Muscle Overload: Why It’s Important to Your Workout

By LaRue Cook

The term “Muscle Overload” can sound a little ominous, but in reality, it’s the basis of your body’s ability to make improvements from exercising. It’s a concept that you should embrace – not avoid – if you want to make physical gains from your workouts. Simply stated, overloading your body’s system means exercising at a level that’s greater than what you’re normally accustomed to. Used smartly (meaning in a gradually-progressive way), it can lead to improvement in your health and fitness. Used incorrectly, it can lead to injury. So, BE CAREFUL!

You can overload your system to make gradual improvements to your cardiovascular system by performing cardiovascular (aka aerobic) exercise, or to your muscular system (aka strength) by performing resistance training. The type of exercise you do will cause your body to make adjustments and improve its capacity for physical activity specific to the type of exercise performed. For example, increased cardiovascular exercise could result in an improved cardiovascular system that delivers oxygen to your muscles more efficiently and effectively. Increased resistance training could lead to increased lean tissue, allowing you to handle greater workloads without suffering physical stress and injury. Without overload, you reach a point where you are no longer making progress in your fitness level. This is known as plateauing. You may have witnessed or already experienced plateauing if you are regularly exercising now, but seeing little if any improvement. Although in most cases, reaching and maintaining a plateau in your workouts is something you want to avoid, it’s not necessarily always a bad thing!

Here’s what I mean. For example, if you’re already in good shape, and merely want to maintain it, performing your normal workout can help you maintain that fitness level. But, overload leads to improvement.

Having your body improve its fitness boils down to how your body perceives the work that it’s performing. Here’s an example of what I mean: Suppose I could lift a 10-pound dumbbell for 10 repetitions before becoming exhausted. If I performed this same exercise week-in and week-out, after a while, as I got stronger, my strength gains through this exercise would start to level-off. This same exercise wouldn’t challenge my muscles in the same way. As my muscles became used to this workload, my strength would begin to plateau and, in order to continue to improve my strength, with this particular exercise, I’d want to create an overload.

You can create an overload with either cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise, or resistance training by changing one of several variables. Cardiovascular overloading can occur when you increase either the duration, intensity, or frequency of your aerobic exercise. Increased duration generally refers to how long you exercise – for instance, adding five minutes to your normal jog or walk. Intensity can be increased by, for example, going faster, or running up an incline – thus making the same exercise more difficult. And, increased frequency simply means increasing how often you perform the exercise. Overloading your muscular system can be accomplished through increasing the same variables as mentioned above, albeit in some slightly different ways. For instance, increasing the duration could be accomplished by increasing the amount of time you spend lifting weights. While increasing the number repetitions or sets of repetitions that you perform an exercise or reducing the amount of time you rest between exercises are both examples of increasing the exercise’s intensity. Increasing the frequency of this type of exercise should not be done without due care since, with resistance training, you should generally give the exercised muscles a 24-48 hour rest period between workout sessions before working them again. Safe and effective overloading of your system through progressive exercise is all about making advances in your fitness level. But, a big word of caution here: you should not increase more than one of the variables mentioned above at a time. Then, when your body adjusts to the new workload, you can start making further adjustments. Overloading is NOT only about continually increasing the AMOUNT of weight you lift, or the DISTANCE that you cover aerobically!

Safe and effective overloading is important to making gains in your fitness. But, because of its potential for injury if not done properly, you may want to seek the advice of an experienced, knowledgeable, certified personal trainer before planning and making these changes to your exercise routine. Periodically adjusting your exercise routine to incorporate overload can also help you reduce the boredom of performing the same routine over and over again. Properly planned, this can give you a great way to continue to challenge your body at each plateau of your improved fitness.

As with all forms of exercise, you should consult with your physician or healthcare professional before undertaking any exercise, to ensure that your planned exercise is appropriate for you and your current fitness level.

LaRue is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Certified Strength and Injury Prevention Trainer, and a Post-Rehab Trainer who has worked with clients of all ages, both athletes and non-athletes. He has written dozens of published articles on Sports Performance and Injury Prevention, and consults with many of the country’s leading Sports and Fitness organizations throughout the United States. LaRue can be reached by email at: [email protected]

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