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.
Earlier this week, we discussed the principles of Adaptation and Progression, and how these both relate back to your fitness goals. Put simply, you need to contsantly increase the demands upon your body for it to continue to improve. This is true not only for strength training, but also for developing aerobic fitness, improving stability, gaining flexibility and developing muscular endurance.
While there is no question that a customized and individualized exercise program designed by a Qualified Exercise Professional is the most effective way to ensure effective way to ensure that you are continuously progressing your workouts towards your specific goal, working with Personal Trainers isn’t always a preferred or realistic approach for many people. That’s why so many choose group fitness options which allow them access to high quality programming for a fraction of the cost, and with the added benefit of building a community of friends.
There is a belief in the fitness industry that group fitness, by its very nature, can not effectively deliver a progressive overload due to the generic nature of the programs. Research indicates that, after an initial period of growth and development, many participants find their results slowing down or plateauing altogether.
As a seasoned CSEP Certified Personal Trainer, as well as an AFAA Group Fitness Instructor and NCCP Sports Coach, I sincerely believe that this phenomenon is due to 2 critical issues:
On the part of the instructor, it is created by a lack of structure and informed progressive planning in their program design, and
On the part of the participant, a lack of understanding of how and when to influence their own work outs and push themselves beyond their comfort zone. (Which is, in large part, why I am writing this series for you!)
A well designed program, along with a sound base of knowledge, can and should effectively be able to create a progressive overload in virtually all participants. So today, we will take a look at some of the easiest ways to progress your group fitness workouts based on the programs you are using and the fitness goals you have in mind.
Increase the weight
Go ahead, load up that bar! Grab that heavier dumbbell! Take your push up from wall to your knees! Increasing the weight refers to the literal amount of weight you are trying to work with.
Best For: Building larger muscles and increasing overall strength
Most Applicable in: Classes that utilize resistance training equipment such as barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands, such as Surge, Short Circuit, and Transformer.
Do more reps
Need to distract yourself from that muscle burn feeling? Try counting your reps in each set! Aiming to do one or two reps more per exercise set can dramatically increase your workload. Going from 10 reps to 12 reps is a 20% rep increase! That’s massive!
Best For: Increasing muscular endurance and re-enforcing proper technique at lighter loads.
Most Applicable In: Classes that are timed such as Surge, Short Circuit, and TRX
Decrease the base of support
Did you know that balancing on one foot requires effort from your toes all the way up to your head! Balance is a trained fitness component that involves significant core stabilization. Taking exercises from two feet to one foot, or from a stable base to an unstable one is an easy and efficient way to progress your work out.
Best For: Improving stability and muscular endurance, and integrating the core
Most Applicable In: Classes that focus on lower weights and higher repetitions, though it can be integrated into most unchoreographed/lightly choreographed workouts. Ideal for Open Barre, Fuze, Short Circuit, TRX and Surge.
Manipulate the range of motion
Range of motion (ROM) is best described as the full movement potential of a joint, usually in extension or flexion. Now, in exercise, refine this definition to include safety, efficiency and effectiveness, as not all human bodies are able to fully move their joints to their full capacity. A person’s ROM is a reflection of their flexibility. We can manipulate ROM as a training tool by either a) seeking to get as much range as is safely possible with each repetition, or b) targeting specific muscle fibres through strategically utilized partial range movements (ie: working only the top half or bottom half of a movement)
Best for: increasing the size and shape of a muscle, as well improving the flexibility about a joint.
Most Applicable In: Virtually all classes, but specifically relevant in Transformer, Pound Fitness, Open Barre, and CardioLIT, where choreography can sometimes impede ROM.
Play with the tempo
One of the best things about Group Fitness is the MUSIC! But did you know that Tempo- or the speed at which you are working- isn’t just about the tunes? Your movement tempo can greatly affect your fatigue levels, either by slow down and focusing on control and stability, or by speeding things up and trigger our fast-twitch, speech responsive muscle fibres!
Best For: A slowed tempo will help to develop and strengthen your slow-twitch muscle fibres which are responsible for muscular endurance, and an increased tempo will fire off the fast twitch muscle fibres responsible for power and explosive reaction.
Most Applicable In: This technique is one of the primary one used in choreographed fitness classes such as Transformer, CardioLIT, Open Barre and Pound. Non-choregraphed programs such as Short Circuit and TRX may also make use of tempo manipulations to increase or change workload.
NOTE: Remember that increasing your speed should never come at the expense of your form! Safety first, friends!
Maximize OR Minimize your recovery
So I know that this one seems contradictory. After all, how can two polar opposite approaches both yield the same result? The trick to recovery is understanding your training goals and what your body needs to do to best achieve these.
If, for example, you are working on aerobic endurance, then achieving and maintaining a steady-state heart rate might be the best strategy for your class. In this case, performing continuous or near work might be the most effective strategy. Alternatively, if your training goal is to perform high intensity work or to work as hard as you can for a short period of time, recovery periods become essential for allowing your body to recover fully and work at its maximum potential with every set.
The simple rule of thumb here is “the harder you work, the more taking recovery periods matters.” A high quality recovery period can improve your work out, but too much recovery can impede your progress, so make sure to talk to your instructor about how to best manage this in their classes.
Best for: Manipulating the body’s reaction to exercise to allow it to better achieve your training goal.
Applicable in: Shorter Recovery interval: CardioLIT, Pound, Running Club, Kickboxing, TRX, Fuze; Higher recovery interval: Surge, Short Circuit, Transformer
Integrate additional muscles
This one is actually quite simple. While there is definitely a time and place for isolated resistance training, working on only one muscle group at a time, the more of your body you use at once, the harder your body needs to work. Compounding exercises, or working on several muscle groups simultaneously, is an extremely effective strategy for increasing your workload and progressing your workouts.
Best For: Exercises that allow for greater leeway when it comes to form and precision (ie: Step Ups, with an integration of cross body upper torso/arm movements), or that work two or more muscle groups as part of their design (ie: Bicep curl to shoulder press).
Most Applicable In: CardioLIT, Pound Fitness, TRX, and Short Circuit.
Sometimes, the most effective ‘weight’ is the one created by your own body! Adding hops, jumps and plyometrics to cardio body weight movements can leave you feeling mighty sweaty, super out-of-breathy. Amp these up by adding directional changes or involving all the different planes of motion! Upper body plyometrics are also excellent progression options and include plyometric punches, push ups, throws, tosses and slams.
Best for: Improving muscle speed and power, muscle recruitment and the density of fast-twitch muscle fibres.
Most Applicable In: CardioLIT, Kickboxing, and the BODY WEIGHT components of TRX, Kickboxing, Surge, Short Circuit,
NOTE: Weighted plyometrics are extremely high impact, can be damaging to the joints and should only be attempted by seasoned athletes under the supervision of qualified exercise professionals.
So there you have it. While not exhaustive, these 8 strategies are practical, easy to integrate progression options that will allow you to maximize your work out and take control of your fitness level. Remember, your instructors are your partners in this process. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help, advice or specific modifications to help you get the most out of your time with them!
But wait! We taught you how to progress your workouts…but how do you know when to progress them? Well, we will talk about that a little more when we take a closer look at intensity later in this series!
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.