It’s September, which means gyms, golf courses and sports clubs are full of new participants using the beginning of the school year as a reason to jump-start their fitness goals, and old clients returning from lazy weeks of vacation. The one aspect they should all be paying attention to: principles of progression.
Although that might sound like something pertaining to guitar chords or education, it’s fitness terminology for how to safely and yet effectively increase your exercise load to see gains in strength and endurance. Hint: You can’t and shouldn’t try to go from visiting the gym once a month to bench-pressing your weight, or from being couch potato to running a six-minute mile overnight.
But how do we know where to start and when to progress?
If you’re a neophyte or have been out of your routine for six months or longer, small and frequent doses of exercise are the way to go. Washington personal trainer Elizabeth Brooks suggests starting with light cardio for 20 minutes three times a week, weight-bearing exercise for 20 minutes two times a week, as well as 10 minutes of daily stretching. That’s a combined 150 minutes of exercise per week – similar to government guidelines.
“But that’s just a base. You still need to think about how you can keep moving throughout the day, every day,” Brooks says.
For those who have been semiactive during the summer or just away for a short while, Brooks’s recommendations are different. “If you’ve been away for a few weeks, you might start back with the same activities you were doing before your break, just decrease the intensity,” she says. Instead of doing a regular pullup you might do a modified one (where the feet rest on the floor, the bar is only a few feet off the ground and your body is at an incline).
This also means that Brooks’s clients will “get back to basics.” First they will do body-weight (no dumbbells or machines) exercises – to make sure their bodies are moving soundly and safely on their own. “Once your body-weight squat looks good, we can consider adding weights,” Brooks says.
Max Prokopy is an exercise physiologist at the SPEED Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Medicine (the acronym stands for Strength, Power, Endurance, Education and Development). He offers these guidelines for increasing intensity:
– Easy to moderate running: No more than a 10 percent increase in distance or duration per week, so a 20-minute run becomes 22 minutes, or a 2-mile run becomes 2.2 miles.
– Golfing: No more than a 20 percent game-time increase per week.
Prokopy says increasing intensity too quickly – going from nothing to four consecutive days of 18 to 36 holes – often means that aspects such as swing technique become compromised, and injuries or severe soreness and fatigue can be the fallout.
For weights, the timing and level of progression are more difficult to gauge. Adding 10 percent a week for bench press would mean you could become a bodybuilder in no time. Or, more likely, get hurt. “Basically, the greater the intensity of the exercise, the more gradual the increase,” Prokopy says. He and the other experts suggest using form, ease and level of soreness as indications that it’s time to – slightly – increase the amount of weight.
In fact, form, ease and soreness can be important indicators of when to progress any fitness routine, and might serve athletes better than automatic increases in distance, duration or weight. “Listen to the body,” Brooks says. Can you use and maintain good form throughout a particular movement or duration? Has your routine stopped posing a challenge? Are you no longer sore after your workouts? Then it could be time to increase intensity.
“I always tell my clients that when it comes to fitness we want to focus on being well-rounded and not to get too focused on numbers,” says Mike Tanoory, a personal trainer in Washington. By numbers, he’s referring to those on your scale, your Garmin watch or your dumbbells. So rather than, for example, getting caught up in running at a certain clip, mix it up and hit several facets of fitness, such as range of motion, coordination, balance and strength, as well as cardio.
Being well-rounded isn’t just a great way to stay injury-free, Tanoory says, but also to keep workouts interesting so that hopefully we continue to do them every day for the rest of our lives. “This never ends. There is no age it stops. Finding a way to incorporate these good habits in your daily life is key,” Tanoory says. Note that he said “daily.” Being sedentary during the week and then working like a college athlete during the weekend is a sure route to injury.
Finally, remember that your fitness is your fitness, the experts say. In other words, listen to your body and don’t worry about what another runner or gymgoer is doing. Progress – whatever that means to you (getting stronger, faster, gaining endurance, losing weight) – happens when you work out consistently and progress gradually.
“Take your cues from how you feel,” Brooks says. “Not from the latest fitness trend, other people in the gym or a TV program.”