The important points
- The ONLY thing that matters when it comes to improving your physique and capacities is progress. All the special methods, advanced theories and programs aren’t worth crap if they do not lead to progress. The only acceptable measure of the quality of your training is the rate at which you are improving.
- When it comes to progression most people think only in terms of lifting more weight or doing more reps with a certain weight. While these are indeed two ways to progress, they cannot work indefinitely.
If it were possible to add a mere 2.5lbs to your bench press per week (which doesn’t sound like much) and you had start at a max of 225lbs, you would be benching 350 after one year, 480 after two, 610 after three, etc. We all know this isn’t possible. The same goes for reps: there is a limit to rapid progression in load and reps.
- There are many different ways to progress. Progress in training simply means being able to perform a more difficult task than you did the week prior. Adding weight to the bar is only one way to make that task more difficult. You can also change the conditions under which you do your sets, making the workout harder even if you stick with the same weight.
- While a program provides a built-in progression, you can still decide to add more difficult elements on any given day if you feel that you will progress better that way, that day. You just need to know your body well enough to identify these opportunities.
10 ways to progress
During every workout, you should try to challenge yourself a little more. However, the body does not adapt in a linear fashion, so it is not realistic to think that you can add more weight to the bar every single week.
Not to mention that some days you will be more tired than others. If you understand how to make your training more challenging using other variables, you will find a way to make your training progressive even on days when your strength is not at its best.
Here are some progression strategies:
1. Adding weight:
This is the simplest and most well-known method of progressing. If you add more weight compared to your previous workout and the number of reps is pretty much the same, you made your body work harder and thus progressed.
2. Adding reps with the same weight:
This one is pretty well known as well. If you did 8 reps with 100lbs last week and this week you do 9 or 10 reps with it, you have completed a more difficult task and thus progressed.
One of the most popular progression models is the double progression system, which is based on these first two strategies. You pick a rep range, for example 8 to 10 reps, and you use the same weight for all your sets. You start at sets of 8 and from week to week try to get more reps in with the same weight. When you are able to complete all your sets at the top end of the rep range (10, as per our example) you increase the weight and go back down to the bottom of the range (8 reps) for the next session.
3. Doing more sets of an exercise:
I call this the “brute force progression”. It lacks finesse and it can backfire if overdone. Increasing the number of sets of an exercise (assuming that the other variables are the same or similar) is a progression in the difficulty, for example, if you do 5 sets instead of 3.
The problem with this is that the body has a limited capacity to recover and when you exceed it you deplete your resources (energetic, nervous, hormonal and immune). As a result, your gains will actually be lower I the long run. While this method can be used once in a while, it should not be your main progression strategy. Higher volume leads to more cortisol release which is the no.1 enemy of the natural trainee.
4. Reducing the rest intervals:
This is one of my favorites because it allows you to stimulate more growth on days when you don’t feel strong. When you do a set you recruit and fatigue your muscle fibers and the more of them you fatigue, the more you stimulate the target muscle. As Dr.Zatsiorsky wrote in Science and Practice of Strength Training : “A muscle fibre that is recruited but not fatigued, is not trained”.
When you finish a set, the muscle fibers start to recover during the rest period. The longer the rest period, the more the fibers recover. When you reduce your rest intervals, your fibers cannot recover to the same extent which means two things:
- you accumulate more fatigue in the fibers from set to set leading to more growth in these fibers
- you are forced to recruit more fibers from set to set to compensate for the fact that your fibers are too tired and need help to complete the task. As you recruit and fatigue more fibers, you stimulate more growth.
5. Slowing down the eccentric:
Not all reps are created equal. If you purposely go slowly during the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift, while simultaneously flexing the target muscle, you increase the difficulty of the rep because the muscle is under tension for a longer period of time.
If it is under tension for 5 seconds instead of 1 or 2 during the eccentric portion of each rep and you are performing 10 repetitions, that muscle must work for 30-40 more seconds, likely doubling the duration of the effort. So if you keep using the same weight and reps on an exercise but go a little slower on the eccentric portion, you are in fact progressing.
6. Getting a better mind-muscle connection:
Sometimes progression can be as simple as getting a better feel for the muscle being targeted by an exercise. For example, if last week you couldn’t feel your pectorals working during the bench press (maybe you felt it all in your shoulders) but this week you feel them and they are pumped after your sets, you have actually progressed because that mind-muscle connection is effective at stimulating growth.
This may seem mundane, but it is veritably important to be 100% focused on the muscle you want to target when performing an exercise.
7. Using more demanding exercises:
This progression method isn’t always accessible, especially if you are following a program with pre-selected exercises. But if you have the freedom of exercise selection, you can increase the challenge on your body (thus progressing) by switching to more demanding movements.
Let’s use the bench press as a sample progression: The easiest variation is the machine chest press, then the Smith machine bench press, then the actual barbell bench press and most demanding would be the DB bench press. So selecting a DB press rather than a Smith machine bench press would represent a more difficult challenge.
8. Lifting with more acceleration (with crisp form):
We’ve established that lowering the weight more slowly increases the difficulty of the set so it might seem contradictory to state that you can also increase the difficulty of the set by lifting faster. But you see force = mass x acceleration.
This means that if you are lifting the same amount of weight faster, you are producing more force. The easiest way to understand this is to think about throwing a baseball. A lot more force output is required to throw it 300 feet than to throw it 60 feet.
The same thing applies to weights: being able to dominate a weight that once moved really slowly is an indication of progression even if you are still lifting the same weight. Beware though, of sacrificing proper form to try to go faster.
9. Including intensifiers:
Here I’m referring to adding elements to a set to make it harder. For example: lowering the weight super slowly, taking pauses during the movement, adding partial reps at the end of the set, doing a rest/pause set (max reps / rest 15 sec. / max reps), doing drops sets, etc.
By making the set more challenging than a regular set, you are progressing. Be careful though, as intensifiers drastically increase the stress level of the workout. They can’t be used all the time and you have to be careful about the volume. Remember that exceeding your capacity to recover from a training load is the easiest way not to gain!
10. Improving technique:
You should always work toward improving your lifting technique. On big strength lifts to boost your performance but also on small isolation movements to better recruit and feel the target muscle. Even elite lifters continue to work on technique. You should always ask yourself if you are getting the most out of an exercise and if not, find a way to make it more effective.
More than adding weights…
As you can see there is more to progression than simply “adding weights to the bar”. As long as you are finding a way to make your workouts better , you will see positive changes in your body and your performance. Stop feeling bad when you can’t increase the weight and find another way to make the workout effective!