Guidelines to progress your physical training over time

A stalled physical training program can be one of the most frustrating parts of working out. Whether you’re trying to get back into shape or advance to an elite level of fitness, loss of progress is a motivation killer. It happens because your body is very good at adapting to things over time. But you can overcome lack of progress by leveraging that very same ability to adapt.

SAID principle

The SAID principle—Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands, also called “specificity”—describes your body’s ability to adapt to physical demands. As you change stressors to your body, it will change to meet the demands of those stressors. If you stop exercising, you can lose lean muscle mass because your body doesn’t need to use energy to maintain muscle if you aren’t using it. On the other hand, if you start a resistance-training program, you’ll get stronger. In fact, the concept of specificity is where the guidelines for weight, set, and repetition come from for building muscular strength, endurance, and muscle hypertrophy. Training to improve cardiorespiratory endurance also follows the SAID principle. For example, if you only train to run 2 miles at a time, you’ll only be good at running 2 miles. And then it’s hard to improve your run time because your body is used to an overly specific training program.

Progressive overload

In order to make progress—called “progression”—you need to follow the overload principle, or simply overload. Progressive overload is the increase in workout volume or intensity over time. Without it, your body has no added stimulus to adapt to, so you eventually reach a plateau, and your body says, “We’re good here.”

You can increase volume and intensity in a variety of ways: Increase the reps and sets of certain exercises, the weight you use, the number of workouts per week or per day, or decrease rest between sets, or any combination of those. How you choose will depend on what components of fitness you are targeting and your fitness goals.

Cardio progression

To progress your cardio training, follow the 10% rule. That means you increase your cardio frequency, intensity, or volume by no more than 10% each week. One of the first ways you can progress your cardio is to vary your workouts. Take a couple weeks to work on sprint training. Your volume goes down because sprints are fairly short, but the intensity goes up. You’re running faster, so you’re running at a higher percentage of your max heart rate.

You can also stay in the heart-rate zone you exercise at while you increase the number of times per week and the duration of each workout by a few minutes. This will increase your total weekly volume.

Once you’re at a level of cardiorespiratory fitness that matches your goal, you can keep intensity consistent but reduce your cardio to as little as 2 days a week, or drop your exercise duration as to as little as 15 minutes per session. You’ll be able to maintain your level of fitness for up to 15 weeks, which makes this an ideal training schedule if you can’t exercise regularly.

Weight-training progression

For Military Service Members, a few practical ways exist to progress your resistance training workouts: Add reps and sets, add weight, and vary your exercises. If you’re new to resistance training or haven’t lifted weights for a few months, increasing reps and sets to build muscular endurance is one of the first things you can do. All military physical fitness tests include a muscular-endurance component, so that’s a good place to start. In a 4-week block to improve muscular endurance, start with 3 sets of 10. Then in the following weeks, keep the weights the same but increase to 12, 14, and 16 reps. Over time, though, you’ll need to add weight as well as increase reps and sets.

Varying the exercises you do will also help you make progress if you hit a plateau. As the SAID principle describes, your body will adapt to what you throw at it. If the only chest exercise you do is a bench press, you might hit a point where you stall out and can’t complete reps at a heavier weight. Changing up the exercises you do, or the volume and intensity you train at, can help break the plateau and get your progress back on track.

Similar to cardio training, if you’re in an austere environment, keeping the intensity level of your resistance training the same can maintain strength and muscle mass with as little as one workout per week and one set per muscle group. If you’re middle-aged or older, you will need to workout as little as twice a week with 2–3 sets per workout.

When to increase weight

After you’ve been consistently weight training for a few months, adding weight is a good way to progress, even to build muscular endurance. As you get stronger, your one-rep max (1RM) will increase, so you’ll be able to add weight while still keeping the amount you lift below 67% of your 1RM, as recommended by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

To improve muscular strength or muscle hypertrophy, keep your reps low and increase the weight over time. Hypertrophy is best gained by lifting 67–85% of your 1RM for 6–12 reps. You can maximize strength gains by lifting at least 85% 1RM for less than 6 reps.

Knowing when to increase the weight you use can be difficult if you don’t lift regularly. The rule that both NSCA and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend is the “2-for-2 rule.” After a few workout sessions, you can increase the weight for a certain exercise once you can perform 2 more repetitions beyond your repetition goal for the last set for 2 weeks in a row. For example, you’re lifting 3 sets of 6 for several weeks. In your 3rd set, you can push out 2 more repetitions for 2 weeks in a row. After that, you can safely increase the weight you use.

How much weight to increase

NSCA recommends weight increases based on your body size and strength, training status (level), and whether the exercise is for the upper or lower body. Strength-and-conditioning professionals can often make a subjective assessment of your body size and strength. You can too, if you’re honest with yourself and go with a smaller increase in weight to be safe. If you find that the small weight increase isn’t challenging enough, bump it up a little more.

For smaller, less-trained people, NSCA recommends weight increases of 2.5–5 lb. for upper-body exercises and 5–10 lb. for lower-body exercises. For larger people and those with more resistance-training experience, NSCA recommends 5–10+ lbs. for the upper body and 10–15+ lbs. for the lower body.

A quick note on resistance-training experience: It’s important to consider not only your past lifting experience, but also your current training routines. If you used to lift regularly in high school but haven’t picked up a weight in months or years, you might still be considered a “beginner” and need to increase weight by the smaller ranges discussed above. You might still be familiar with the lifts and how to do them, but you’ll still need to knock the rust off as your mind and body relearn how to do them properly and you recondition your muscles to lifting again. “Advanced” weightlifters are generally considered people who have been resistance training at least 3–4 times a week for more than a year. They are well versed on the ins-and-outs of the lifts they do and can safely tolerate weight increases at the upper ends of the ranges above.

The bottom line

In summary, to improve your physical fitness measurably, you need to follow proper progression. The general guidelines outlined in this article can help you make progress to max out your PFT, improve your physical ability to do your job, and prevent injuries while you work out.


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References

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Alvar, B. A., Sell, K., & Deuster, P. A. (Eds.). (2017). NSCA's Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

American College of Sports Medicine. (2009). Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(3), 687–708. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670

Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Spiering, B. A., Mujika, I., Sharp, M. A., & Foulis, S. A. (2021). Maintaining physical performance: The minimal dose of exercise needed to preserve endurance and strength over time. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 35(5), 1449–1458. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000003964