The importance of exercise progression
Author: Matt Whitaker, Digital Health Lead/6 June 2019
This blog covers the basic principles of exercise progression and is aimed at our typical programme participant and not highly trained individuals.
Progression is defined as “the process of developing or moving gradually towards a more advanced state”. Tailoring this to exercise: it is important to increase overload which can be done simply by following the FITT principle- frequency, intensity, time and type. This blog examines the importance, benefits and practicalities of progression in exercise.
Firstly, I must stress that any exercise is better than no exercise. It is important to build up slowly, particularly if trying new movements or if you were previously very sedentary.
As discussed in a previous blog, weight loss inevitably plateaus. This happens because your body adapts to the given stimulus – in this case, an energy deficit. The ability of the human body to adapt goes beyond alterations in weight and encompasses exercise progression. This is apparent regardless of exercise type. Eventually if the same routine is performed you will reach a point where fitness, strength, balance, coordination (and most other benefits of exercise) improvements will halt. Thus, making continuing on that exact routine generally pointless.
The notion of progressive overload in exercise will facilitate the continued reaping of these benefits. This make all your hard work continually worth the effort. Essentially for improvements to continually occur, your exercise routine/programme needs to be systematically reformed so that the body is forced to adapt to the changing stimuli.
Benefits of incorporating progressive overload can be largely sub-categorised into two categories: progression in resistance training and cardiovascular training.
In resistance training progression can:
enhance neurological adaptations which supports balance and coordination.
increase muscular size and strength.
making your body more functionally capable.
improve energy levels and increase metabolic rate and glycogen capacity.
Other benefits include: improvements in glycaemic control, insulin sensitivity and bone health.
Progression in cardiovascular exercise trains your heart which can have a hypertrophic effect. This increases atrium and ventricle capacity and thus blood volume per pump. This improves your body’s ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to cells. Exposing the heart to a higher workload will cause adaptions and will improve its efficiency. Other benefits include improvements in your blood lipid profile and reductions in blood pressure.
With any form of exercise, when your body adapts, change something with the exercise. Some signs that your body has adapted and thus plateaued include: you no longer feel challenged when going for the same run/walk/swim/bike ride etc. but you once did; you are performing the same number of repetitions with the same weight (or body weight) and no longer feel challenged like you once did; you can do what you once did with very little rest time.
What is changed depends entirely on your goals and the type of exercise. We regularly use the FITT (frequency, intensity, time and type) model with patients as it forms basic pillars of exercise progression that can all be adapted.
Regardless to exercise type, if you feel progress has stalled, you could add in an extra exercise session each week. This does not have to be as intense as the others (and if that is unattainable it could be something to work towards) but any increments in the frequency of exercise will help contribute to overall volume. If increasing frequency is something you may implement, start slow and just add one extra session in each week.
To give an example, let’s say you walk ~2.5mph for 30 minutes and this is regarded as medium intensity when you first started out. After a month of two you may feel that this exact same level of exertion is now regarded as low intensity. You have enhanced fitness. Your body has adapted, now you may have to walk at 3.5mph for 30 minutes to be back at medium intensity.
If you are seeking progression in resistance exercise you could look to increase the resistance and/or the number of reps performed and/or the time you spend resting between sets and/or the speed in which you complete the movement. Practically speaking let’s say you squat your body weight 10x and repeat five times, resting 30 seconds in-between and is no longer challenging. You could either:
Continue to squat 10x and repeat five times but do so holding 5kg (added resistance)
Squat your body weight 12x and repeat five times (added reps)
Squat 10x and repeat five times but rest for 20 seconds in-between (less rest time)
Continue to squat 10x and repeat five times but consciously perform the movement faster than previously
Eventually the implemented progression will also become easier. At this point you ramp up the intensity further. These principles are ones you can carry over regardless of the resistance movement. Choosing the one that best fits your goals is an important consideration.
Government guidance suggests at a minimum we should perform exercise for 150 minutes each week. Recommendations suggest this is split into five bouts of 30 minutes. Using the example from earlier of an individual walking at ~2.5mph for 30 minutes, rather than ramping up the speed (as suggested above) the time could be altered. So the person could walk at the same pace but for 35 minutes. When this becomes easy they may increase this to 40 minutes etc.
Alternatively, if resistance training you could add another set to some movements to increase overall volume. Thus time spent doing the exercise. It is important to consider that this may also increase the intensity.
If you only perform one type of exercise there will always be additional benefits you can reap by adding a new type of exercise in. For example if you only run and your progress plateaus you may benefit from resistance training. Primarily in the lower body due to improvements in: muscle mass, functionality, balance, coordination, insulin sensitivity and glycogen stores. Alternatively, if you only perform resistance training you would benefit from a more efficient heart as oxygen and nutrient transportation will be optimised.
Exercise programmes that encompass both resistance and cardiovascular elements seem to be the most effective. They allow for prolonged progression before altering the stimulus is required.
It is important to see all these methods of progression as temporary fixes as your body will inevitably adapt again. At which point you should seek further progression. This is certainly a good problem to have as it shows advancement.
Monitoring progression is essential. You could achieve this by keeping a log of your exercise sessions and note how you found the session. Doing this will keep make it obvious when it is time to push your body further.
Knowing when you are progressing will be obvious. You will be able to move faster, longer, your resting heart rate may drop, energy levels improve, and certain health results may see favourable changes. When a workout is noticeably easier keep a keen eye on the next one. If this is also easier then push progression. Be wary not to progress too quickly though (don’t run before you walk- literally!) as this may increase the risk of injury and/or overtraining.
On a final note
Making noticeable changes specifically to the exercise programme you are doing will help with progression. However making sustainable healthy lifestyle changes, such as: dietary improvements and managing stress and sleep will also have a surprising knock on effect and will enhance your fitness, recovery and motivation.