The following post is the first in a five post series called “Understanding The Principles Of Fitness”. This post concerns the principle of progressive overload. Future posts will address the Principles of Specificity, Reversibility, Variability, and Individuality.
The other day, after a particularly grueling session of CardioLIT, a participant exclaimed “Just when I thought I was getting better at this, Zita brings in new choreography and shows me just how close to death I actually am!”
It was intended as a joke, a bit of self-deprecating snicker among close friends, but I felt the need to address it with the group.
I answered, “You know that I keep making things harder for you on purpose, right? That it’s not that you aren’t as fit as you thought you were, but it’s that you are actually way fitter than before which means I have to find new ways to challenge you even more?”
This led to a great discussion about one of my favourite training principles: Progressive Overload.
We hear a lot in modern fitness culture that exercise “doesn’t get easier; you just get better.”
And, like so many things in pop-fitness culture, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Exercises DO get easier as you get stronger, and if you want to continue getting stronger, you need to constantly remember to find ways to challenge yourself.
Whether you are trying to get faster, stronger, or even more flexible, the key to fitness success lies in "progressive overload", the gradual increase of physical demands placed on the body beyond its normal capacities.
You see, the body is a brilliant machine that is designed to do one primary thing: to stay alive as long as it can. And one of the ways that it does this is by adaptation to its environment. The body is capable of making amazing changes in order to meed the demands placed upon it. It does this by carefully measuring and balancing its energy expenditure and energy balance. Note: The body will use more energy when it needs to, and conserve energy when it doesn’t need to in order to use it in the future.
Every time you perform a strenuous physical activity, your body undergoes stress. Ligaments and tendons are stretched, muscle fibres are torn (we call these tears “micro tears”) , and stored energy is consumed. After the stress is over, your body enters into a restorative cycle, during which several systems activate to repair the damage that the tissues have undergone. If this damage is minor, the recovery process is quick and easy. If the damage is more significant, the recovery process takes longer.
The repair process for skeletal muscle, the type of muscle that we use to move our bodies, results a few fascinating changes, all of which directly relate to the type of activity we underwent. We call this the Principle of Specificity. The body is capable of becoming stronger, faster, leaner, more powerful, more flexible and more energy efficient. It truly is remarkable!
But change is hard, even for a body designed to undergo it. And all of these changes require expending energy. Now remember: The body has one major job. and that is to stay alive. The best way to stay alive is to store as much energy as possible in order to have it available for use when it needs it.
This means that, while the body is fully capable of expending energy, it will not expend energy on things that it doesn’t feel it needs to. It only adapts to new environments when it feels that it is forced to.
As the body is exposed to the same stimulus repeatedly, it becomes increasingly well adapted to that specific activity. This is why a CardioLIT or Open Barre routine that may have seemed impossible a few weeks earlier becomes easier as you perform it more often. Every time you perform it, the body undergoes its adaptation cycle as a response to the stress that you imposed on it.
But what happens when the ‘stress’ doesn’t actually feel like stress anymore? What happens when you have gotten so good at the routine, and your body has gotten so well adapted to it, that it doesn’t feel like work anymore?
Well, then your body gives itself a Big Ol’ Proverbial Pat-On-The-Back and stops sending the signals to change. After all, it no longer needs to change. It has become perfectly suited to the demands you are placing on it. It has undergone a successful adaptation. It no longer perceives a reason to make you stronger, faster, or more resilient.
This means that, in order to keep progressing in your fitness goals, you must continue to find ways to make your workouts more challenging. By strategically changing the stress your body is undergoing, you can create the variability you need in order to change and grow.
In “Understanding Adaptation Pt. 2, we will talk more about the many different strategies you can use to keep yourself growing and adapting!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zita Dube-Lockhart (CSEP CPT, NASM CES, AFAA GFI) is known for her voracious appetite for t̶a̶c̶o̶s̶ knowledge and her unquenchable t̶h̶i̶r̶s̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶w̶i̶n̶e̶ passion for creating accessible fitness opportunities for every body and everyone.