Strength Progression Made Easy

One of the single biggest mistakes I see in the gym, and a significant reason why people benefit from having a Personal Trainer, is the lack of progression within their training program. And before going in more depth with why, first let me describe what the word “program” versus “workout” means. A workout could be described as singular, meaning it only entails that single training session at the gym, and this is where many people go wrong. For example, they have a great chest workout and continue to go through that workout over and over, which is better than nothing, but not optimal. A program instead would be described as plural, as it would entail a long term plan for improvement and should be ever changing. A program entails months upon months of workouts that lead to an overall improvement in your fitness, strength, flexibility, endurance, and health, depending on your goals and what you are trying to accomplish. A program is optimal as its foundation is built upon progression. Progression entails anything that is providing an increased stimulus over the previous training session, and that could come from a multitude of factors. Within resistance training, progression has some fairly obvious benefits when it comes to gaining strength, but many fail to realize the key benefits it also has with weight loss.

  1. The more muscle you have, the more calories you can burn. So by using progression, we can create muscle growth that will provide a stable and continuous increase in your metabolic rate.
  2. If you are progressing and consistently increasing the difficulty, you are most likely also increasing the amount of calories you are burning per training session. Lifting heavier weight and the increasing the degree of difficulty creates a much more intense workout that will translate into more calories burned.
  3. When we train with weights, we go through a process called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Without getting too detailed and scientific, the basis around EPOC is the fact that after a weight training workout, you continue to burn calories afterwards due to recovery needs. As we add in progression and the difficulty and intensity increases, the extent of the calories burned through EPOC will increase as well. So while you are sitting at home, you are continuing to burn calories above your normal metabolic rate, and who doesn’t want that!

So we need progression not just for increasing strength and muscle, but also for the numerous health and weight loss benefits it adds, but how do we make sure we are progressing properly? For someone just starting out with resistance training, many times progression comes from the exercise variation, as they are starting from a very basic point, and working their way up to more difficult variations. This type of progression is very individualized, so trying to go through how to progress in this manner is very difficult to write about, and where one on one sessions with a personal trainer can be of great value. As you reach a slightly higher fitness level where exercise variation is not as much a contributing factor, but still what I’d very much consider a beginner, we can now start to add in a simplified approach to progression. This will be slow, as there is a reason there are 2.5lb weight plates in the gym, and that is because we should use them! Your strength may increase at a fairly fast past when you first start, but beware of the temptation to just keeping adding more and more weight. Slow and steady will win the race here, and this can be for many reasons, but the main reason most beginners should stick to a very slow progression pace is due to injury risk. Even though our large, dominant muscles may be getting exponentially stronger, those small stabilizers still may be a bit weaker. We still may have some imbalances as well between sides of the body, causing form dysfunction due to favoring one side. So slow progression with correct form is the way to go. With that being said, let’s finally look at how to progress and overload your muscular and nervous system to produce an increase in strength and muscle size. There are 3 main variables that go into how you are dictating the difficulty of an exercise, and that is the amount of sets, the amounts of repetitions, and the weight that is being used. Below is an example of how this might be written within a program.

Exercise Sets Reps Weight
Bench Press 2 10 100

To create progression within a program, there needs to be a manipulation of at least 1 of these

variables, and eventually all 3 at some point over time. Using the example above, the first goal you should have is to continue to do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, but slowly increase the weight. Next workout, try to complete the same sets and repetitions, but now with 105 pounds. At some point though, you will hit a sticking point where you reach a weight you can no longer complete 10 repetitions with. At that point, you have 2 options:

1.) Drop the weight back slightly, but now go for 11 repetitions, and then the next workout 12 repetitions.

2.) Continue to increase the weight, but now decrease the amount of repetitions your are doing.

I generally like to have most people stay within the 5 to 12 repetition range for compound movements (multi-joint movements) and 8-15 rep range for isolation movements (single joint movements). So with that being said, you can continually manipulate the weight and repetitions within that range. Sets of 12 repetitions will focus more on the endurance and growth of the muscle, sets of 5 will focus more on strength. We need both, growth and strength, to fully reach our potential in fitness, so to say there is one magic amount of repetitions is false, as we need to continually work through different repetition patterns to work the muscle through all of its potential. At a certain point though, even with changing the weight and repetitions, we will plateau, and that is when it is time to manipulate the 3rd variable, and now add another set. The more sets we do of a particular exercise, the greater stimulus it provides for adaptation. There is a diminishing effect from adding more sets though, as each set added provides less of a stimulus than the preceding set, so just immediately adding more and more sets is not the right practice to optimize a program. But, slowly adding more volume to our workout is the final key to progressing overloading the muscle. Once we add a 3rd set to the above example, our progression plan would then revert to what was originally stated, which is to take a particular weight and keep trying to do more repetitions at that weight, and when that plateaus, increase the weight gradually while dropping the amount of repetitions to whatever amount you can perform at the new given weight.

Hopefully this can help you to better understand how to improve within the gym, and not fall into the same rabbit hole as many when it comes to continuing to do the same things over and over in the gym without any progression. If you have any further questions regarding progression or how to properly implement progressive overload into a program, feel free to shoot me back an email and I’d be happy to help.

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So Many Ways To Get To The Same Goal

I was reminiscing recently about the success stories I have been privileged to be a part of, and something hit me. The process of reaching each of these goals has been vastly different. And I knew that was the case, but I never put two and two together really until now of just how different each person’s journey was, specifically looking at their workout plan and nutrition. There were two keys that guided these differences, the first being what they enjoyed, and the second being something I will cover later. I like to be lenient up front with most people on what they choose to do for exercise, and provide a lot of different options, and it is for this exact reason. Each person needs to find what is right for them, and giving a wide variety of different exercise options a chance helps someone find the path most enjoyable for them.

Let’s go through a bunch of examples of client’s and what they typically did outside of our personal training sessions for their own workouts. (This is what they did in addition to meeting with me anywhere between 1 to 3 times per week)

Client A – Lost 40lbs.: Group classes 3 days a week, specifically Step being her favorite.

Client B – Lost 50lbs.: Wii Dance at home 3-4 days a week, most of the time with her family. Really only came to the gym to train with me, but rocked that Wii Dance every week.

Client C – Lost 70lbs.: Functional Training/High Intensity Personalized Group Training Program 3 days a week.

Client D – Lost 40lbs.: Running almost every day, usually with a group of friends. Competed in marathons and hated weight training, so only did weights with me.

Client E – Lost 30lbs.: Group classes that were offered at work during their lunch break 3-4 days a week.

Client F – Lost 50lbs.: Weight training twice a week on his own, and then would usually do more cardio that I would want him to on the other days of the week, usually plugging away on the elliptical.

Client G – Lost 40lbs.: Would “kind of” weight train on his own, but would mostly just do cardio 2 days a week. Craziest part is this person gained strength and muscle faster than any client I’ve ever trained.

Client H – Lost 30lbs.: Very strict plan of weight training and cardio. The “optimal” approach that most trainers believe their clients should actually do, but rarely works due to sustainability.

Client I – Lost 70lbs.: Skateboarding with friends 7 days a week. Would not come to the gym on his own, so skateboarding was the option we agreed upon at home to keep him active.

Client J – Lost 30lbs.: This was an outlier, as she was a girl who I met with for just a “free session” that came with her membership, and she took that one workout we did and busted her butt on her own. Due to her dedication, I’d usually shoot new workouts her way every couple months to give her something new, and she did that 3 days a week, and then cardio another 1-2 days a week.

Client K – Lost 40lbs.: Cardio on her own 2 days a week, usually on the concept 2 row machine. Usually needed to send texts to remind her, as she was someone who needed consistent accountability.

As for these client’s nutrition, I would have to be a superhuman to remember the things that each of them ate on a daily basis. But I can tell you one thing, and that is not a single client had a food journal that looked alike. Every single person was different with their food selection and what worked for them. Some even ate things that I wasn’t the most fond of, but it worked for them, and who I am to force them to eat things they do not like when they have found something they have gotten results with and enjoy. Some people ate a typical breakfast, some people “drank” breakfast (protein shake). Some people ate leftovers for lunch, some turkey sandwiches, and others microwaveable meals. And for dinner it continued to vary just as much. My point being that there is no fool proof recipe for success, it is all dependent on you as an individual.

But with all these differences, there is one consistent variable among all these clients. I mentioned early there was a second key for success that I would discuss later, and now is the time. That key is consistency. All of these clients found things they enjoyed, and then consistently did them.

These successful clients found a modality of exercise that motivated them to workout and worked within their daily life. If you can pick something that may be a bit consistent from each plan, it was finding a person or group to workout with, whether that be group classes, friends, or family. And that was simply because it is more fun to workout with someone than it is alone. But no matter what it may be, find what you enjoy, and do it.

When it came to nutrition, these clients found foods they enjoyed and stuck with it. If there is one thing with nutrition that all these people did, it was finding foods they liked, and then pretty much eating the same things every day. I have never had a successful client who kept “variety” as a mainstay in their diet. I am not a fan of saying you have to eat the same things everyday, and never told a single one of these clients to do so. But the ones who were successful did, with some very slight variation for maybe 1 or 2 meals a week. They found it easier to stick with similar things instead of trying to find new foods every day. It allowed them to cook in bulk and be prepared, saving a lot of time and headache when it came to finding something to eat.
Without even meaning to, I have basically summed up my article “4 Keys to Fitness Success” in detailing what these clients did to be successful. That article went into detail for the need of consistency, sustainable habits, enjoying the process, and not doing it alone. Those are the 4 keys I picked for a reason, and it is because if I look at the success of my clients and others, it is exactly the things they did and what you can see here. So when looking at your own fitness journey, if you are not seeing the success you desire, let’s reevaluate. If you are not making it to the gym, why not? What can you do differently? Is there a way to exercise at home we can add in as a substitute that may work? Have you tried ALL the group classes to see if there is one you enjoy? Are you planning meals for the week, or just hoping to run across healthy things? If I ask what you are eating for dinner tonight, or tomorrow for lunch, or to how about 3 days from now (someone who is successful will be able to answer all 3 of those)? Make a plan, find consistency and sustainability, stick with it, and the results will come.