There are plenty of people who exercise just to maintain their current state of fitness, strength or body composition and that is fine. But there are also plenty of people who are actively trying to improve on one or more of these factors and not making any progress. This article will discuss what is required for change.
I am going to be talking about building up aerobic endurance capacity as that is what “most” people think of when you say “general fitness”. In order to improve aerobic endurance capacity the aerobic system must be pushed and then adequate recovery is required. An example of maintenance training would be doing the same 5km run in exactly the same time each time you did it. When I first got into health and fitness, I was very overweight and very unfit. I had a 2km lap that I would try to jog around. I couldn’t make it all in one go so I would count how many times I had to go back to a walking pace per lap. The next time I was aiming to reduce the amount of times I had to walk. In fact, I even remembered which telegraph pole I had to stop at first and would strive to make it just that bit further. Eventually, I made it all the way around my 2km lap without walking. And at this stage, I then started focussing on the total time taken.
If I was happy to be able to jog the 2km lap in xxx mins then from then on in, I could just aim to maintain that level of fitness.
Progressive tension overload is required to stimulate muscular hypertrophy. This is not a requirement for strength but the two “generally” go hand in hand. The topic could be an article on it’s own so I’ll be talking about the basics here. I will discuss a few different methods of overload.
1. More weight (intensity)
2. More reps; if you completed 8 reps last week at x kg and completed 10 reps this week at x kg
3. More sets (volume); if you completed 3 sets of 8 reps at x kg last week and completed 4 sets of 8 reps at x kg this week
These are the basics of progressive tension overload. In a well designed program there shouldn’t be an increase in intensity and volume indefinitely i.e. the body can handle increases in both for a period of time but deload periods are required to recover.
If a person is happy with their current levels of strength/muscle mass then they could adopt a maintenance approach. Volume and frequency can be reduced by around 2/3’s (of what was required to improve) provided that the intensity levels stay high e.g. a person was training 6x a week and doing 3 sets of 8 reps for all exercises (for simplicity). They could drop to around 2x a week and do 1 set for each exercise if they are still moving the same amount of weight.
To maintain body composition, the primary factor is energy balance. A person may have adopted a maintenance strategy for general fitness and strength but if they are eating too much (or too little) there will be changes. We know that when we gain or lose weight it will be a combination of fat and lean body mass (LBM). If a maintenance approach to training has been taken but there is an adequate caloric surplus to gain weight then the ratio of fat/LBM gain will not be great. In the case of a caloric deficit the same applies but the ratio of fat/LBM loss could actually be favourable as long as the intensity is kept high in the weight room to preserve LBM. (There are many other factors involved in this but this is the simplistic version)
If a person wants to improve their body composition then that generally means gaining LBM or losing fat or possibly both (but generally not at the same time). This could be a whole article in itself so I will just say that a sufficient plan should be put in place that has adequate energy balance for the goal and a training program that includes sufficient resistance training (to preserve or gain LBM). The general fitness bit is actually optional as cardio isn’t required to be lean.
If you are looking to change an aspect of fitness, strength or body composition then you need to challenge your body to do things it hasn’t done before. If you are happy with your current levels then a maintenance approach can be employed. But if you are trying to change and getting no where then looking at what you have been doing and what you could be doing better is the first step towards achieving your goals.