By: Greg Pignataro
As a follow-up to last week’s piece about fat loss, we’re going to broaden our focus this time. In order to help you structure a workout program or determine whether the one you’re currently following is right for you, there are three vital principles your exercise regimen must follow. A proper program must feature:
These three components are vital whether your goal is to look better, feel better, become stronger, run faster, improve your endurance, or anything else, really. The consistency component almost completely depends on you, while progressive overload has more to do with the program’s design. Adequate recovery relies on both you and the program.
With that in mind, know that any program featuring each of these three components can and should yield the results you want. However, if it’s missing even one of the three, your progress will slow and eventually cease altogether. Let’s examine each one of these three key pieces in more detail, shall we?
This principle is simple. Complete the program as written. If your workout routine calls for three workouts per week, work out three times per week. If you regularly complete two workouts one week, then four the next week to make up for it, your results will suffer. This is true even if your monthly workouts average out to roughly the same number of sessions per week. The tough love truth is, if you don’t follow a program at least 90% as prescribed, you forfeit any right to claim that it “didn’t work.” Exceptions can obviously be made if you are taking time to recover from injury, but a major goal of proper training is to avoid injury, so this shouldn’t be a frequent concern. In the end, remember this maxim, “The best program is the one you’ll stick to.”
2. Progressive Overload
This principle basically means that your body won’t change if you don’t challenge it. If you do the exact same workouts for months on end, your body will adapt and you will stop seeing improvements. To paraphrase multiple strength coaches from my past, “If you’re lifting the same exact weights you did six months ago, why the heck would you expect to look and feel any different than you did back then?”
With that in mind, allow me to elaborate about how progressive overload works. If you’re lifting weights, you can do any one of the following to increase the challenge over time:
If your workouts are more cardio-focused, you could
Clearly, there are a multitude of ways to follow the principle of progressive overload. However, I must stress that the increases must be gradual and manageable.
To illustrate, let’s suppose you can run 3 miles at an 8 minute pace and your goal is to run them at a 7 minute pace. Next time you run 3 miles, try running them at a 7:55 pace, not a 7:30 pace. Or, if you can squat 95 pounds for 5 reps, next time try squatting 100 pounds for 5 reps; don’t get ahead of yourself and try to squat 150 pounds.
Sidenote: Progressive Overload and Strength
One other key point to note is that you must make sure your body can adequately perform the movements you’re learning. Don’t change exercises so often that your body is constantly forced to attempt new ones. This is important because when you first start working out, most of the gains in strength you make are neurological. Your brain is coding new movement patterns, learning how to recruit previously underutilized muscle fibers, and increasing your body’s efficiency at making these muscle fibers contract harder and more quickly than they could before.
These are all important neurological adaptations, because they decrease the likelihood of injury when performing exercises of any kind. Then, once all of this change has occurred and your body has reached a point of proficiency with a movement, your muscles can start to grow. The previously trendy concept of “muscle confusion” has fallen mostly out of favor. To make a change in your body, you simply need to challenge it little by little with familiar exercises and properly performed movements, not give it something totally new every single time you work out.
3. Adequate Recovery
This is arguably the most important principle of the three. Why? Put simply, you could have a perfectly designed program and stick to it 100%, but still not see any progress if this principle isn’t followed. When working out, whether it be with weights or cardio, you are stressing your body. It isn’t so much the work in the gym that makes you stronger, it’s more what you do after you’ve completed them. Your workouts send your body signals that it needs to adapt to the demands you’re placing upon it. By consuming an adequate amount of food, getting enough sleep, and minimizing stress, you will put your body in a position to rebuild itself stronger than it was prior to the previous workout.
For a specific example of this principle not being followed, let’s suppose you have fantastic workouts but follow them up with eating only 800 total calories per day, getting 3 hours of sleep, and putting yourself under copious amounts of stress. If any one of these three conditions is true, you will start to feel, look, and physically perform noticeably worse, not better. So, prioritize your recovery. Seven to nine hours of sleep per night is crucial, as is an adequate intake of calories and minimizing stress where possible.
Tying it all together
There truly are a wide variety of workout programs that will yield the results you’re after, which makes it difficult to make an accurate judgment call about which type of training is “better” than any other. The truth is, if your program follows the above three principles and you enjoy doing it (or at least don’t hate it), then for you, it’s a great program. As long as you stick with it, gradually ramp up the challenge over time, and take care of your body afterwards, you’re on the path to powerful and lasting change.
Jake Coyle, the Founder of GRINDSET FITNESS, is a certified National Academy of Sports Medicine Personal Trainer, a Corrective Exercise Specialist, a Precision Nutrition Nutritionist, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise & Wellness, minor in Nutrition from Arizona State University.