There’s a big difference between exercise and training. Exercise is very focused on the now and completing random workouts to stay generally healthy. Is there anything wrong with random workouts? Not at all. Any exercise is always going to be better than nothing. BUT are random workouts the most effective training program? Absolutely not. If you have specific training goals you should be following a specific program that applies the principle of progressive overload.
What is progressive overload? Progressive overload is the principle of applying additional stressors to your body as it adapts to the current stressor. The most basic example is if you’ve been using 10 lb weights for bicep curls, over time your body gets stronger and adapts to the 10 lb weights. In order to continue to progress you now need to add additional stress to the muscle and would want to increase your weight to 12 lbs.
Additional weight is just one of many ways to add stress to the muscle and apply progressive overload. What are the best ways to apply progressive overload to prevent stagnation and continue to progress and allow for muscle adaptation?
Increasing reps and sets is one of the simplest ways to increase volume and apply the principle of progressive overload. If you’re a beginner you can likely handle 2-3 additional reps of each exercise every week keeping weight and sets the same.
Another option is increasing sets and keeping reps and weight the same. The overall goal here is to continue to add volume. For example, if you started with 3 sets of 10 reps with 10 lbs for bicep curls your total volume is 300(3x10x10). If you increase to 4 sets your total volume is now 400(4x3x10). Additional sets and reps add additional volume to your workload and are a great, simple way to apply progressive overload.
Another way your body shows adaptation is by needing less rest for the same amount of volume. Say you were currently doing 3 sets of 10 reps of bicep curls with 10 lbs weights and resting 2 minutes in between sets. Eventually this will become a more manageable workload and 2 minutes will be a lot of rest time. Rather than increasing sets, reps or weight you could cut your rest time down to 1 minute. This will be more difficult as your body has less time to recover and will act as a new stress to your muscles. This is a better option for progressive overload if you have goals more related to endurance as opposed to strength or muscle hypertrophy/growth.
This is a great option for those that may have limited access to weights or equipment *cough quarantine cough*. Changing the tempo of an exercise can greatly increase difficulty. There are a few different ways to play with the tempo of an exercise. Try adding 4 second eccentric or concentric movements. So if you take a squat, you’re focusing on counting 1, 2, 3, 4 on the down and then 1 on the way back up. Another option is adding a pause at the bottom of an exercise. Try holding a squat for 3 seconds at the bottom of the movement. This puts additional stress on the muscle and is a great option to add stimulus when you are limited in weight selection and don’t want to add a million sets and reps.
The easiest way to invoke the principle of progressive overload is by increasing weight for the exercise. Again if you're a beginner you can likely increase weight pretty quickly and should be in order to get the most benefits out of a program. If you stick with the same 8 lb dbs for 8 weeks without changing any of the other factors we discussed above, you won’t see progress at the same pace as if you apply one of these progressive overload principles and/or increase weight week to week. You can likely handle more than you think!
Remember that while random workouts are good for overall health, they won’t be very helpful in getting you to your fitness goals. If you’ve ever felt stuck or frustrated and like you’re not seeing progress in strength or fat loss goals, this could be the piece of the puzzle that’s missing! As always, I am here to answer any questions on where to start, how to transition into an effective program, and any other fitness questions you might have!