You’ve been hitting the gym for a while now, and you’re pretty consistent. You work up a sweat three or more times each week. But there’s something missing. You’re not getting stronger, are you? This article isn’t about a fantastic new exercise you need to try. This article isn’t about to shed light on an advanced, strict Soviet training style that hasn’t been seen since the collapse of the Berlin wall. This article is asking you a simple question, and that question is very simple. Is what you’re doing in the gym getting you closer to your goal?
The Role of Adaptation
Let me explain. How many of you have been lifting the same amount of weight in the gym for months, even years? How many of you have been sitting at around the same body weight for years? Maybe you’ve tried a new program or a new selection of exercises, but the result has been the same. Why? Because you’re doing the same thing each training session.
Albert Einstein once uttered the phrase, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” How many of you are guilty of doing exactly this?
A training program isn’t just a bunch of exercises as commonly assumed. In fact, I would argue that exercise selection isn’t even the most important variable at play here (within reason). Let’s take a step back and look at what we are really trying to achieve through training.
What we are trying to achieve is adaptation. This adaptation could be increased muscular strength, muscle hypertrophy, or fat loss. To achieve an adaptation, we must expose the body to a stimulus. Following the exposure to a stimulus, the body’s acute response is fatigue. Following fatigue is a period of recovery, then overcompensation. Overcompensation is the adaptation that we seek. If the body is not exposed to the stimulus for an extended period of time, we experience de-training.1
What a training program really should achieve is adaptation through repeated exposure to a stimulus. The reason you’re lifting the same amount of weight after all this time is because you’ve never lifted more. Wait, what?
What I should say is that you’ve never increased the weight you’ve lifted, you’ve never done more reps, you’ve never reduced the rest periods. Basically, you haven’t exposed your body to a stimulus that would result in you getting stronger.
Use Progressive Overload
Enter progressive overload. Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.2 Basically, it ensures we are making progress through increasing the stimulus over time. Progressive overload uses four key areas to increase stress through training:
- Volume – Reps x Sets x Load
- Intensity – Percentage of max effort
- Frequency – How often we train
- Time – How long we train for each session
The theory here is simple. If you increase any of these, the workout is harder and produces a stimulus for the body to adapt to. So now you know that, quite simply, your workouts need to increase in difficulty to ensure you get results.
So, what now?
- Step 1 – Write down everything you lift for the next week (weight/sets/reps).
- Step 2 – Calculate your training volume (reps x sets x load) and average it for each exercise by each week.
- Step 3 – Increase your training volume each week for four weeks.
- Step 4 – Congratulate yourself. You’re now stronger than you were before.
There are a lot of ways to apply progressive overload, but for strength training, the roles of volume and intensity are key.3 All of the most popular strength training programs use these principals, and you’re not an exception.
1. Hoffman, Jay. NSCA’s Guide to Program Design. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2012.
2. Pearson, David, and Scott Mazzetti. “Periodization at a Glance“. Strength and Conditioning Journal21, no. 2 (1999): 52. doi:10.1519/00126548-199904000-00017.
3. Colquhoun, Ryan J., Christopher M. Gai, Danielle Aguilar, Daniel Bove, Jeffrey Dolan, Andres Vargas, Kaylee Couvillion, Nathaniel D.m. Jenkins, and Bill I. Campbell. “Training Volume, Not Frequency, Indicative of Maximal Strength Adaptations to Resistance Training“. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2018, 1. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000002414.