If you had to take everything there is to know about fitness and boil it down to one simple concept, it would be progressive overload.
This principle of regularly and systematically increasing the demands you place on your body is what training adaptations (aka results) are all about. “It is basically doing more work than your body did before,” explains Minnesota-based exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson, PhD, CSCS. “If you never require your body to do more, you will never get a positive adaptation in terms of strength, muscle, cardiovascular fitness or anything else.”
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For as simple — and honestly, as “duh” — of a concept as it is, progressive overload often goes overlooked. After all, programs designed to “keep your body guessing” often sacrifice progressions in favor of novelty, he says. And while cycling, TRX and yoga are all great ways to get fit, bopping from one exercise class to the next can mean that you never will give your body the chance to adapt to any given workout. The result: The benefits of your workouts end when you leave the gym, and you feel like you’re spinning your wheels.
On the other hand, by simply planning your workouts with progressive overload in mind (why experts recommend following a training program), you can ensure that every workout spurs your body to adapt, getting you stronger, faster, and able to hit new heights time and time again.
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How to Incorporate Progressive Overload
In basic terms: When completing an exercise becomes easy, make it harder, Nelson says. (Yes, it’s that simple.) While there’s no end to the list of ways you can switch up an exercise to make it harder, the three main variables that determine an exercise’s level of difficulty are volume, intensity and density, he says.
Depending on your exercise of choice, volume could be the number of miles you log per week or how often you hit the gym. When performing strength exercises, volume is generally defined as the amount of weight lifted multiplied by the number of sets multiplied by the number of reps. Intensity equals how hard you’re working. Common measures include your mile time, dumbbell’s weight, or how advanced your chosen exercise variation is, he says. Density refers to your workout volume divided by the time you did it in. Take a shorter rest break between sets, and you’re upping your density.
As you can probably already tell, exactly how you manipulate volume, intensity and density to overload your workouts largely depends on what you’re doing in the gym. Here, we explain the simplest way to add a healthy dose of progressive overload to your workouts — no matter your goals.
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Your Goal: Building Muscle
Exercise volume is the ultimate driver of muscle building (aka hypertrophy). So, when trying to overload your strength workouts for the purposes of increasing definition or muscle size, it’s best to stick within a 12- to 15-rep range while making adjustments to the two other variables that influence volume: load and sets, Nelson says.
Keeping sets and reps constant, you can simply try to lift more weight week after week. Then, after six to eight weeks of that, you can switch things up further by increasing the number of sets you’re doing, he says. After all, if you’re lifting a given weight for more sets, your volume is going to increase. Again, while you can change up the number of reps, 12 to 15 is ideal for hypertrophy. As you approach the lower ends of that spectrum, it’s important to increase the amount of weight you use so that your exercise volume doesn’t decrease.
Your Workout Rx: First increase weight, then sets.
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Your Goal: Increasing Strength
They are definitely related, but increasing muscle size and increasing strength are not synonymous. To build strength, you need to train at progressively higher and higher percentages of your one rep max (or 1RM), the greatest load you are able to move for one rep, Nelson says.
An easy way to do this is by tweaking your rep and set scheme every six to eight weeks so that you are lifting more weight, but for fewer reps and more sets, he says. For example, if you currently perform five sets of eight reps of the squat exercise, after six to eight weeks, switch to significantly heavier weights with a set and rep scheme such as five sets of five reps or 10 sets of three reps. No matter the set-up, you should just be able to eek out your last rep with proper form. If you have more left in the tank, you need to go up in weight.
Your Workout Rx: Increase weight, reduce reps and add more sets.
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Your Goal: Improving Muscular Endurance
Endurance is all about how long your muscles can work before giving out. When it comes to progressively overloading for this goal, you simply have to push your muscles to go for longer periods of time with each workout.
Nelson primarily achieves this by increasing the number of sets of exercises performed. For instance, if you are trying to increase your lunge endurance (a great goal for runners!), you might perform two sets of 10 reps during your first week. The next week, you might try cranking that up to three sets. Then four, five, and… you get the point.
But since you can only add a certain amount of sets before your workout gets obnoxiously long, another way to boost endurance is by cutting down on the amount of rest you give yourself between sets, he says. Keep in mind, though, that you should never cut rest to the point that your form suffers. So take that breather when you need it.
Your Workout Rx: Add sets, then reduce rest time.
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Your Goal: Boosting Cardio
When it comes to cardiovascular endurance, increasing volume, intensity and density, requires going longer, faster or faster for longer. “You want to work at all three,” Nelson says. And, ideally, you would work on all three on separate days throughout the course of a week.
For instance, if you like to run, make sure to incorporate a long, slow distance run, tempo run, and interval workout into your schedule, he says. Week after week, strive to increase the distance of your long, slow runs, increase the pace of your tempo runs, and shorten the rest breaks between your intervals.
To get even more scientific about progressively overloading your cardio, Nelson suggests using a heart rate monitor to measure how hard you’re working during a given sweat sesh. Your heart rate tends to be a more precise measure of cardio intensity than pace. And measuring it will help keep your long runs at a lower intensity, while you crank up those tempo and interval workouts.
Your Workout Rx: Add distance to long runs, up your speed for tempo runs and decrease rest time during interval workouts.