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The Importance of Progression


Jan 18, 2023
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Progression rules! It’s the most important component of any training plan, and without it, the entire program falls apart. Sets, reps, exercise selection, rest time… these are all important, as the manipulation of these variables determines what adaption(s) your program is currently set up to achieve. With that being said, it’s progressive overload that allows these adaptions to take place, because without a new stress or stimulus from one workout to the next, there’s no “push” for your body to grow and develop, and therefore no results.

Stress = Growth

Our bodies have the amazing ability to adapt to the stresses imposed on them, and while this is great for overall health and longevity, it absolutely sucks when it comes to building strength and putting on muscle. Our bodies resist change. They don’t care if you can squat 500 pounds or look like the hulk. They don’t care if you have veins on your abs or can run a mile in under four minutes. All they care about is maintaining homeostasis, or a state of equilibrium, and they’ll do everything in their power to maintain their original resting state.

Well if our bodies resist change, how do we get stronger, faster, or bigger? By providing a stress – via strength training, conditioning work, etc. – that takes our body out of homeostasis, forces it to adapt in order to better handle the stress next time, and ultimately create a new – and higher – state of homeostasis. And we have to do this over, and over, and over again. Squatting 225 instead of 215? Yep, that’s a new stress, but once our body adapts to it, we’re no longer going to make progress by continuing to squat 225. We have to squat 230, 235, 240 – you see where this is going?

Our bodies don’t change because we will them to. We have to challenge them, make them uncomfortable, and force them to work harder in each subsequent training session than they’ve ever had to before.

Forms of Progression

There are many ways to progress in the weight room, and here are my top five ways of going about it:

1. Increase Load

Simple enough – add weight to the bar. Max strength carries over in to all other physical capacities and technical skills, so it should be a top priority in your program. If the weight on the bar is moving up, so is your overall level of strength and performance.

2. Increase Reps

Adding weight to the bar is awesome, but you won’t be able to do it indefinitely. When you hit a plateau, start shooting for new rep records. If you squatted 315 for 5 reps last week, and hit 6 reps of 315 today, you did more work with the same weight, and therefore got stronger.

3. Increase Sets

Increasing sets is just another way to increase work load. If you can do an extra set on an exercise and still hit your target weight and reps, you’ve done more total work with that weight, and therefore made progress.

4. Increase Time Under Tension (TUT)

When you increase the amount of time it takes to complete a set (for example, lowering the bar for 4 seconds instead of 1-2 seconds during a bench press), it dramatically increases muscular damage and fatigue. So if you can do the same weight with a greater TUT, boom – you got stronger.

5. Decrease Rest Time

This’ll turn your training session in to one heck of a conditioning workout. It’s brutal, takes your heart rate through the roof, and if you can move the same weight with half the rest – or without giving your energy systems time to fully recovery- you undoubtedly made progress.

Keep it Specific

Each form of progression mentioned above overlaps, and they should all be used within an intelligently designed training plan. With that being said, certain forms of progression should be emphasized depending on the goal you’re looking to achieve, and I like to group them as follows:

  • Strength Gain
Max strength is the amount of force a muscle can generate one time. If you’re goal is to get stronger, you have to lift more weight, so your emphasis should be on increasing load or reps with a given weight.

  • Hypertrophy
Hypertrophy – just a fancy way of saying “mass gain” – really benefits from each form of progression equally. Prioritize adding weight and reps, as this will allow you to use more weight when implementing other progression schemes, but a good amount of time should still be spent adding sets, decreasing rest time, or increasing TUT for the most optimal results.

  • Endurance
Endurance is the amount of time your muscles can repeatedly contract against a sub-maximal resistance before fatigue. I’ve found using light weights (30-75% 1RM) and extremely low rest times (15-45 seconds) to be the best way to increase this capacity, so if your goal is to improve endurance, a good amount of time should be spent progressively lowering rest time in between sets.

Progression is Your Big Rock

One of my professors at ODU told me to think of my day like a bucket, and everything I do in my day as either a big rock or a pebble. The big rocks represent major priorities/obligations such as work, school, and training, and the pebbles represent more “fun” and less important activities such as partying and hanging out with friends.

If I start filling the bucket with the pebbles, they’ll take up too much space and I won’t be able to fit all of the bigger rocks on top. Conversely, if I start by filling the bucket with the big rocks, the pebbles will all fit between the cracks.

How does this apply to strength training?

When it comes to setting up a training plan, progression is your big rock. It’s your foundation. It’s the center piece that holds all other variables of the program together. Set your big rock down first. Then start worrying about the pebbles that’ll settle in around it.