You’ve been working out for a while, and you think you’re ready for more. When you’re walking, you feel the urge to jog a bit. When you’re swimming, you add a few lengths and feel like you could keep going. Resistance and strength training routines get easier every day. Before you hit a plateau, it’s time to take your workout to the next level. In trainer-speak, you’re ready for “progressive overload.”
Progressive overload is when you gradually increase the weight, frequency or number of reps in your strength training routine to build strength and stamina. By increasing the demands on your musculoskeletal system, you continue to make gains in muscle size, strength and endurance. To put it simply, to get bigger or stronger, your muscles have to be continually challenged. A 2011 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology tested a progressive overload regime. The study found it to be an effective way to increase strength and muscle growth in both men and women. While progressive overload is normally used in strength training, the same principles also work for cardiovascular exercises, such as running or swimming.
Before you start changing up your routine, though, revisit your goals, because they will shape your overloads. Why are you in the gym? Do you want to lose weight? Gain muscle? Build endurance and health? A mix of all three? Two of the most important variables in your workout are reps and weight and once you know your end goal, setting up the right number of weights and rep becomes easier. When starting or changing any workout routine, you may want to work with a personal trainer to craft a customized program.
Increasing the number of reps in your workout is great for building muscular endurance. For example, if you’ve been doing 2 sets of 10 reps, try 2 sets of 12. Or, switch to 3 sets of 8. For cardiovascular endurance, increase the length of your sessions. Just remember to build up gradually. Let your body recover between workouts and check in with your doctor if you feel overly fatigued or injured.
You can also try increasing the tempo of your workouts. Using a lighter weight but lifting at a quicker pace or with less time in between sets can help you get stronger and fitter. Start by reducing the weights on your machines (or use lighter free weights) so you can easily manage multiple sets of 10-15 reps.
Adding resistance or weight puts additional stress on your muscles allowing them to break down, rebuild and get stronger. Before you start adding weight though, make sure you’ve mastered exercise and that your form is correct. Working out incorrectly can lead to injury—and that’s not the point, is it?
If you’ve been comfortably lifting the same weight or using the same resistance for all your sets, and you’re certain that you’re working out safely, it’s probably time to move up. Try adding weight in increments of 10-15 pounds for lower body exercises and 5-10 pounds for the upper body. If you use resistance bands, try going up to the next tension level. If the last couple of reps are challenging, you’re at the right spot. If you struggle to get through the set, though, scale back a bit. Listen to your body. Take one to two days off between lifting to let the muscles recover.
Progressive overload training must be done gradually. Many of us want to make changes quickly, in hope of seeing rapid results. Moving too quickly to increase the weight or frequency of your workout can lead to injury. Once again, make sure you’ve mastered the proper form for the exercise before adding weight. Most fitness experts suggest not training harder until you’ve been doing the same routine for at least two weeks, or ideally a month. Stop training or scale back the intensity if you feel very sore or injured.
While you’re training, maintain a healthy diet. Exertion requires energy. Carbs are the body’s primary source of fuel. While low-carb diets have benefits, cutting out too many can leave you feeling fatigued and reduce your training capacity. Also, make sure to get enough protein. Protein is incredibly important to muscle growth, maintenance and recovery according to the American Council on Exercise. If you don’t have enough energy to get through your workout, see your doctor or a qualified nutritionist.
Rest is another essential element of your workout program. Without proper rest and recovery time, your body can’t function at its best. Studies have shown that insufficient sleep can decrease your muscle strength. Additionally, insufficient sleep depletes the glycogen stores (carbs in your muscle tissues that the body uses for energy) in your body. Without these energy stores, it will be hard to get through a hard workout. Prioritize good, consistent sleep.
Your body needs a challenging workout routine to maintain and increase strength and endurance. Periodically, add a few more lengths in the pool or an extra half mile to your walk or run. Gradually adding weights and reps to your workout will keep you on track with your goals.