'Progressive overload' is the key to fitness progress that you might be missing. Here's what it means.
- Progressive overload is "the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training," according to research.
- This means gradually challenging your body more during workouts.
- While most commonly used in weight training, the principle can be applied to all types of exercise, as three personal trainers explained to Insider.
- It's crucial for ensuring your body keeps adapting and is the difference between exercise and training.
Whether you're looking to get fitter, stronger, or faster, there's one crucial component you need to employ in your workouts: progressive overload.
This principle means gradually challenging your body more, and it's important if you want to reach your fitness goals.
"Progressively overloading means you are continually increasing the demands on your muscle in order to maximize adaptation gains in strength, size, or endurance," personal trainer Sana Shirvani told Insider.
"It's about creating fresh stimulus to keep pushing your performance forward, and can be done with frequency or intensity," Rich Tidmarsh, personal trainer and owner of London gyms Reach, told Insider.
Progressive overload can be applied to different types of movement
The term is commonly used by weight-lifters - in this case, it means gradually increasing either the weight or the reps performed of any exercise. However, the concept applies to any discipline.
"Progressive overload is an effective and safe way to improve strength, but the same method and principles can also be applied to cardio training too," Fiit master trainer Adrienne Herbert told Insider.
Shirvani added: "We can progressively overload through an increase in weight, repetitions, sets, decreased rest periods, and increased training frequency. Also, progressive overload doesn't just apply to muscle growth, we can also see improvements in bone density, connective tissue strength, as well as cardiovascular fitness."
Runners, for example, might try to shave a few seconds off a certain distance. Or, as Herbert advises, aim to increase the total volume of distance you run each week by 10%.
If you have an exercise bike and a heart rate monitor, one workout you can do is cycling at 80% of your max heart rate for three minutes, resting, then repeating it twice more. If next time you increased that to four sets, or added 30 seconds longer to the three sets, that's progressive overload.
For anyone working out at home with minimal equipment, Tidmarsh advises increasing time under tension and focusing on the "negative" part of movements - in a push-up, for example, this might mean lowering yourself down slowly, holding at the bottom position, then driving back up.
Increasing time under tension means performing each move incredibly slowly so as to increase the length of time the muscles are working, as celebrity trainer Sebastien Lagree previously explained to Insider.
There's a difference between exercise and training
If you do the same thing week-in week-out, yes, there will be benefits, but your body will get used to it.
"Exercise is a stress stimulus to the body and our bodies then make adaptations to this stress stimuli," Shirvani said. "However, once that adaptation has taken place, your body is less likely to adapt without a change in stimulus."
She continued: "This means that if you're training to improve your strength, size, or endurance, progressive overload is fundamental for adaptation and development." And research confirms this.
It's important to note that there's a difference between exercise and training, and progressive overload helps turn the former into the latter.
If you're just looking to shake off the stresses of the day, burn calories, and get the endorphins pumping, exercise will do that for you.
Training, however, is more structured. If you're tracking your workouts in some capacity, working toward specific performance goals, you're training. And this is where you need progressive overload.
Employing progressive overload helps keep you motivated
You don't need to start a spreadsheet if you're not that way inclined, but you should log your workouts in some capacity so you can remember what you did in your last session and apply progressive overload properly.
"Training in this way means you can easily track and measure your progress, as well as avoiding a plateau," Herbert said.
She continued: "A gradual increase in intensity and volume will change your mind as well as your body, so you won't get bored of doing the same routine. It will also boost your motivation and confidence as you see yourself getting fitter, faster, and stronger. It's a great feeling when you do something that you couldn't do before."
This is one of the main reasons the majority of personal trainers recommend that clients who want to lose weight set themselves performance goals as well as aesthetic.
Apply progressive overload at the right rate
We are all different, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach to progressive overload. When deciding to up the ante in your workout, you should push yourself, but not go too fast. If you try and challenge yourself too much too quickly, you'll likely end up injuring yourself.
You also won't make progress if you don't give your body enough recovery time between sessions - overtraining won't get you to your goals quicker.
"There's a fine balance between making progress and doing too much, which can actually mean you get weaker," Tidmarsh said. "You'll burn out, get tired, and get injured."
He continued: "When gyms are open, say you train deadlifts twice a week, that's probably about right. If you did it four times a week, you'd probably actually get weaker and get hurt."
Ideally, you should consult a qualified trainer for individual guidance, but Shirvani recommends ticking a few boxes before progressively overloading on a movement:
- Form: "Form always comes first! If you are not executing an exercise with good form, focus on nailing the form first before thinking about progressive overload," she said.
- Rate of perceived exertion: "Ask yourself how challenged you felt between 1-10 at the end of an exercise," she said. "If you feel like you have another 3+ reps in you, with good form, this is probably too little stress for your body to adapt, which means you can progress."
- Plateau: "If you reach a plateau, this could be due to a number of factors, but one of them could be that you are not providing your body with the minimal effective dose of stress to see the desired changes."
Trainers (and studies) say that novices are able to progress quicker than seasoned fitness fans, but we're all different so you should progress at the rate that's right for you.
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