By Elliot Fisher MS, ATC, CSCS, PES
It takes a lot of work to get better at something. As you get better, it becomes more and more difficult to keep improving. The same is true with exercise. When trying to improve fitness, progressive overload must occur in order to continue making adaptations. Progressive overload refers to making exercise more difficult over time. There are many ways you can make your workouts more difficult in order to ensure you are continually getting better.
Volume refers to the amount of work done. This can be measured in number of sets, repetitions, number of workouts, etc. Any increase in volume over time is a great way to ensure progressive overload. For example, if someone starts working out only three days a week, but three years later is working out six days a week, assuming the workouts are similar, more work would be done overtime. This can also be done by:
Adding repetitions when you can with a given weight
Adding weight with the same number of repetitions
Adding more sets to an exercise
Doing more total reps in a workout
Intensity is commonly overloaded by just adding weight to an exercise overtime. Another way to increase the intensity is by the amount of effort given in a set. Rating of perceived exertion (RPE) is a tool used to rate the intensity of an exercise on a scale of 1 to 10, from not taxing at all to a maximal effort.1 By hitting a RPE 7 on week one and a RPE 8 on week two, overload is occurring through more effort.
Another way workouts can become more difficult is by using less rest time between sets. For a heavy set, it is not uncommon to take five or more minutes to rest. Overtime, with the same weight, taking less time to rest will make workouts more difficult.
Additionally, by using better technique on an exercise than before, progress is being made. If someone does bicep curls for a set of 12 and swings the weight up with some momentum from their back to get the last couple of reps, and in a couple weeks can do that same weight for a set of 12 without using momentum, they have gotten stronger in those weeks. Try to use the best technique when exercising and as form gets better, strength will come as well.
It is crucial to put more effort into each workout to continue making progress. However, it is unsustainable to keep adding things every workout for years and years. A better plan is to ramp up the workout over a period of time, maybe around five weeks, then back off a little and ramp up again for another five weeks. Variation can also be a great tool here. For each block of training, exercises can be switched, the reps can switch from higher to lower, etc. These changes enable you to progress on a large spectrum of exercises and loads so you can continue to get better in the longterm without overtaxing yourself.
It is important to put in more work over the long term in order to see continued results. This can be done in many ways including adding volume, intensity, less rest time, and better technique. One way to ensure this is occurring is by tracking your workouts in a log to see if you are doing more or time.
Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2015). Essentials of strength training and conditioning 4th edition. Human kinetics.