Progressive Overload and application in Return to Work

Often when I meet people in the gym after they have sustained an injury, they are apprehensive and hesitant to commence an exercise regime in fear of aggravating their symptoms. This thought pattern can lead to delays in functional improvements and reduced confidence to return to work and other activities of daily living. Just recently, I implemented progressive overloading into a client’s return to work exercise rehabilitation to increase his lifting capacity. When I first met him, he was not comfortable with increasing his weight by more than 1 kg every two weeks as he was worried about making his symptoms worse. Using this principle, we managed to increase his floor to waist and waist to shoulder lifts from 6 kilograms to 15 kilograms in just 4 weeks, will no flare ups of the injury or any other symptoms. This result allowed him to return to his regular duties at work with increased confidence and trust in his manual handling abilities. 

The Science Behind Progressive Overload:

The principle of progressive overload suggests gradually placing greater than normal demands on the exercising musculature. This is required for a training adaptation to take place. Without overload, there is no adaptation by the body. Progressive overload involves applying a stimulus. The human body’s reaction to a training stimulus is called General Adaptation Syndrome in which there are three phases:

  1. Alarm phase: The body undergoes the alarm phase when a new or intense stress is placed on the body. In this stage, it is normal to experience soreness or a temporary drop in physical performance.
  2. Resistance phase: This phase results occurs shortly after the alarm phase when the body begins to adapt to the stimulus. Physical performance returns to normal levels and soreness decreases.
  3. Exhaustion phase: This phase occurs if the training stress persists for a prolonged period.

In a return to work scenario, exercise physiologists can utilise progressive over load and periodisation to continuously challenge your body, whilst avoiding injury or reaggravation of symptoms. To do this, we first assess and consider the critical physical demands of your job role and current individual limitations. As the adaptations that occur with training are specific to the training performed, we use gym-based exercises to closely mimic the working conditions by identifying what attributes encompass the movement (e.g. strength, flexibility, endurance, etc) and what muscles are involved in these movements.

From here, a specific and individualised exercise programme is prescribed. Programmes typically begin with non-specific activities utilising high volume and low intensity and progress to job role-specific activities of low volume and high intensity. In other words, we first focus on developing a fitness base with longer, lower intensity sessions and progress you to shorter, specific and more intense activities to return you to work in a timely manner.

We achieve progressive overload by manipulating the following training variables:

  • Exercise Variation: By implementing different modes of exercises, we can challenge your body in new ways, while taking stress off more frequently used muscles and joints.
  • Exercise Frequency: We alter frequency of training to balance out exercise intensity, duration and other external factors identified by our clients such as time constraints and other commitments.
  • Exercise Duration and Intensity: Exercise intensity will determine exercise duration. Generally, the more intense a workout, the shorter the length and vice versa.
  • Load: The load or intensity of the exercises will depend on the goals of the current training programme. For example, if the goal is strength, then the load assignment will be high. As the load increases, the number of repetitions performed decreases.

Progressive overload is a safe and effective way to ensure that you can bounce back quickly from an injury or illness. For further information and advice on how you can advance your exercise programme, speak to one of our Accredited Exercise Physiologists at Absolute Balance today. Email-

Phone (08) 9244 5580

Tayla O’Halloran

(B.Sc. Exercise Physiology)

Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) (ESSAM)



Resource:  Baechle, T., & Earle, R. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.