In Tuesday’s post I talked about the biggest mistake I see a lot of people make with their diet, which is basically that they’re not eating “real food”, but instead consume mostly evolutionarily novel foods and spend their money on supplements, shakes, “Paleo” bars, protein powders, cleanses, energy bars, and other food items that are typically marketed as quick and simple solutions that will make you healthier, slimmer, and/or more energetic. Today I wanted to make a similar post, but this time about exercise.
My fitness journey, which has involved working with hundreds of clients, spending a lot of time following how people around me exercise, and a lot of trial and error with my own training, has given me a lot of insights into why so many gym goers never get their desired training results. Because as everyone in the fitness industry knows, a lot of the people you see at the training center fail to reach their goals, quit after a couple of months of training, and/or gradually transition over from the stringent exercise plan they had set up towards training once every now and then.
One reason why people don’t get the results they want is simply that they have set their sights too high, perhaps thinking that exercising regularly will help them lose a lot of weight (which it usually won’t) or that they can build massive amounts of muscle in just a couple of months. Other times, the lack of results can largely be attributed to poor exercise technique, which often sets the stage for injuries and stagnation.
However, while these factors can certainly help explain why so many people don’t achieve their training goals, I would say that they aren’t as important as the one I wanted to discuss in this article, which is a lack of focus on progressive overload.
Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.
… In order to minimize injury and maximize results, the novice begins at a comfortable level of muscular intensity and advances towards overload of the muscles over the course of the exercise program. Progressive overload requires a gradual increase in volume, intensity, frequency or time in order to achieve the targeted goal of the user. (1)
Plan for progress
While progressive overload should be a familiar concept to most people who’ve been training for some time, it’s often not applied correctly.
For a lot of gym goers – in particular those who have just started working out – strength training involves sticking to a loose program/plan, doing a lot of different exercises each session, and regularly trying new and interesting workout programs and training methods. A little something is perhaps written in a training journal every now and then, but there is no consistent focus on programming or progressive overload.
I’ve been there. When I first got started with strength training I wanted to try “everything”. I did a lot of different exercises, frequently changed my training program, and added some drop-sets, super-sets, etc. here and there. While I did pay some attention to slowly increasing the weight I lifted and/or the number of reps I did, I didn’t consistently focus on progressive overload or making gradual progress over months and years.
Unfortunately, this is the way a lot of people approach strength training when they first start lifting, and for some, it never changes. They may be training hard, perhaps pushing themselves to the brink of complete exhaustion every workout, but the importance of making small incremental weight increases and creating a specific adaptation is often forgotten.
It’s not really a surprise that this is the way a lot of people approach strength training, as you could quickly be led to believe from reading muscle magazines and fitness blogs that “more is better” and that you should do a wide range of exercises every workout, “confuse the muscle” by regularly changing your workout routine, and completely exhaust each major muscle group with 20+ sets once a week.
The main problem with how a lot of lifter approach progressive overload is that they don’t track their progress over time and don’t have a system that allows them to adequately assess if what they’re doing is actually working. When they’re in the gym, they might try to remember how much weight they lifted and how many sets and reps they managed to do on each exercise the last time they were training, and then aim to increase the load and/or reps and sets. However, since they change the exercise order from workout to workout, don’t write things down, and/or do a whole bunch of different stuff every training session, it’s very difficult to track how they’re actually progressing over time.
Inadequate focus on progressive overload is also commonly seen in all other forms of exercise people do, whether it’s endurance running, rowing, sprinting, or kettlebell training. It’s perhaps particularly visible when it comes to group training.
The step or zumba session you go to today is largely the same as the one you went to a month ago… and a month before that. You can definitely make an attempt to push yourself a little harder each time, but you have little actual control over how you’re progressing. This doesn’t mean that fitness classes aren’t great for a variety of purposes, it just means that they may not be the ideal choice for people with specific training goals.
Should everyone focus on progressive overload?
For those who have specific goals with their training (e.g., building a lot of muscle, gaining strength in a couple of compound lifts, becoming a really good sprinter), putting some emphasis on progressive overload and creating a specific adaptation is usually a good idea.
However, I think it’s very important to note that not everyone needs to focus on progressive overload. If you don’t have any specific goals with your training besides perhaps building a little muscle, improving your health, and/or achieving multifaceted fitness, you don’t necessarily have to keep a training journal or focus on slowly increasing the load you lift or the distance you run every workout.
Actually, doing this may be detrimental to your progress, as it can take some of the joy and spontaneity out of the training. If your goal is simply to stay healthy and fit and achieve multifaceted fitness, I would argue that adhering to a hunter-gatherer style fitness regimen, which doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on progressive overload, is the way to go. That doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from paying attention to your progress, but you don’t necessarily have to follow a stringent plan or write everything down in a training journal.
Most strength trainees don’t need a lot of accessory lifts
I think most strength trainees and coaches/trainers would agree that strength training machines (e.g., the leg press, chest press) are vastly inferior to multi-joint barbell movements and bodyweight exercises such as the chin-up, dip, and push-up.
A lot of people make the mistake of doing advanced strength training programs before they have taken the time to gradually increase their strength in the most basic multi-joint movements, such as the squat, deadlift, chin-up, and press.
I’ve found that a good strategy for novice-intermediate lifters is to choose 4-8 good exercises that form the foundation of the training program, learn proper technique in these exercises, buy a training journal, and focus on slowly increasing the weight they’re lifting in these exercises over weeks and months. Adding in some additional lifts, perhaps done for higher reps, can be a good idea as well, but it’s not always necessary.
The mistakes I’ve made during my training career have definitely been valuable in the sense that I’ve learned a lot from them. However, if I could go back and do things differently when I first started lifting weights, I would have definitely made some changes. Perhaps most importantly, I would have taken a lot of exercises out of my program, in particular those performed on strength training machines, focused on learning proper technique in a couple of compound lifts, and followed a “Starting Strength” type training program that is based on progressive overload in the squat, deadlift, and other multi-joint exercises.