In the age of ClassPass, your sweat schedule probably looks something like this: Mondays, you run. Wednesdays, you do some strength training. Fridays, you hit up an exercise class. If you have time to mix things up with another workout class or HIIT session, all the better.
That’s what getting fit is all about, right? Mixing things up.
Yes and, well, mostly no. Sure, you won’t see much of any change in your fitness or physique if you do the exact same thing during each workout, but your workouts go largely wasted if you are constantly “keeping your body guessing.”
“Too much ‘muscle confusion’ doesn't allow women to truly get better, stronger, and more athletic. The goal becomes lost in the process,” says Baltimore-based strength coach Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. Yeah, you burn calories at the gym, but that’s pretty much the extent of your workout bennies. You don’t build much muscle, or get significantly better at any given exercise, both of which are necessary to burn more fat, push yourself harder in the gym, and hit your fitness goals.
“If you program hop or head from class to class, you’re not giving your body a chance to adapt and get stronger, which ultimately leads to results,” says St. Louis-based trainer Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S. “It might sound slightly counterintuitive, but we do want the body to adapt to your workouts. We just want it to adapt in a slightly more systematic way.”
That “way” is called progressive overload. “Progressive overload equals ‘doing more of something over a period of time’ and it is the most important law in training,” Suter says.
Here’s how it works: You stress your body with a new, challenging workout, and your body responds by adapting just slightly. That’s your go-ahead to dial that workout up a bit more because, hey, your body can now totally breeze through it. The result: Your body adapts again, and this cycle keeps repeating itself until you’re ripped and able to crush fitness feats you never thought possible.
Get With The Program
“To burn fat, build muscle, or get better or stronger at an exercise, your workout program should remain pretty consistent for a minimum of six to eight weeks,” Suter says. You might even complete a given workout routine for 10 weeks before changing up the exercises in your arsenal.
Sound like one helluva long time to stick with one workout without plateauing? That’s where micro-progressions come in. By regularly increasing your exercise intensity or workload—with simple tweaks to your reps, sets, weights, rest, or even form—you continue to overload the body and keep it guessing just enough.
For example, if you are currently performing three sets of 10 squats, and want to ramp things up, next week, you can try performing four sets of 10 reps or three sets of 12 reps with the same weight, Thomas says. You could also go up in weights, decrease your amount of rest between sets, or slow down how you perform your squats, which definitely makes them more challenging. Switching up your stance or descending lower into each squat also works like a charm when it comes to overload.
How do you know when you’re ready to ramp things up? As a good rule of sweat, you’re ready to go up in weight, reps, sets, or anything else when you can get through every rep of an exercise with proper form and feel like you still have something (even if just one rep) left in the tank. Remember, though, that you’re not going to be able to progress every single week. In fact, some weeks you might actually need to back off, Suter says. If your sleep quality, energy levels, or anything else is less than 100 percent, it’s important to listen to your body and stick with what you can handle that day.
Luckily, to make real, lasting fitness gains, not every single workout has to be this routine. “Depending on your goals, your exercise routine may only involve three to four days of structured programming per week. There's no reason why you couldn’t frequently change up what you do the rest of the week,” Thomas says. “Maybe your strength workouts are focused on progressive overload, but you go to yoga once a week and kickboxing or cycling another day. That’s a great way to make sure you are focused on your results but also engaged and loving your workouts. That’s when real progress happens.”