How To Increase Your Workload, Injury-Free

Summer is on the way - allegedly - and for many that means it's time to increase the duration and intensity of our training. Go carefully...


By Elizabeth Millard |

One of the top reasons people work with personal trainers isn’t just for motivation to stay consistent—although that’s certainly helpful. It’s because professionals help challenge them in a way that prevents the dreaded fitness plateau, according to a recent study about online workouts in the journal Psychiatry Research.

In that research, people who participated in supervised workouts reported the biggest benefits for emotional and physical health, even when the workouts were online. The researchers hypothesised that the result is likely due to their ability to increase intensity over time. That gave them a sense of progress, something that was lacking for participants who did on-demand sessions without direct supervision.

Even when there’s not a pandemic at play, the ability to progress the intensity of workouts on your own is a common challenge, according to Chad Walding, D.P.T., doctor of physical therapy and functional movement coach.

“People may try to take on too much load, or resistance, which could lead to an injury in the joints or strain in the muscles,” he tells Bicycling. “Or it could be too much volume in terms of reps and sets that overtaxes the body’s system and doesn’t allow for proper recovery. We also see people take on movements that are too difficult when there hasn’t been a solid foundation built for good movement patterns.”

Improper progression may even throw off your circadian rhythms, he adds, leading to burnout. That might cause you to drop your workouts altogether, or hesitate to do more out of concern about negative effects.

Although dialling up intensity on your own might take more effort than hiring a trainer, it’s not an impossible task. Here are some tips to keep in mind, in a way that gives you the progress you want, without the potential injury risk that comes with doing too much, too soon.

Start with a sustainable workload

Walding suggests finding a workload in terms of sets and reps that might seem a little too easy, and one you’re able to do consistently. Record the time, load, and data (like weight amount from the workout), and keep doing that, ideally, three times a week for two weeks. That creates a baseline that allows you to build, he says.

The same would go for other types of workouts as well. For example, if you want to do a level 3 yoga class eventually, start with what you find easy—like a level 1 class geared toward beginners—and do that consistently for at least a few weeks even if it feels like you’re not doing “enough.” If you’re doing cycling training, the same rule applies of starting easy, which may mean slower than you’d usually choose or a shorter distance.

The idea here is to build a foundation for intensity rather than start by challenging yourself and continuing to make it more difficult.

Go for small changes

Think about adding 2-percent effort each time you work out, Walding suggested. This might sound tricky in practice, but it’s more of a mental exercise. The point is to improve capacity and strength in a way that may seem too gradual, but it adds up quickly. For example, 2 percent each workout times three workouts weekly for a month would add up to 24 percent. That’s a considerable gain.

In terms of how to do that, Walding has three main strategies:

  • Start doing tempo training for strength, where you go slow on the way down, hold, and then go even slower on the way back up. That improves movement quality and endurance.
  • Focus on movement patterns that involve multiple muscles and joints. The five top choices are squatting, pulling, pushing, planks, and deadlifts. These are preferred over isolated movements like biceps curls and knee extensions.
  • Choose free weights over machines. Walding believes that this improves movement quality because it involves more of the body. This cues the body to move better when you’re not working out, he says.

“These kind of changes will allow a rider to progress with better performance and less injury,” he says.

Check in with your body

As you continue to increase your intensity, stay aware of the effect it has on your body. Some degree of muscle soreness is normal about 12 to 24 hours after exercise, according to Kate Ayoub, D.P.T., a doctor of physical therapy and health coach at Own Your Movement. If you continue to have enough muscle soreness that it impairs your everyday function, though, that’s when it’s time to dial it back.

“Progression isn’t always linear, so following a rigid schedule of increasing intensity could set you up for injury,” she tells Bicycling. “You need to hear what your body is trying to tell you.”

That also applies to doing more than you expected, she adds. If you’re progressing at a steady pace but find your strength, cycling, or other workouts feeling like a breeze instead of moderately challenging, it’s likely time to dial it up a bit, she suggests.

Remember those rest days

Active recovery is a major part of what boosts gains in strength and endurance. After all, you don’t build muscle as you’re creating those micro-tears through lifting—they get stronger during the repair process.

To maintain progression, Ayoub advises staying active to some degree rather than lounging all day. That might mean an easy walk or bike ride, splashing around in a pool, or going for a hike. This is also another opportunity to listen to your body and adjust as needed.

“Although you’re likely to have a training schedule of some kind that builds in rest days, it’s okay to take one if you’re beginning to feel negative toward your workouts,” she says. “Whether you’re training for a specific event or not, one of your goals should be to keep enjoying what you’re doing. That should be true no matter how intense you make it.”

READ MORE ON: injury prevention spring training staying healthy training

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