22 Aug Progressive overload: the key to exercise gains for seniors
One training component is often forgotten about, especially amongst the elderly population. That component is of course progressive overload – the most important variable to continue to make adaptations to ones training program.
When trying to prescribe or participate in the most effective training program, the goal is to manipulate the training variables (frequency, intensity, volume, rest period, tempo, and exercise selection) to create the most optimal adaptations for the individuals goals. When done correctly, the individual is almost guaranteed to get results leading them closer to their goal.
However, one component is often forgotten about, especially amongst the elderly population. That component is of course progressive overload – the most important variable to continue to make adaptations to ones training program.
What is progressive overload?
Put simply, it is the periodic increase in stress placed on the body during exercise. In order for adaptations to be made, such as increasing strength, muscle mass or fitness, the body must be forced to a stress level above and beyond what it has previously experienced.
The human body is extremely smart, much smarter that we can possibly imagine.
Take for example a person who lifts a 10kg load for 10 repetitions for 3 sets. At first, this stress will be sufficient to force the body to adapt. Eventually though, the body will have adapted to this level of stress, and it will no longer force necessary adaptations.
In order to continually improve, we must stress the body more than it is accustomed to. With the example from above, for continual improvement, the individual will have to manipulate one or more variables to increase the stress.
For example, they may now lift a heavier load (12kg) for same amount of repetitions, or they may add additional reps or sets, or they may decrease the time resting in between sets. Which ever variable they manipulate, it must be more than previously achieved.
Provided sufficient rest and recovery is allowed, positive adaptations will occur. These adaptations come in the way of more muscle, more strength, less fat, and better performance.
Does this mean that progression needs to made every session?
No. In fact, this would be almost impossible and could potentially lead to injury. Instead, progression should be looked at over a longer period of time. Weeks to months to years. The most important point is to make sure that is does happen. So long as progressive overload occurs in one form or another for a period of time, adaptations will be made.
Progressive overload as part of a periodised program
For progressive overload to occur optimally, it should be part of a periodised program, and in conjunction with adequate rest and recovery (stress management, sleep, and nutrition).
The lack of progressive overload is one of the most common reasons for lack of improvement in an individual’s program. This occurs more often than not with an elderly population. From personal experience with my patients and clients, lifting heavy can be daunting and can also increase the risk of injury. So with this population, the manipulation of the other variables come in handy. Decreasing rest time, increasing reps, decreasing/increasing tempo, and varying exercise selection.
There may be times where improving is no longer a goal, and instead one must focus on maintaining what they already have. For instance, a post-stroke, elderly patient with strength discrepancies between limbs. It may not be necessarily improve the strength of the “bad” side, but our exercise prescription may aim to maintain what strength and muscle mass is already there.
As Accredited Exercise Physiologists, and as with every client, the program must be tailored to the individual and their goals.
Top 4 things to remember when incorporating progressive load
- Progressive overload is the most important factor to continually improve on ones performance.
- There are numerous ways to induce overload (increased load, more reps/sets, decreased rest, decreased/increased tempo, exercise variety).
- Progressive overload occurs over a period of time, and does not need to be incorporated each session. It’s the bigger picture that counts.
- Programs should be periodised and tailored towards the individuals abilities and goals.
To find out more about incorporating progressive load into your training program, contact your local accredited exercise physiologist.