We are all Mary

Let me tell you about Mary, a young woman living on 82nd and Lexington Avenue. When I first met her, life was going well. Recently married, house hunting and looking to become vice president of her team at a big marketing company. So all was well in the world of Mary, except her exercise and movement regime. She came to me looking to add more to her routine. She was consistently getting injured and feeling like her progress was stalling. Although an avid exerciser, she felt like she wasn’t progressing the same way she did when she first started exercising. The obvious solution in her mind was to add more.


After a quick discussion examining her lifestyle, healthful choices and a movement assessment that showed no glaring issues, I asked what her current routine was. She answered enthusiastically about the High Intensity Interval or HIIT class she would take at least 4 times a week. She loved them, loud music, flashing lights, lots of beautiful people to look at, and the instructors were so motivating. “It’s like a club” she smiled, “it gets me so pumped up, I love the sweat I work up”.


Perfect I thought to myself, someone who already has created a consistent and focused exercise routine.


The only slight problem would be convincing her to do less in order to do more.


The issue Mary had is common. It is called a plateau and it will happen to absolutely everyone once they start training. Regardless of their goals. This is because of a really important and often overlooked aspect of exercise. The concept of progressive overload.


In the words of the legendary Dan John, “everything works until it doesn't”. What he means by this is that all programs and exercises will work, especially for an untrained person but as soon as that person becomes accustomed to that program or exercise then it will stop working unless it is tweaked or manipulated. This is where the concept of Progressive Overload comes into play.


What is Progrsssive Overload?


Progressive overload is the fancy name given to the gradual increase in training stimulus applied to the body during a training program or cycle. The concept can be applied to any form of training. Mobility, cardiovascular endurance, strength training, skill acquisition, learning a language or doing maths. Regardless of the pursuit, for progress to happen there has to be…...progress.


To understand the concept a little more, let’s look at how training works. First off, keep in mind that your body wants to be lazy. It’s sole job is to keep you alive so it will always look for the safest and most efficient way to do this. This primal survival trait is called homeostasis and was great to have 15,000 years ago but now that the easiest way to keep you alive is to glue you to the couch and order take out, we have to train.


When we do train we apply a stimulus to the body that causes us to get fatigued. The body does not like this fatigue so during the recovery phase it tries to adapt so when that stimulus is applied again it will be able to remain in homeostasis. To keep the process working we have to manipulate the stimulus so that the body does not remain in homeostasis.


While Mary’s HIIT classes were intense and left her in buckets of sweat each time, with no sense of logical progression in her regime, her body had adapted and reached homeostasis. I.e. progress over.


The job at hand was to teach Mary how to start providing more of a stimulus.


First up the difficult task of cajoling her into cutting down on the amount of HIIT classes she was taking so that we could work on the first rule of progressive overload. Form or movement quality.


This meant the first variable changed would be frequency. Keep reading for a discussion on each of the variables that we changed for her.




This is a really tricky one. It is hard for anyone to ever think that by doing less they can eventually do more but that is exactly what Mary needed. While the four days of HIIT training were no longer providing enough of stimulus to progress from they were taking enough of a toll on her body that she was not recovering correctly. This would of course effect her ability to grow.


Mary needed to do less in order to leave room for more strength training and recovery.


If we train too often we will not provide the body with enough recovery to adapt to the original stimulus. If we train too infrequently we will eventually lose those adaptations. Frequency is very finicky. It is certainly not always about adding more training days but sometimes it may. Once Mary built her base of strength and mobility she was able to learn her body's reactions to different frequencies and was able to adjust accordingly. Just remember recovery may need to be progressively overloaded too.


Movement Quality:


While the progressive overload concept may tempt you into thinking this is easy I will just add weight or reps each week. The central tenet of moving is that you do it as efficiently as possible, not chasing progress at the sake of movement quality.


Mary was doing a lot of squats in her HIIT class, she would go as deep as she thought she could with roughly a 100degree angle at her hips and knees in the lowest point of her squat. As she started from 180 degrees she was now moving her body through 80 degrees of motion. With a little bit of coaching and education she was able to feel her true end range in a squat was closer to a 30 degree angle at the knees and hips. Now when she squats with load she is moving through 150 degrees of motion rather than 80. Same exercise, same weight but almost twice the amount of work.


We worked with her on all her basic movement patterns to ensure that she was maximizing the range of motion. Unless she was able to maintain that those ranges of motion we would not progress with more volume or load.


So step one, maximize movement potential.



Mary told me that she would pick a 20lb dumbbell for her squats in those classes and generally she would do 12 repetitions per set. She wasn’t too sure though as she just went until the instructor screamed to change exercise. This made me think that we needed to reduce her volume, so less reps but increase her load, more weight. She was slightly intimated to do so but following along from that central tenet of movement quality with the right coaching and education she found that she was able to squat with a 40lb dumbbell no problem. However now she was only doing 8 reps.


Not a problem, 8 x 40 = 320. Comparing that to 12 reps with 20lb for a total of 240lbs means in every set she is now putting an extra 80 lbs of load on her body. Add to that the extra degrees of motion and you can see how much more work she is doing but with the same exercise.


Load is a vitally important stimulus that can be manipulated to continually force adaptation. However, we only add load when we can maintain movement quality.



“So what, I just keep adding weight every time I do a squat?” Mary asked. Unfortunately it is not that easy. Eventually your new strength increases, found through technique improvements and neural efficiency will run out and you will have to wait for your soft tissue subsystems to catch up. Your muscles, tendons and ligaments will have to get stronger and that takes time. While you wait though let's see if we can add volume to keep the stimulus.


Mary was doing squats with 40lbs for 8 reps with perfect form. The following week she would try to get 9 or 10 reps per set and so on until she was doing 15 reps per set with the 40lbs. If she stayed on the same reps as the previous week we would do an extra set with less reps. That way there was a slight increase in the total amount of work each week.


When she was able to get to 15 reps for 3 sets then it was time to adjust the load again. We would go back to 8 reps but up the load to 55lbs and start the volume building process again.


Load and volume are tied very closely together. Perhaps one person may start with increasing load while the next may benefit from increasing volume. That first commandment of maintaining movement quality will always be the guide.



Speed was a huge part of Mary’s HIIT class. Instructors encouraged the attendees to ‘push it’ and go as hard and as fast as they could. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Speed is really important but we want to be strategic about how we are using it.


Mary’s goal was to stop the consistent injury cycle and to get stronger. In order to do that, addressing the speed of her movement would be important for two reasons. First off so that she has time to feel her body appropriately and secondly to allow for tissues to be under load for longer.


By slowing Mary down with a 3 second lowering phase, pause and 2 second rising phase, the soft tissues involved in her squat were now under load for a total of 6 seconds per repetition. Compare this to the 2 seconds total previously and again you can see how we get double or tripple the work with the same exercise and same weight.


I explained to Mary that as she got stronger we could increase the speed of the reps so as to work on force development but for now slower the better.



As Mary started to get much stronger and understand that it wasn’t just about feeling a burn or a sweat she became more interested in her capacity for movement. This is when we started to introduce another variable to her stimuli. Complexity.


This didn’t mean we threw her on a medicine ball and asked to go nuts. Nope, progressing complexity doesn’t need to be that complex. It can be as simple as progressing two legged squat to reverse lunge or two legged deadlift to staggered stance deadlift to eventually a single leg RDL.


We keep the same basic movement pattern but tweak a variable like going on one leg to modify the stimulus being received by the body.


These were just the variations that Mary received in order to break through her plateau. Now Mary is in it, she is interested in what her body can do, not how much sweat she produces. She squats her own body weight, deadlifts twice her body weight and is working on handstands and pull ups. Best of all she hasn’t been injured or hurt since she started. The HIIT classes are still there because she loves them but now they are a part of her program and not as frequent.


After 6 months of working like this you could see the excitement Mary had developed and the connection and love she had made towards progress. Of course it is not as easy as increasing range of motion, weight, reps or complexity every week. There are lots of times when Mary has to take weight or reps away, make it easier or take a break from training. This is totally normal and to be expected. Progress is never linear and oftentimes we have to go back to build the foundation for the next step forward but now instead of being discouraged Mary enjoys these periods as she knows it is all part of the process.


At Hanuman Health Club, the best gym in the heights, we strive to empower and educate all of our members to understand this concept. We program our classes so that they are consistently following the concept of progreessive overload. If you are an active member you will have noticed the increases or slight tweaks from week to week even though the exercises often stay the same. This is not random, this is not off the cuff but all of it is programmed and planned. This is also why we have check ins and levels. It helps give you a tangible metric to reach for.


If you're not a member here are some quick tips on how to use progressive overload.

  • Movement Quality first and foremost. Can you do the movement feeling everything you are meant to feel both slowly and under control through your maximum range of motion. Only look to progress when you get to that point
  • Load and Volume can go hand in hand as forms of progress. A nice basic beginner program is to find a weight that you can do 8 reps of a particular exercise with. When you can do 15 reps of that exercise then add a lot more weight to try and find your new 8 rep max. Then rinse and repeat.
  • It is tempting to just add more sessions to your week. This may be what you need and it may not. More work means less recovery. Recovery is just as important as training in forcing adaptation.
  • Don’t be in a rush. Only progress when it feels right. Revert back to movement quality as your guide here.
  • Don’t expect progress to be linear. It’s a wave, there will be lots of ups and downs.
  • Trust the process. Don’t get caught by the idea fairy and try running to the next greatest and best thing. It’s a sales gimmick, trust me. The only thing that has ever worked and ever will work is consistency, commitment and time. There are no shortcuts.


If you would like to talk a little bit more about your own regime or routine, schedule a free consultation and let us create a plan with you.


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