Variation, Adaptation, Optimization
The Golden Rule of Fitness
After I retired from professional soccer, I used to run road races, marathons, and triathlons. I developed a “five days on, two days off” workout schedule that looked something like this: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I focused on endurance exercises such as body weight squats, step ups, light dumbbell work and an interval runs. Tuesdays and Thursdays I focused on strength and did a lot of lifting. The routine changed from day to day but was exactly the same from week to week. I did the same loads, the same movements, the same everything. On my off days, the weekends, I would go on long runs or long bike rides.
I loved this schedule -- no surprises, and no stress. I knew what was coming each day when I went to sleep the night before. I didn’t have to give much thought to anything; I didn’t have to learn new movements or worry about increasing loads because it all stayed the same. After awhile, though, I started to plateau. I wasn’t getting faster; I wasn’t getting leaner; and I was dealing with a number of nagging injuries. My body weight was the same, but my body fat percentage was increasing.
A common misunderstanding exists among those who are training for a specific event -- it's often thought that if a workout routine works (i.e. produces results or positive changes), it will continue to work, and improvements and progress will continue forever, just as it did during the first few weeks of training. However, science tells us that it simply doesn’t work that way.
A concept known as the “progressive loading theory” has been tested in many different ways. Researchers measured bone density in postmenopausal women who were at risk of osteoporosis and osteopenia, the degradation of bone, typical in postmenopausal women. The research found that when sedentary women who had lost bone density started to walk, bone density increased, but after six weeks of the same routine three times per week, the increases began to level out. In order for bone growth to continue, the focus group had to change from walking to running, or they had to walk with weight vests on.
Another study showed the same results with muscle hypertrophy, the growth of lean muscle – it leveled out after awhile. In order to continue to add strength, we have to gradually add weight and vary our activities. Learning new motor patterns stimulates the release of growth hormone, which in turn helps us get stronger, look younger, and improve our fitness. To dispel a popular myth related to loading additional weight, lifting heavier loads does not necessarily result in bigger muscles and added bulk. We can increase the load without decreasing the volume. A set of 20 reps at a heavier load will not build bulk. But a set of 10 reps at a very heavy load will build bulk when coupled with the right volume and proper recovery. So don’t change the volume, just progressively start to load a little more every so often.
Let me introduce The Golden Rule of Fitness: today should not look the same as yesterday. In other words, as long as we’re moving well, it’s critical to vary our movements, which includes progressively adding weight (load) over time, which constantly forces our bodies to adapt. Adaptation results in performance improvement and produces the physical results most of us strive for.