A couple of weeks ago we talked about some of the basics… again. Energy balance, specificity, time and your own psychology. Foundational principles or concepts or issues that trip people up over and over again. This week I want to talk about another principle and the various methods you can use to apply it. It’s one that we’ve already discussed but these things often bear repeating. Progressive overload. The idea that to be more than you already are you have to do more than you’ve already done.
Only this morning during a training session one of my clients was discussing an issue a friend of theirs is having (let’s call her Gemima) where she’s taken up running. She’s gone from couch to 10km (Which is amazing! Go on, Gemima!) and she’s made some great progress towards her improved fitness and weight loss goals along the way. Absolutely fantastic… but… now she’s stopped making progress and she can’t figure out why. She’s running 10km a couple of times a week but nothing is changing. Can you figure it out?
It’s because she’s gotten used to it. She’s comfortable. It’s likely she runs the same route, over the same hills, at the same kind of speed, the same number of times per week. In fact it’s VERY likely because if she was trying to go faster everytime or was choosing a more difficult route with more hills or was going a little further each time she would still be making progress.
This is where progressive overload comes in. It’s a scientific principle developed by a gentleman named Thomas Delorme, M.D. and it states that in order for a muscle to grow, performance to increase, strength to be gained or any other similar improvement to be made the body must be placed under a tension, relevant to the desired improvement, that it has not experienced before.
Gemima is no longer placing her body under a tension that it has not experienced before. If she wants to make more progress she has to change the tension she’s putting herself under. The tension she applies will depend on the changes she desires but the most common choice (and in fairness the most obvious) is MORE. Add another run or run further per run. Both would work but there are only so many hours in the day, she can’t KEEP adding more kilometres everytime progress stalls until she’s running 24 hours a day. So what other solutions can we come up with? Let’s use a simple workout as an example…
A very simple workout
Here is a very simple workout (originally created by World Powerlifting Champion Andy Bolton). Start a stopwatch and perform 5 kettlebell swings. Then stop and wait for the rest of the minute to go by. Then do another 5 and wait again. Do this for 5 minutes. Then follow the instructions pictured when you next perform the workout. It never takes more than 10 minutes to complete and allows us to examine progressive overload in several different ways.
The first is by adding reps. The second is by adding sets. And the third is by adding load. We could also add complexity or reduce the recovery between rounds but three variables will do for this example. What these simple little changes add up to is that, should we follow this program, our bodies will progressively be exposed to more and more tension (in the form of reps, sets and weight) ensuring that we never get comfortable and continue to make progress.
And this is where Gemima has fallen down. She isn’t adding more distance, or more speed, or more runs, or running carrying a weighted vest (I’m joking… this wouldn’t be a good idea for most people… but is actually still a valid solution)… or doing some kettlebells swings on top of her runs (changing up the stimulus is also a valid option too).
So let’s go Gemima! It’s time to up your game! However, as already stated, there are only 24 hours in a day so in the interest of being time efficient (and if running a marathon is not one of her goals) I would suggest these solutions for Gemima. (1) Train to run a little bit further in the same amount of time OR (2) train to run the usual distance faster and have more time for other things… OR (3) if she’s happy with her fitness and the main goal is now weight management, keep the runs the same and eat a little less and as a result have the progression be performing the same feat with less fuel.
Regardless, for Gemima, if she wants to improve more than she already has she has to do more than shes already done. And it’s the same for all of us. The methods can vary greatly, but the underlying principle is always there. And even if none of that made sense you still have an exercise program you can follow for the next while #SmileyFace