June 18, 2024
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If You Want to Get Stronger, Routine Is the Enemy

To get the most out of your strength training, try progressive overload.

When Bryan Mann talks about weight lifting, he often tells the story of Milo of Croton, a Greek wrestler who lived 2,500 years ago.

Legend has it that Milo started his yearly training by buying a newborn calf. Every day, he hoisted the calf onto his shoulders and carried it up the stadium steps. As the calf grew, Milo became stronger, until he was carrying around a full-size ox.

While most people can’t carry livestock around their cul-de-sac, the formula for getting stronger today hasn’t changed, said Dr. Mann, a clinical associate professor of kinesiology at Texas A&M University. The core of every strength training program is a concept called progressive overload, in which you gradually increase either the weight, repetitions, difficulty, intensity or some combination.

Strength training, especially as you age, improves cardiovascular health, blood pressure and bone density and reduces the risk of lower back pain. But none of that happens without progressive overload.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a 10-year-old on a soccer team, a 30-year-old interested in general fitness or a 70-year-old trying to reduce the risk of falling — some type of overload is needed,” Avery Faigenbaum, a professor of health and exercise science at the College of New Jersey, said.

Overload doesn’t mean you have to clean and jerk 200 pounds, however. It doesn’t even require lifting heavier weights. You can challenge your muscles by doing a more difficult movement — lunges instead of squats — or doing it faster.

Overload doesn’t require weights, but they help.

Going into your garage and lifting the same dumbbells the same number of times for weeks on end will lead to a workout plateau where you stop building additional muscle mass. Muscles grow when challenged, causing microscopic tears in the fibers that the body repairs with stronger muscles.

That said, if you are creative, you can get stronger with a pair of dumbbells or even no weights at all, said Elizabeth Wipff, a strength training coach who specializes in working with women over age 50.

“You can progress from chair squats, without holding onto anything, to squats holding onto a heavy object,” Ms. Wipff said, such as a backpack filled with books.

Or, start by doing push-ups against a wall or a counter, and gradually make the movement more difficult by placing your hands lower so you’re supporting more of your body’s weight. Studies suggest that you can build strength with exercise bands, though Ms. Wipff doesn’t recommend them, because it’s hard to precisely increase the weight and the elastic wears out over time.

How to use progressive overload in your workout routine.

If you already have a strength routine and have been lifting the same weight for months, the simplest change is to add a little more weight. Not sure how hard you should be working? For beginners, Dr. Mann said, stop about two repetitions from failure (or what feels like a 7.5 out of 10) in order to maintain good form. And pick a weight that you can lift for about 10 repetitions.

If you don’t feel like adding more weight, try a more difficult variation, like switching from a chin-up to a pull-up. The exact movements or pounds aren’t as important as the slow increase in difficulty.

Lastly, base your workout on how you feel that day, Dr. Mann said, not on past performance. If you’re feeling worn out or stressed, it’s OK to dial back the weight.

For those looking to build muscle, here is a simple 12-week workout cycle to try with dumbbells or a barbell:

Pick your exercises and weights

Start by lifting twice a week and increase to three or four times a week, if your body feels strong and you want more rapid progress. Write down your weights and reps as you progress.

Pick three different movements total, such as lunges, squats, bench press or shoulder press. You can do the exercises all on one day, or split them up between days. Build in rest days for your muscles to recover.

Weeks 1 to 4

Three sets of 12 to 15 reps: For the first two weeks, use a weight that feels easy and work on your form. If you’re unsure of the correct form or worried about injury, book a session with a trainer for guidance. For the second two weeks, add a small amount of weight, about 5 percent, to each lift. This may be too easy if you started out with a relatively light weight, so increase more than that if you want a greater challenge.

Weeks 5 to 8

Three sets of 8 to 12 reps: Start with a weight that’s 5 to 10 percent more than what you ended with the previous week. You’ll notice you can add more weight for exercises that use the biggest muscles in your body, such as a squat, as opposed to movement that uses a smaller muscle, like a bicep curl.

Increase the weight by 5 to 10 percent every week, as long as you can maintain good form.

Weeks 9 to 12

Three sets of 5 to 8 reps: This is where it should start to get tough. You’ve been building your muscles for eight weeks, so now it’s time to challenge yourself. Find a weight where your last repetition feels difficult.

Increase the weight by 2.5 percent to 5 percent every week, maintaining good form.

Rest Week

Next, take a week off, either lifting very light weights or taking a complete break from weight lifting. Then you can start the program over again, either with new exercises or the same — but with heavier weights.

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