The Principle of Overload


Most of what we read and hear about fitness comes from advertising. If this is all you see, you may think the rules of fitness and exercise are very simple. Just choose a body part and work it out.  Find the “best exercise” and do it for 60 or 20 or 7 or 4 minutes.

Just do it!

Train dirty! 

No pain, no gain!”

Or perhaps you’ve found a program with “effortless exercise” that promises “dramatic results quickly.” It almost sounds too good to be true.

Without knowing the fundamentals of fitness you might think there is nothing more to do, or even think about. Too often the questions raised are very predictable:

  • What body part is the exercise for?
  • Will it make that part bigger (“tone-up”) or smaller (“tone-down”)?
  • Is the exercise easy to do, or clunky and strenuous?
  • How long will it take?

This entire dialog misses the mark. These questions perpetuate fitness myths more than anything else. They are a roadblock to results because they feed the goal of getting bigger or smaller quickly and easily. Fortunately, there’s a better way to plan your workouts.

The science of exercise recognizes several rules that are known as the principles of conditioning. At Live Better Fitness we call them The Golden Rules of Fitness. They will help you make better fitness decisions for better fitness results.

Golden Rule 1 Overload

Our bodies have the capacity to adapt and improve. The ability of the human body to accommodate increasing physical demands is known as stress adaptation. When modest physical stress is applied to the body, and followed by an appropriate recovery period, performance improves.

This phenomenon does not occur in nonliving systems. When a chair is overloaded it breaks. When your computer runs out of memory it does not automatically acquire more – no matter how long you let it rest. But our bodies, when carefully overloaded by exercise, will respond by increasing our capacity for physical work.

Exercise cannot be effortless because without effort there is no stimulus, and  without stimulus there is no response. And that means no results.

Overload refers to the quantity of physical stress applied to the body. The body must be asked to perform work that is not normally encountered. As your fitness improves a greater overload will be required to stimulate further improvement. Increasing overload as fitness improves is known as progression. It is the reason why your old program may not work anymore in terms of getting results. You may have outgrown it.

If your exercise routine for the past year has included jogging 2 miles in 20 minutes, your fitness has likely reached a plateau. To further enhance your fitness, you would need to increase the distance, the speed or incorporate some hills into your workout. Similarly, if you perform the same bodyweight exercises every morning, and you want to improve your fitness, it would be beneficial to add some resistance by performing weight training and making it an alternate day routine.

The body will adapt to a modest overload, but only if it is allowed to recover. The greater the overload, the longer the recovery needed.

When progressing overload, each increase should be modest. About 5-10% every week or two is recommended. If you lift 50 lb twice a week for two weeks and you feel ready for more, increasing by 2.5 or 5 lb makes sense.

A conservative approach works best because it is safer and more effective. It is also important to get enough recovery. Insufficient recovery between workouts will impede progress. This common mistake is one type of overtraining and it is a probable cause of many preventable injuries. If you are sticking to a fitness program and not making progress in terms of how much, how far, how fast or even how comfortably you perform the workout, then you may need to increase your recovery time between workouts. This may be accomplished be decreasing the number of workouts per week, or by rearranging your schedule to rest the overworked muscles.

Keep the principle of overload in mind the next time your hear about the latest greatest “easy exercise” or “killer workout” that promises awesome results. Any workout worth it’s weight in overload should be scalable to your individual fitness level, needs and goals. Make sure you talk to someone who can answer the right questions.

Need to catch up on your fitness education? Start here

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