OrthoVirginia Blog

Something from Nothing: How to properly progress in exercise

by Austin G Johns, CSCS, CES, HC

It’s been a while since you’ve worked out. Maybe you’ve had other priorities, or maybe your doctor has told you to lay off for a bit before you return to physical activity. Either way, you haven’t exercised the way you’d like in a few months, years, or even decades.

If you follow the right guidelines for increasing the difficulty of your workouts, you can make good physical improvement after a break in your exercise routine.

If you’re doing a consistent exercise routine, the guidelines, called progress rates, say that you can increase intensity about 5-10% weekly. This rate means that a runner who has just returned to running can progress from 1 mile one week to 1.1 miles the next week. Similarly, a weight lifter who lifts 30lbs one week can increase this weight up to 33lbs the next week. This 5-10% method does not, however, paint a complete picture.

The rate at which you can increase your exercise difficulty relates to several factors, including:
  • Starting Point
  • Acute Variables
  • Age
  • Training Proficiency
  • Exercise Frequency

Starting Point

exercise-class.jpgYour starting point refers to how much activity you’ve had leading up to your new exercise routine. If you haven’t been active for a while, this could be a whole body starting point. If you’ve gone through surgery or injury recovery, then your starting point is body part specific.

Whether your starting point is whole body, or body part specific, you should consider how much activity you’ve been experiencing up to day 1 of your new exercise routine. If your lead-up activity has been very little or zero, then it stands to reason that your starting point should be reasonably low. Lifting 1lb weights or walking 5 minutes can be a completely reasonable starting point depending on how much rest or immobilization you’ve had.

Acute Variables

“Acute variables” is a fancy term for how intensely you exercise. Typically exercise intensity is measured in
  • Time – how long an exercise is performed
  • Load – how much weight your muscles are moving (this includes body weight!)
  • Repetitions – how many times you repeat a movement for a certain amount of time under a certain load.
Different activities involve different acute variables and are therefore progressed differently. A runner, for instance, will repeat thousands of step repetitions in an evening run so repetitions is a poor measurement for long distance running intensity. Time is more appropriate. This differentiation may seem intuitive but it becomes more complicated with typical weight lifting exercises or endurance training.

In a weight lifting progression, a common mistake is to increase both load and repetitions at the same time. Unless you’ve undershot your starting point, this progression method will become too taxing for your system and lead you to injury.

Proper progression involves changing one acute variable, not multiple.

Age

personal-trainer.jpgAge changes everything. The younger you are, the faster you heal and recover, and the more quickly you can progress your exercise.

Up to 10 years

Children under 10 years old frequently need little to no progression because their bodies are healing faster than their exercise recovery requirement.

11 – 24 years

There are some minor gender differences between boys and girls in their pre-teen, teen, and early adult years, but outside these differences, exercise progression rates are reasonably standard. They should exercise at least 4 days per week once they are given clearance to do so and their exercise acute variables should increase 5-10% per week.

25 – 40 years

Young adults suddenly have to be more attentive to exercise progression rates. Since their bodies have stopped growing, they need to offer themselves the proper rest periods to see improvements without injury.

41 years and over

Recovery times further extend as you get later in life. Appropriate acute variable progressions at this stage may be 2–5% and it will likely be better to approach increases every other week or more instead of every week.

Training Proficiency

water-aerobics.jpgYour training proficiency refers to how regularly you have exercised up to your starting point. If you’ve always been an active person and you find yourself sidelined by injury, then you have a high training proficiency. If it’s been several years since you’ve been regularly active then you are currently in a low training proficiency state.

Progression related to your training proficiency is counter-intuitive. A highly trained individual can expect to see progress around 2–5% week to week. A more untrained person can experience progress ten, twenty, up to fifty percent week to week. This is due to improved nerve to muscle communication that has already been established in a trained individual.

Exercise Frequency

Exercise frequency means both how often a body part is isolated and focused on during exercise and how much use that body part gets overall. This frequency is why repetitive use injury can be so common after long bouts of inactivity.

A person who has had a leg injury can easily end up with knee tendonitis from an exercise routine because the routine is not the only time that knee is being used. The person is probably walking, driving, biking, or other activities that involve the previously injured leg. Those activities add time to the weekly total acute variables.

If you like to walk, for instance, and you have just been cleared to walk again after having been in a walking boot for 6 weeks, there are structures in your foot that have not been used at all for 6 weeks! While most of your body may feel fine getting back on the road, those few underused structures will be severely overtaxed by progressing too quickly.


When returning to physical exercise after a long rest from injury or inactivity, it is important to consider your starting point, acute variables, age, training proficiency, and exercise frequency. Not doing so can easily lead to further injury and a slippery, cyclical slope that gets you stuck in a rehabilitative state for far too long.