No shade to the mood-boosting benefits of strength-training. But if you're slinging around weight and not getting any stronger, at best it's a bummer, and at worst it's interfering with said happy-making perks.
If this sounds familiar, it's probably because your strength plan lacks something called progressive overload. Never heard of it? Below is a cheat sheet on everything you might want to know about progressive overload, including what it is and how to incorporate it into your current training program so you can get back to being a Happy Hulk.
First, What Does Progressive Overload Mean?
The key to gaining strength and building muscle, "the progressive overload principle says that in order for our muscles to change and get stronger, we need to work them harder," says exercise physiologist Pete McCall, CSCS, CPT, host of the All About Fitness Podcast.
That probably makes sense to you intuitively, but to understand physiologically why and how this works, you need to understand how muscle growth happens. McCall explains: During a workout, your muscles fibers actually begin to breakdown. After the workout, your body calls upon something called satellite cells to help fuse the damaged muscle fibers.
Once fully repaired — which October 2016 research published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science says takes three days — these muscles fibers are thicker and stronger than were there before. And if the muscle fibers are stronger, you're stronger.
But (and this is important!), "In order for that process muscle growth and breakdown to happen, you have to challenge your muscles fibers," McCall says. You have to push them past the threshold they've previously adapted to. "Simply put, your body will not change until your force it to," says founder and CEO of NOVA Fitness, Jackie Wilson. And that's where progressive overload comes in.
Why You Need Progressive Overload
If you're on the hunt for a way to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of your workouts, all experts agree: Progressive overload is it. McCall explains: Progressive overloading involves intentionally planning your workouts so that every single session maximizes its strength-building potential. Typically, that means manipulating the weight, rep scheme, tempo or intensity of a movement, he says.
Could you, in theory, manipulate these factors at random in order to make your workout harder and get stronger? Sure. In fact, chances are, if you're a regular in the weight room but not following a specific training plan, this is what you're already doing. And likely, if you're still pretty new to the gym, you'll have decent success doing so. But that's not the most efficient, or smartest way to get to work toward your fitness goals.
"Progressive overload allows you to continually make gains by continually making your muscles work harder than they're used to," Wilson says."Your body is constantly forced to adapt to new challenges, which mitigates the risk of plateau in the way less intentional programming does not."
Beyond maximizing efficiency, there's another pretty convincing reasons to train with progressive overload in mind: it gets you stronger without overtraining your muscles, which White says is a common fault of folks who hit the weight room without a plan.
As obvious as it might sound: If you're getting stronger at a faster rate, you're also reaping the perks of being stronger, faster. These include: stronger muscles and bones, a faster metabolism, boosted calorie burn, improved mobility and reduced injury risk, to name a few.
There's also the mental benefits that accompany a progressive overload program. For starters, you're not doing the same workout every single day, which keeps the routine from becoming a snooze fest. Second, because training programs written with progressive overload in mind are planned weeks (and sometimes even months) in advance, you'll walk into the gym knowing exactly what you're supposed to be doing.
And of course, there's the euphoria of feeling/knowing/seeing yourself get stronger — a happy side effect that'll have carry-over into all parts of your life.
But be warned: These benefits disappear the second you prioritize lifting heavier over lifting with good form. Proper progression means proper form. "You need to challenge your muscles in order for them to grow," McCall says, "but that does not mean challenging them by lifting incorrectly." Lifting with improper form can exacerbate muscle imbalances, lead to overuse injuries and ultimately interferes with your bottom-line: getting stronger.
Read more: 4 Signs You're Ready to Lift Heavier Weights
How to Incorporate Progressive Overload Into Your Workouts
Unless you're a certified trainer, the very best way to incorporate progressive overload training is to work with an expert who can write you a program that takes your goals, schedule and current fitness level and lifts in mind.
But if that's out of your price range or you're do it yourself-er, McCall explains the best way to incorporate progressive overload into your workout. The answer is simple: Go heavier. "If you want to get stronger, you need to add weight and not be afraid to challenge yourself," he says.
Work within the 5 to 8 rep range, McCall says. Pick a rep count for the day, warm up, load up the bar and get lifting. If the first set you can do more than 8 reps, add weight. Continue doing so until you've found a weight that you couldn't squeeze out even one more rep at. Complete 5 sets at this weight, resting at least two minutes between sets. "After each set you'll feel your muscles shaking, which signals that you're activating those muscle fibers," he says.
Follow this protocol once or twice a week, and six to eight weeks from now, if you add more weight (McCall suggests 5 pounds), chances are, you'll be able to hit it. If you've run out of change plates or simply don't want to lift heavy, then you might also incorporate progressive overloading by adding more reps, going at a slower tempo or ramping up the intensity.
Adding more reps is pretty self-explanatory. If 5 reps at a certain weight has gotten easy and you have more reps left in the tank, increase the number of reps! Just note that once you get into the 12 and up rep range, you're working on muscle endurance, not strength, Wilson says.
Slowing down the tempo — for instance, lowering into a squat at a 3-second tempo or pausing in the hole for a 2-seconds — is another option. "Going slowly increases the time your muscle-fibers are under tension, which increases the mechanical damage," McCall says. More mechanical damage leads to stronger muscles (after repair, of course).
As for ramping up the intensity, there are a few ways to do it. You might combine the move with that works the same muscle groups to create a compound superset workout. You might compound the movement with exercises that work opposing muscle groups and create an AMRAP. Or, you might minimize rest by going every minute on the minute (aka EMOM).