If you’re like most people you don’t have a ton of time to spend on your exercise regime. Luckily, you only need about 30 minutes per day three days per week to see gains in your fitness. The catch is those 30 minutes need to be productive which means they need to be moderately to vigorously intense. Simple terms, you need to break a sweat. In order for your sessions to be productive you’ll need to apply the principles of overload and progression. Without applying these principles you will stop seeing results, in other words you’ll hit a plateau.
As you exercise, your body is making physiological adaptations to adjust to the “stress” you are creating. For example, if you start weight training and lift 8 pounds for three sets of 10 reps, you’ll notice that after time it becomes easier and easier. That’s because your body is adapting by becoming stronger. But your body will reach a point where that 8 pounds 30 times isn’t doing a thing, you need to increase your resistance, which means to add some more weight or increase reps. This is introducing overload to your muscles to which they have to adapt again, again becoming stronger. You can vary your method of applying overload by increasing weight, reps, or sets or by reducing the rest period between sets. A note for women, adding more weight will not make you “bigger”. We simply don’t have the hormones to do it. You will become stronger with more definition, but not bulky. When implementing overload it is advised not to exceed 5% of your current ability to avoid injury.
Progression and overload go hand in hand. Progression is exactly what is sounds like it is, it is the progression of overload in your workout resulting in muscle gains (strength or endurance). When thinking about increasing any variables in your routine (frequency, intensity, type and time)* you should feel no soreness after your last workout. This is a good indication that you are ready for the next step.
Above I’ve talked about variation in your workout, there are other methods of keeping your workout interesting and challenging. Periodization, which is simply organizing your workout into cycles of intensity. Say, Monday is low intensity, Wednesday is moderate and Friday is high intensity. This is an example of a very condensed periodization cycle, more frequently the cycles are broken down into periods of several weeks or months. Other methods include circuit training which is the practice of cycling through a circuit of specific exercises, one after the other to complete a circuit. Interval training is another way to keep things challenging as you can control the intensity of your training as per your fitness level. An interval training session is typically a cardio workout where periods of high intensity are followed by periods of active rest, then repeated. This method of cardio training is very effective in making gains in your cardio fitness in a relatively short period of time.
When you do reach your goals you are ready to enter the maintenance phase. This is the phase we want to get to. At the maintenance phase you are interested in keeping what you’ve worked so hard to get, but you no longer have to be too concerned about overloading your muscles, just keeping them challenged with variety. This can be achieved through varying your exercises. For example, if you usually work on machines, try using free weights or cables. If you use a leg press try a barbell squat. By altering the angle of your joint movement you are forcing your muscles to fire in a different pattern. You’re also using your muscles differently and employing more muscles per movement. So, for example, by moving from a leg press to a barbell squat, you are requiring your body to use muscles to stabilize your body as you stand and perform the squat whereas lying down on the leg press you are isolating your hamstring and glutes. Keeping your workout interesting and rewarding is a great way to ensure you’ll stick with it.
* Frequency – how often are you working out. Intensity – the resistance or weight, sets or reps. Type – the type of exercise you are performing. Time – How long your session lasts