Science of Progression: How to Improve Consistently
Training programs, whether they be for sports or fitness, all share one common thing — a focus on progression. If you’re strength training, add more weight as your body gets stronger, and if you’re performing cardiovascular workout, add intensity and volume until you can go farther and faster. Simple, right? Not quite. The science of progression in strength training or running requires closer study.
Before we get into the specifics of exercise progression, it’s important to understand how the body works. Hans Selye, a pioneering Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist, introduced the world to the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) in the 1930s. GAS refers to the fact that the body adapts to stressful situations (such as running) by getting stronger. However, if the stress placed upon it gets too high and/ or goes on for too long, the body would break down. The latter is important to take note of, as it highlights the importance of rest and recovery.
Therefore, the genesis of any training program is to stress the body over what it normally is used to, then allow it to rest, before increasing the stress. Done repeatedly and correctly, this process allows for an individual to progress in their fitness level and athletic performance. This in short, is the science of progression.
Periodization is the systematic process by which an individual integrates stress and rest into a training program to elicit the highest possible training adaptations, such as lifting more weight or running faster.
A typical periodization model arranges a set period of time (typically a year) into distinct periods that last several months. For example, a periodization model might have three periods: foundation, competition, and off-season. These periods are often referred to as macro cycles, thanks to their long-time durations.
These macro cycles are typically broken down further into several shorter periods called meso cycles. Often, meso cycles are one month in duration. Lastly, micro cycles are integrated – typically a week per microcycle. The main thrust is that as the cycle gets smaller, the training specificity and focus is more detailed.
Throughout a week, rest/ recovery days are integrated and often, longer rest periods are incorporated after meso and macro cycles to allow the athlete to recover properly.
The competition period is when intensity is at its highest level as this is when athletes are specifically training for races. Lastly, the off-season period is highlighted by an increase in rest and recovery, as well as focusing on the individual’s perceived weak areas.
If an individual progresses too fast and/ or does not rest enough, or at all, they risk becoming “overtrained”. This term refers to the point at which an individual does not make any progress due to too much stress and not enough rest. This is represented by the last stage of the GAS theory, noted above.
A common progression metric in respect to distance in the endurance sports world is the 10% rule. Essentially, it means that training volume increases should be 10% weekly, or that weekly training volume should not be increased by more than 10%. While the origin of the rule is unknown, the overall rationale behind it is solid — to minimize the risk of overtraining and thus, a lack of forward progress or injury.
However, like most rules in training, it is far too rigid to be truly applicable and thus, practical. There is a sweet spot in one’s training program, where a 10% volume weekly increase is likely correct. However, this is solely a function of the 10% rule operating on a bell curve. So, at low volumes, a 10% weekly volume increase may not be enough, whereas when an individual is training at a high volume, a 10% weekly increase is likely way too much.
Therefore, volume increases must be determined on an individual basis versus a set percentage across the board. Having said that, the 10% increase, in terms of volume or intensity, generally works well until you begin to know your body. And more importantly, your recovery pattern.
Common mistakes and solutions
Below are some common mistakes that many make in respect to the science of progression in exercise.
1. Progress too fast
People often equate feeling good during an exercise session or being able to successfully lift a particular weight to being ready to progress to a higher intensity or weight. An individual should be able to do a minimum of three to four of the same exercise sessions with minimal or no post-exercise soreness or fatigue before increasing the volume or intensity. In respect to resistance training, connective tissue adapts at a slower rate than muscles. Therefore, it is recommended that an individual be able to complete a specific exercise at a set weight and repetitions at least five to six times before progressing in weight, repetitions, or sets.
2. Progress too slow
While not as common as progressing too fast, some people stay at the same level of exercise intensity and/ or duration for long periods of time. In order to progress, stress is needed to be placed on the body. Therefore, if an individual does not change their exercise routine for long periods of time, progression will not occur.
It is recommended that in order to keep progressing, an individual should vary their training routine and if they have been at the same level of intensity and, or volume for more than a few weeks with no muscle soreness or fatigue, the volume and, or intensity should be increased.
3. Pushing through pain
The old adage of “no pain, no gain” is often used in the context of improving one’s physical conditioning. While intense training is often a part of a training program, it involves discomfort rather than pain. Individuals who push through pain during workouts or races are more susceptible to injuries or making them worse. This results in a halt of forward progress. Therefore, if pain is felt during a training session, it is best to stop and assess the situation instead of blindly ignoring it.
4. Not enough rest
In an effort to progress as fast as possible, individuals often do not take enough rest days, or get enough rest in general. While this may seem to make sense on the surface, it is counterintuitive. Training without the proper amount of rest will lead to overtraining syndrome. This in turn can hampers any forward progress and puts an individual at a greater risk for injury.
For beginners, a minimum of two days per week should be allocated for rest, with three days likely being the optimal amount. As noted previously, if a periodization training model is being followed, a rest week after each meso cycle is often integrated to allow an individual to properly recover before the next meso cycle.
Progressing through an exercise program is largely a function of stress management. As too much or too little stress on the body will slow one’s rate of progress. By adopting a structured and periodised program, getting enough rest, and not pushing through pain, it would be possible for an athlete to maximize their fitness and results. Understanding the science of progression can go a long way in achieving these results.