Throughout the pandemic, there have been questions about how to implement effective physical training programs within our changing environment.
The Academy of Sports Medicine reports, “regular physical activity and structured exercise are associated with numerous health benefits including a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, some forms of cancer, and age-adjusted all-cause mortality, limiting various orthopedic injuries among others.”
If you are participating in a training program after an injury, or are exercising for general health purposes, there are many factors that impact both short-term and long-term progress. These factors may include limited gym equipment, not having access to a fitness facility, or inability to workout due to a busy schedule.
Often, when individuals are not seeing continued progress in their training, their motivation to continue decreases. Once activity decreases, this could contribute to risk of reinjury, obtaining a new injury or overcompensating for problem areas, which can alter one’s ability to perform functional tasks with ease.
Whether you are performing a training program at home or at a gym, understanding how to move ahead in your workouts is a crucial step toward reducing risk for injury and continuing to progress. The following recommendations are for individuals who are healthy and uninjured. If you are currently injured, please see a physical therapist to determine the appropriate training program for your needs.
Hold yourself accountable. Using a journal to help track goals and progress is one method to maintain accountability. Writing down how much you move daily is a useful way to monitor changes and to reduce procrastination in achieving your goals. If workouts are not being tracked, you may forget what exercise was performed in the previous workout or forget the specifics of that exercise. Having a journal and recording your sets, repetitions and weight will keep you on track so you can continue to see positive results.
If you are already feeling motivated and are holding yourself accountable, you may be seeing a plateau with your training program for other reasons. This includes not altering the weight, sets, or repetitions within an exercise.
Vary the weight being used. Increasing the amount of weight used is one way to build muscle and increase the difficulty of the movement. Over time your body will get used to the movement and weight that you are using, and without change you will not continue to see progress.
For example, if you are performing a bicep curl with 5 pounds, your body will adapt to this weight and progress will stall. You can address this barrier by increasing the weight. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends increasing the weight by 5%-10%. This is a general percentage, and the exact amount of weight change will vary by person.
The goal is to challenge the muscle while still performing the movement with proper form. Choosing a different weight each time you complete a movement will help you to consistently challenge your muscle and continue to see benefit from your workout. If you do not own or have access to weights, another option is to use resistance bands. Using either a heavier weight or different resistance band can effectively change a workout.
Change the number of sets or repetitions. A rep is one complete motion of an exercise, while several reps make up a set. Typically, the goal within a training program is for muscle hypertrophy, which is to build new lean muscle tissue. NSCA defines the parameters for muscle hypertrophy as performing 2-6 sets of 6-12 reps per exercise. This means that if you are currently performing 3 sets of 10 reps for bicep curls, you could modify the workout by performing 10 reps of 5 sets instead. Altering the sets, reps, or both, of an exercise is a way to build muscle in the targeted area and to continue to see positive improvement within your training plan.
These suggestions are a good starting point to decrease plateau within an exercise program, decrease risk of injury, and to rebuild strength following an injury. If you are having challenges with exercise progression, or feel you are having a setback after an injury, reach out to a physical therapist to determine which path is best to help you continue to see progress.
Corey Goldman, PT, DPT, is a Physical Therapist at Spaulding Outpatient Center in Framingham. Corey completed his doctorate studies at MGH Institute of Health Professions and has a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science from Endicott College. Corey specializes in the treatment of orthopedic diagnoses including spinal disorders, post-surgical musculoskeletal rehabilitation, and sport related injuries.