The Difference in Maintaining vs. Making Progress

Most people start the new year with many areas to improve on, a main one being fitness. I see many people return to the gym and jump into a routine or a class without putting much thought into strategy and how to properly take care of their body as they do so. When choosing a routine, you want to break down not only how to make progress towards whatever goals you may have (lose weight, gain tone or muscle, etc.) but also how to maintain your health at the same time.

Making Progress

Whether you are joining a gym, doing cardio, or participating in training or classes, progress in our bodies occurs with a principle called ‘progressive overload.’ This concept can be applied to building muscle, strength, endurance, etc. It is when you are asking your body to do something more challenging than it normally would; for example, lifting weights. Once your body is challenged, you gain neuromuscular progress (which is when the brain/body connection is improved or ‘muscle memory’), and then with time, you gain true muscle strength which can lead to hypertrophy (or bigger/more toned muscles), increased connective tissue strength, and even can improve bone density among other things.

There is a safe way to make this progress with progressive overload, and there is pushing yourself too hard. In order to use this principle towards the goals you are trying to achieve, it is important to look at the word progressive. This implies that you should apply only a small amount of challenge to your body at a time in order to slowly build-up to the goal you have. We see many injuries in our clinic in which clients tried to return to a previous level of activity they are no longer used to or try something new in which they performed an exercise their body was not ready or strong enough for.

Take the time to build this progressive strength slowly and deliberately from your current ability. This will ensure your body builds its strength based on the loads you are asking it to do in a safe manner. Once this is no longer challenging and you achieve what we call generalized adaptation, this is when your body switches to maintenance mode, and it maintains its strength based on your current routine. This is a good state and can be used deliberately to keep at a current state of strength/endurance or health. However, if you continue to want to make progress, you must then take the next step and move towards a higher challenge (i.e.: a heavier weight).

Maintaining Progress

There are many reasons you may want to switch to maintaining your current state- one of the most underutilized reasons is to let your body rest periodically. As far as ‘new year’s injuries,’ most reasons I see people for physical therapy are due to overuse injuries. These types of injuries are of what the name describes: you have overused an area of your body that was not ready to take on that much stress. I encourage clients to use a maintenance program as part of reaching their goals in order to let your body rest periodically.

Whether you have reached your goals with fitness and want to maintain your current state, or you are still trying to progress but want to avoid injury, rest should be part of every routine. This does not always need to be taking a day(s) off during the week; this can also mean switching from a progressive routine to a maintenance routine to allow your body to ‘coast.’ This can be achieved by using the same weight, rep and set amount that your body is currently doing well with instead of trying to challenge these numbers. This can prevent overuse, exhaustion, and even injury if used from time to time as a part of reaching your goals. I always recommend being specific in planning these phases in order to minimize these risks.

Maintaining Health

No matter your goal with your health and fitness, whether you are trying to do something new this year or not, it is always important to maintain certain things during a workout routine. For example, flexibility and core strength are most often at the bottom of the priority list. However, the ability to maintain a good state of flexibility as well as a strong core is one of the best things you can do to maintain your health as you meet other goals. These types of routines for your body will always do well to maintain no matter what.

So as you are thinking about your goals, I encourage you to think about your routine and strategize based on progression vs. maintenance to maintain the optimum health.

If you are not sure how to begin or feel you would benefit from guidance on what to maintain and what or how to progress, you can visit any physical therapist without a doctor referral who can guide you in the right direction.

Above all, be healthy!

Dr. Bri McCormick PT, DPT