

When it comes to exercise, the overload principle stands as one of the most crucial concepts to grasp. The overload principle suggests that to witness enhancements in physical fitness, an individual must consistently amplify the demands placed upon the body during exercise.

This objective can be attained through diverse approaches, such as intensifying the workout’s duration or intensity, incorporating weight or resistance, or heightening the frequency of exercise sessions.

What’s the overload principle about?

The overload principle is grounded in the body’s capacity to adapt to stress. When we engage in exercise, we subject our muscles, bones, and cardiovascular system to stress.

In response, our bodies adapt by reinforcing and becoming more efficient, thus enabling us to cope with higher degrees of stress in the future.

However, if we fail to consistently increase the stress imposed on the body, our progress in physical fitness will plateau.

What research says

Research consistently endorses the incorporation of the overload principle into exercise regimens. A 2016 meta-analysis conducted by Rhea et al. revealed that resistance training programs integrating progressive overload yielded significantly greater enhancements in muscle strength and size compared to non-progressive overload programs.

Similarly, a 2018 meta-analysis conducted by Krieger et al. concluded that augmenting the volume (sets and repetitions) and intensity (load) of resistance training led to more substantial improvements in muscle strength and size.

Nonetheless, the overload principle extends beyond resistance training. A 2017 meta-analysis by Grgic et al. demonstrated that augmenting running volume (distance and frequency) resulted in greater improvements in endurance performance, such as running speed and time to exhaustion.
Similarly, a 2019 meta-analysis by Schoenfeld et al. established that elevating the volume and intensity of aerobic exercise led to more pronounced enhancements in cardiovascular fitness.

Gradual and progressive application

It’s imperative to note that the overload principle should be implemented gradually and progressively. Subjecting the body to excessive stress too rapidly may precipitate injuries or burnout.

The American College of Sports Medicine advises against augmenting intensity or duration by more than 10% per week. This approach permits the body to acclimate to the stress gradually while still promoting advancement.


Another significant consideration when integrating the overload principle is the notion of periodisation. Periodisation entails segmenting a training programme into distinct phases, each with specific objectives and varying stress levels.

For instance, an athlete might devote several weeks to fortifying strength, succeeded by several weeks of high-volume training to bolster endurance. This method fosters a more structured application of the overload principle and can mitigate burnout or overtraining.


These findings underscore the importance of progressively elevating the stress during exercise to yield advancements in physical fitness. However, it’s vital to recognise that the optimal level of stress is subject to individual factors, such as age, gender, and fitness level. This is where the principle of individualisation becomes relevant.

Individualisation involves tailoring exercise programmes to cater to an individual’s distinct needs and objectives. This may encompass considerations such as existing fitness level, history of injuries, and personal preferences. 

By factoring in these individual elements, exercise regimens can be tailored to maximise the benefits of the overload principle while minimising the risk of injury or burnout.

Maximising the benefits of your workouts

The overload principle constitutes a pivotal concept in exercise, consistently substantiated by research. Through a gradual and progressive augmentation of stress during exercise, individuals can achieve more substantial enhancements in physical fitness.

However, it is crucial to apply the overload principle progressively and systematically in an individualised manner. Additionally, incorporating periodisation is vital to avert injuries or burnout.