Progressive Overload & Recovery

Author: Hannah Skillin

Recently, I’ve had a couple of people ask me “how many times should I work out during the week?” It’s a really good question! In answering that question, I will address the problems both of not working out enough and also working out too much. Both of these are problems. On both ends of the spectrum, you won’t see the results that you want, and on the other end you can burn yourself out and even cause injury!

recovery-graph-1

This graph represents progressive overload, which is how we talk about the adaptation of your body to exercise. When you go through a tough workout, you’re essentially damaging the tissues in your body. That effect is shown in the graph by the downward sloping lines. The muscle tissues in this phase get broken down and experience many many microtraumas. Don’t get nervous about that, though! Those microtraumas are actually a positive thing if you can leverage them properly.

In order to leverage your training, your body needs rest and fuel (aka food) to recover from tough workouts and to rebuild those damaged tissues. Ideally, when you get a tough workout, your muscles are broken down a bit and your ability to perform (lift heavy, run a long distance, etc.) will decrease. With proper sleep, nutrition, and active recovery, your body will repair itself and build itself up stronger! You can see this effect on the graph in the little swell of the line above the starting point. Ideally, this is when you work out again–when you’re at peak performance. Then you’ll damage the tissues again by training hard. Then rest, recover, repeat.

If you push yourself again too soon after working out, you’ll catch your body at the base of the slope again before your body has had a chance to adapt to the stimulus of working out. That effect is represented by the wavy line that trends continually downward on the graph. That’s a dangerous place to be, and it can lead to over-training and injury. If you suspect you might be working out too hard, check your heart rate right when you wake up in the morning, and if it’s elevated, you might need to ease up for a bit and get some extra rest.

On the other end of the spectrum is not working out enough. If you wait too long between workouts, you’ll level out at the place where you started and miss the window of adaptation that was described earlier. This is an equally bad place to be, because the whole point of working out is to get better, stronger, faster, leaner–whatever your goals are. If you’re constantly maintaining status quo, you’ll never improve.

Ideally, you catch the sweet spot where you continually improve! If you’re not seeing results from your workouts, check your schedule. Are you giving yourself enough time between workouts, or do you feel run down every time you go into the gym? Or are you taking three or four days or even a week between workouts on a regular basis? Does the same weight always feel heavy to you? A good rule of thumb is to wait two days before training the same muscle groups, which is why the Monday Wednesday Friday training schedule is so popular, especially for full body workouts. For the average person, it takes around 36-48 hours for your body to recover. If you want to work out on the off day, try some light, steady state cardio for 20 minutes or so. Or give yourself some TLC with a mobility and stretching session, like yoga. Hopefully, this helps you to reevaluate your workout schedule so that you can get the most out of your time in the gym and accomplish all your goals!