To improve our strength and endurance, we need to continue to progress the difficulty of what we are doing. There are many ways to do this and the way in which you choose to progress depends on your goal. What is consistent is the 10% rule, which supports gradual increases (10% to be precise!) over time to allow the body to adapt without compromising it’s safety.
How you apply the 10% depends on your overall goal?
If you are trying to increase your walking distance for a trip or event, the 10% rule is very simple although it is very often broken. If you currently walk 3km, under the 10% rule you would add 300m to your overall distance. Many people easily double their walking volume without considering the consequences of increased load and demand on their body.
The 10% rule becomes slightly different when applied to resistance exercises. There are 3 main ways to alter the difficulty of a strengthening exercise; add more weight, hold it for longer time or do more repetitions. There is a different time and a place for each of these options.
1. Add more weight
Adding more load obviously increases the strength demands of an exercise. What needs to be considered is the relevance and safety of adding more weight. For example, if you are bending forward and lifting a weight, there comes a point at which the pressure you are placing on your back muscles and discs becomes unsafe and your risk of injury increases substantially.
With most exercises, if increasing strength is your goal, increasing load is your first option. When the safety of the exercise becomes compromised, or when you simply reach your limits and can’t lift any more weight, other options need to be explored.
2. Change your speed
The next option involves changing the speed of the exercise. Slowing down an exercise or adding a hold at some point will increase the muscles time under tension which also trains the muscles for strength development. As with adding extra weight, there also comes a point at which the length of time you perform the exercise becomes excessive and can increase your risk of injury.
3. Increase your repetitions
The final way to increase the difficulty of an exercise is to change the number of times you do it. This can be done in 2 different ways; by increasing repetitions to the existing sets, and by increasing the number of sets and hence adding more overall repetitions. Again, the choice of which method to adopt comes down to goals. If absolute strength is the goal, adding an extra set and decreasing the overall repetitions in each set is the best method. For example you might change from performing 3 sets of 10 to performing 4 sets of 8. If you want to build more endurance than absolute strength, then increasing the repetitions in each set is the best approach. For example instead of performing 3 sets of 10, you would increase to perform 3 sets of 11 (an increase of 10%).
While it is easy to pick a number or to simply perform as many repetitions as you can, there is benefit in understanding how to safely increase your challenge without compromising your safety.