Nov 7, 2019
By Ryan Fairman, Certified Trainer
So, you're finally getting into an exercise routine and your progress up until this point has been great. Increased strength, more stamina, and feeling better in general. But then, you start to notice that you're not getting the same results as before… you're not feeling as strong as those first few months, your energy becomes stagnant, and heck, maybe even your endurance starts to decline. What gives? How can your consistent efforts be causing a regression?
Today, I'll shed some light on progressive overload including what it is and some tips on how you can implement the concept to continue to progress with your exercise.
WHAT IS PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD?
Progressive overload is classically defined as the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training (for my explanation I may use stress and stimulus interchangeably).
When a stimulus is provided to the body, the many systems (nervous system, pulmonary system, endocrine system, cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, etc.) react to that stimulus and elicit a specific response. Since we are referring to exercise, and I'm assuming resistance training specifically, let's keep this in the context of the musculoskeletal system, even though all of the systems I just mentioned will be affected by the stimulus.
So in order for there to be a long term adaptation for the specific goal that we are trying to achieve (increase strength, increase muscle mass, increase muscular endurance to name a few), there must be the appropriate amount of stress/stimulus provided to elicit those specific adaptations. If there is too little, then no change will occur in the tissue (muscle), if there is too much, there could be an adverse effect (injury, overtraining symptoms, etc.). And this is where
progressive overloading comes into play. If you're able to provide just enough stimulus to elicit the desired effect, then you're right on track, but over time, our bodies are really good at adapting, so a little more stimulus will be needed in order to continue to see the adaptations occur.
NOW THE QUESTION BECOMES, HOW MUCH AND HOW DO YOU FIGURE THAT OUT?
Tip #1 - My advice would be to first get a baseline. This can be done safely by doing a sub maximal (submax) assessment to see where you're currently at. So, if you're assessing strength for let's say chest press, do a proper warm-up (light weight for 6-8 reps), then move to a more challenging weight to where you could do no more than 8 reps. If you fail below 8, that is ok. From there, you will get a good idea or ballpark of where your max weight is. Then, you can use that to program your working weight for a specific regimen. Continuing with strength as the goal, you would do anywhere from 60-90% (depending on your fitness level - beginner to advanced) of your max weight for 2-6 sets of 4-8 reps (again those variables depending on your fitness level). Now, this is by no means a set in stone rule that must be followed 100% of the time, but it will more than likely set you up for success to consistently see progress.
Tip #2 - In addition to the set parameters, another, more subjective, measurement is what is called the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale. This is essentially you paying attention to how intense the exercise is during your working set. Ideally for a progressive overload to happen, you would consistently be at an 8, 9, or 10 most of the time during your exercises. Now, there are plenty of variables that could affect this including how you're feeling at the specific point in time, which can be due to a number of things (nutrition, sleep, hydration, previous exercise, etc.), but it is still a decent indicator of how intense you're pushing yourself.
Just remember as a general rule of thumb, never push through pain and never exhaust yourself until there is a serious issue, it's not worth it and you have your whole life to train! But if you're scared to push yourself or always staying with the ‘light weights,' then you may never see progress. So experiment and trial and error your way through the process to find your sweet spot and reap the benefits.
Find your current baseline with one of the 2 tips above (ideally both)
Come up with a plan or program that will gradually increase the intensity over time (6-8 weeks)
Once the program is complete, reevaluate your baseline
Repeat as necessary until goal is achieved
Now this is very over simplified, but the concept remains the same. Steady, incremental increases will result in your body continually adapting and progressing. Unfortunately, there will come a time where you will hit your max and you will have to maintain what you have, but until that point comes, there is always room for improvement. Start implementing these tips today to improve your efforts!
About Author: As a Fitness Professional and owner of Continued Performance in Chicago, Ryan helps driven professionals achieve their goals with expert exercise and nutrition coaching. "Quite simply, I love what I do and I put in the time and effort to make sure I’m providing the best service for my clients. I have 2-3 study group sessions per week with colleagues along with self study. I got into this profession to help people and I want to be confident I’m doing that in the most efficient and effective way possible." Learn more about Ryan at https://www.continuedperformance.com/. Experience: CSCS, NASM-PES, NASM-CES, PN-1, FMS level 1, USAW level-1
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