Updated: Jun 4, 2021
Training programs should be built on solid principles. One fundamental principle that needs to be considered is progression. This principle is based on the physiological findings which show that for a training adaptation to occur, and for the body to improve, the intensity of the training sessions needs to be progressively increased. Unfortunately, many people are often reluctant to go out of their comfort zone and continuously follow the same training routine over and over again. How many times have I heard people say “I go for a 30-minute run every day”? When I ask them back what pace do they run to, their reply is often a slow jog. Although this is still better than doing no training, the body will fail to progress if it is not challenged.
At first, beginners will see drastic improvements even by training at very low intensities. This improvement is due to the body adapting and learning the technique that is being used. For example, many people find that they can lift heavier weights after just a few sessions. As the neuromuscular system learns the technique, it will start recruiting more muscle fibers when attempting the exercise. The priority for beginners should be to perfect their technique before progressing to more intense workouts. This applies even to advanced athletes learning new skills. Failure to learn the technique early can cause problems later on including reaching a saturation point at best, where no improvement can be gained due to poor technique, and injuries at worst.
As the intensity of the sessions increase, physical attributes start to improve as well. For example, an increase in cardiovascular endurance can help you run for longer periods. Similarly, an increase in muscle mass (hypertrophy) will also help you lift heavier weights or do more sets or reps. These adaptations may not occur if the intensity of training is not increased. Therefore, training should progress in the long term. Using short-term training programs will lead to unstable progress and your body will never make lasting adaptations. Stick to a training program, with similar patterns. Do not be fooled by quick results. You will soon lose any improvement if you are not consistent!
This does not mean that some exercises and routines cannot vary from time to time. Introducing different workouts can help avoid burnout and increase interest and motivation in training. This does not need to contradict the principle of consistency. Rather, variety will help to spice things up. Do not change things just for the sake of change as this could lead to unwanted adaptations. Make sure that any variations you implement in your training plan that are still specific to your goals. Exercises are not the only thing that can be changed. Load and volume can also be changed by mixing sets, reps, and times. This can create different stress on the body and can help you get out of a strut. Using a nonlinear (or undulating) progression instead of linear progression by varying load and volume weekly or daily, can help provide variation to the training program whilst sticking to a progressive program. Be smart when implementing changes to your training program. Drastically changing the training program weekly can prevent the body from making the required adaptations or making adaptations that are not specific to your goals.
An important part of progression is to have adequate recovery. This can be either between workouts or between exercises during the same workout. Always plan your rest as the most important training adaptations occur during this time. If not enough rest is given, the body cannot improve, fatigue can accumulate, and the risk of injury increases.
Finally, a training session should also be progressive, starting with the warmup and slowly increasing the intensity throughout. Many people are strapped for time so they are tempted to skip the warm-up. A warm-up reactivates motor patterns gradually, prepares you mentally for the workout, and creates the ideal body conditions for training and to prevent injuries. Moral of the story: never skip a warm-up!
Thanks for reading, and as always stay fit!
Harries, S. K., Lubans, D. R., & Callister, R. (2015). Systematic review and meta-analysis of linear and undulating periodized resistance training programs on muscular strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(4), 1113-1125.
Turner, J. D., Mazzoleni, M. J., Little, J. A., Sequeira, D., & Mann, B. P. (2017). A nonlinear model for the characterization and optimization of athletic training and performance. Biomedical Human Kinetics, 9(1), 82-93.