To improve fitness levels, you need to push your body beyond its comfort zone by overloading your physical systems. One form of progression is progressive overload, which is the process of gradually increasing stress loads. Adaptation is the body’s physiological response to these stress loads from exercise. If you are exercising correctly, your body will adapt to the stress loads and become more efficient at doing them. However, continually increasing the stress loads eventually leads to plateauing.
Variation is the process of varying exercises to help the body overcome stagnation or plateauing as a result of adaptation and continue progressing. For the structured organization of variation over set periods refer to periodization.
It is essential not to overload too quickly or too much beyond your body’s ability for adaptation. The first 3 to 6 weeks of beginning a new exercise program should have little variation. You should be repeating the same exercises so that you can practice and learn to execute these exercises with proper technique. After that, you can start to look at gradual progressive overload and variation.
METHODS OF PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
The primary means of progressive overload in your workout are:
- A gradual increase in intensity (weight).
- Increase volume (more sets), to a point. Beyond about 4-5 sets, the value of strength gains begins to taper off until the point of overuse, which results in injury.
THE LIMITS OF PROGRESSION
Due to the limitations of genetic potential, progression can only follow the principle of diminishing returns. The longer you train, the harder it is to make improvements. Once you reach your goals or maximum genetic potential, which takes many years, it ends up being a routine of maintenance. At this point, unless you are a professional athlete, contentment in feeling fit and healthy can be motivating. However, you will still need to have variation in your program to avoid burnout and keep things interesting.
THE LIMITS OF VARIATION
Many people like to mix up their workouts with many different and new exercises to keep it interesting. For this reason, there is a general trend in the fitness industry towards continually creating new activities, equipment, and making claims of having hundreds of exercises. This may be effective for marketing. However, it isn’t beneficial for your progression.
Beyond the ideal basic exercises, the larger the variety of exercises you do, the less likely it is you will be doing them with proper technique. It is also less likely that you will be doing functionally relevant movements. It is for this reason that I keep the number of my exercises to a relative minimum. Very rarely is a new exercise innovative enough that it warrants inclusion into your program. It is better to do the basic functional exercises with proper technique to the point of mastery and mix them up.
If you want to stick with a workout program that has little variation but find it a bit unstimulating, the following techniques may help you through your workout:
- Listen to music, a podcast, or an audiobook.
- Watch TV.
- Exercise with friends or family.
- Set a goal by entering a competition such as a marathon or a triathlon.
- Go to a gym.
- Join a social club with a gym.
Making small variations to your regular exercises is an effective way to stimulate different motor units and fully develop the strength of a muscle group. Small variations can be made by changing your grip to overhand or underhand and changing your stance to shoulder width or sumo (wide apart).
A good rule of thumb is to change your workout after 3-6 weeks.