Progressive overload in calisthenics – Learn Calisthenics

Darek Woś


Hi everyone!

I want to give you a weekly portion of knowledge helpful with making smart progress. Today’s topic is progressive overload.

The holy grail of fitness

Have you ever heard of progressive overload? If so, great. You can stay and discuss your point of view in the comments. If not, this reading is obligatory for you to see your gains much quicker. It doesn’t matter if you do weights or calisthenics because progressive overload is a must-have in your routine. 

What is progressive overload?

Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed on the body during resistance training. In reality, resistance training is only efficient for improving health and performance if the human body is continually required to exert a greater force magnitude to meet higher physiologic demands.

Progressive overload means making your exercises more difficult in time. It provides a stimulus for your muscles which creates adaptation. New adaptation improves your ability to contract and recruit your muscle fibers. The whole process leads to better performance and increased muscle gains.

How does it work in reality?

So far, we know that creating gradual, novel stress in time provides progressive overload. But how exactly do we induce that stress? We’ve got five factors that are responsible for PO. The first component is intensity. The next one is the number of reps and sets. Then the frequency, and finally, duration.

Intensity is better known as the amount of weight we are using. That’s how it works in weight training. In calisthenics, however, it works a little bit differently. To increase the intensity of bodyweight training, we can do a more challenging variation of the exercises. For instance, from a tucked planche, we progress to a full planche or, for beginners, kneeling push-up to a standard push-up.

I assume everyone has heard about reps. Reps is short for repetitions. They are number of times you perform an exercise in one go. So ten reps of push-ups mean you do the push-up ten times before stopping. A lower range of repetitions with a higher intensity helps strength escalate quickly. More repetitions with lighter intensity create endurance. Moderate reps (around 8 to 12 reps) are the sweet spot for building muscles. It doesn’t mean you won’t get a hypertrophy stimulus from other ranges, but this one is the most efficient. Eight to twelve “zone” is also recommended for novices. 

Sets are the number of times you perform your reps. We can use the previous ten reps of push-ups as an example. Doing three sets of ten push-ups means you do ten reps of an exercise, and you do them three times with some rest between each set. The sweet spot is 12-20 sets for every muscle group per week.

The training frequency refers to the number of workouts performed per week. Research suggests that training each muscle group two times a week is well enough. 

The duration indicates how long you perform the exercise. This training element can be helpful for more advanced athletes, especially when they hit a plateau. 

A simple example of progressive overload

There is not only one way to progress. Keep in mind that everybody is different and everybody has their own goals. Some of us start with kneeling push-ups. Others perform plenty of weighted push-ups. When it comes to creating a good plan, always try to keep in mind your strength level and fitness abilities. 

To visualize the progressive overload, you can use the examples below as a good reference.

PO – reps:

Every week you increase the number of repetitions.

Week 1

Three sets of 8-9 reps of pull-ups.

Week 2

Three sets of 9-10 reps of pull-ups.

Week 3

Three sets of 10-12 reps of pull-ups.

PO – sets:

Every week you increase the number of sets you do.

Week 1

Two to three sets of 8-9 reps of pull-ups.

Week 2

Three to four sets of 8-9 reps of pull-ups.

Week 3

Four sets of 8-9 reps of pull-ups.

PO – intensity:

Every week you increase the intensity of the exercise. You can do it by adding more weight or changing the variation.

Week 1

Two to three sets of 8-9 reps of 5kg pull-ups.

Week 2

Three to four sets of 8-9 reps 6.5kg of pull-ups.

Week 3

Four sets of 8-9 reps of 8kg pull-ups.

The best way to do progressive overload is juggling with the examples above. Here is how it could work:

Week 1

Two to three sets of 8-9 reps of pull-ups.

Week 2

Three to four sets of 8-9 reps of pull-ups.

Week 3

Three to four sets of 9-10 reps of pull-ups.

Week 4

Four sets of 10-12 reps of pull-ups.

After that, increase intensity and repeat. 


There are no gains without proper rest. Your damaged muscle needs to recover for at least 48h. So if you did legs on Monday evening next leg day should be done no sooner than Wednesday evening. 

If you follow the rules above and it still feels wrong, maybe it is time for a deload. Have you ever done it? Do you know what it is? Vote in our questionnaire if you want to read about it, and let us know your thoughts on progressive overload.


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