All About Progression: Techniques and Terms for Progress
Across forums, social media channels, and gyms everywhere (I go to a lot of different gyms), I see the same problem over and over – stagnation. This isn’t meant to be a judgmental post but rather an eye opener for those of you that may have fallen into a rut or that are just getting started. The thing is, it’s very easy to fall short in regards to progression when it comes to training. In general, I would say a lot of people, even personal trainers, simply do not know why they or their clients aren’t seeing the results that they have been working so hard for. Stagnation or not progressing, is likely one of the top three reasons that people give up on their health and fitness endeavors. Why? Because without progression; changes are not made, seen or felt, which can be very defeating. Imagine starting out as a hard charger, seeing rapid results like most untrained individuals do and then 8 months later, you’re still working on moving the same weights, doing the same amount of movement repetitions or maintaining weight no matter how hard you feel like you’re trying. It doesn’t matter who you are, that can be a very hard challenge to overcome mentally and physically.
This is where progressive overload comes into play, but like my other articles, let’s briefly look at why it is necessary to see results and avoid feeling defeated due to slowed progress or diminished results. We as humans are amazing organisms that have evolved to be able to adapt (not meaning biological adaptation) to different stimuli to fit our environment or current conditions. One of the mechanisms that allows us to do so within seconds, minutes, hours, days or months is known as homeostasis. Homeostasis is simply the body’s attempt at remaining in a balanced state at all times. When a new stimulus, stressor or situation is presented, the body realizes the need to adapt in order to accommodate for the new situation. This is true for hydration levels, regulating temperature and thousands of other biological processes.
SO, where does progressive overload come into play?
Progressive overload is simply a way to exploit the adaptation process that occurs when presenting your body with a new stimulus, demand, stressor or situation. We use progressive overload to add muscle; get faster; increase cardiovascular output; and to decrease time to exhaustion or increase endurance. How? By training in a progressive manner - doing more than you have done in past workouts or changing things up to introduce a new stimulus. That means moving more weight; switching up movements; conducting giant sets, super sets, alternating sets or drop sets; doing more reps (increasing volume); decreasing or increasing rest times and/or changing up repetition tempo (time under tension); and increasing length of training sessions, which also leads to more volume. Now, once you have reached a certain point you will have to begin periodizing your workouts to allow your body to recover while continually progressing. There are certain training protocols that utilize a progressive model and periodization; my personal favorite is non-linear periodization, on which a future article will be written.
Examples: * These are arbitrary rep ranges and weights Moving more weight: Last week bench 300x fail at 4 (your target rep range for this week), this week 305x as many as you can get hopefully 3. Next time bench is worked in 305x4. Forced reps also applies here. Grab yourself a spotter and at 305 tell them you want 4-6. Make sure they are not moving the weight for you. There is nothing worse than spotting for someone and having to do a back extension to move the weight for you. Switching up movements: If you stall at squat, rotate in deadlifts, front squats, or dynamic squats (explosive) for a session or two. Also, where are you stalling? Are you failing coming out of the hole? Set your safety bars at the height you stall and just train there for again a few leg sessions.
Conducting giant sets, super sets or drop sets: Super sets are merely stacking sets of one exercise followed by another without resting until both movements are completed. These can be antagonistic (opposing) muscle groups or agonistic (the same) muscle groups. Example would be, bench press followed by pull-ups (antagonistic – chest and back) or bench press super set with DB fly’s (agonistic - same muscle group). So just to clarify when to rest you would bench and go to pull-ups without resting. After your pull-ups you would rest and then begin your superset from the beginning again. Alternating sets, like the name implies means to alternate a movement during your set. This differs from supersets in the fact that you take a rest period before conducting your next movement. To keep things easy, we’ll use the same example bench and pull-ups. For alternating sets, you would bench, rest, pull-ups, rest, and start over. Giant sets is like a huge superset all for one body part. One thing to keep in mind is exercise choice as well and this goes for all movements; don’t do standing bicep curls and seated bicep curls. That is pointless, it’s the same exact movement that you are performing twice and as such, is redundant.
Drop sets, as the name implies, you drop weight over a succession of sets until either there is no weight or you cannot continue the movement. For example, to do bench in a drop set manner, you would throw 5 quarters (25lb weights) on each side. Then, you would do ten reps, strip a quarter do 10 more, strip another quarter do 10 and so on until you have completed all reps with all weights and the bar. Doing more reps (repetitions): Let’s say you ended last week within your target rep range of 8-12 at 9. With the same weight and movement blast 10 this week. If need be grab a spotter and have them help you blast 9.5. Then, next week get the full extension at 10. Time manipulation (Rest Periods): If you have been resting consistently for 3:00 in between sets, drop to 1:30 or 2:00. It may not seem like it will make a difference but, again, your body is incredible at adapting. If it is used to 3:00 minute rest periods, switching rest periods presents a new stimulus for your body to adapt to causing a cascade of processes that elicit progression.
Time manipulation (TUT – Time under tension): Time under tension can be done two ways (in my opinion). You can actually count the rep times eccentric (muscles lengthening), concentric (muscles contraction) and the time in between the two states or what I call the transition phase. Some refer to this as the rest phase of the motion. I do not like to call it this as I prefer to keep constant tension on the muscle. There are those who advocate for different time periods etc. I personally like to keep things simple and will either try to rep out my movements fast or slow and controlled. The key to TUT is to not displace tension on the muscle. Meaning if you’re curling, do not hyperextend your elbow but keep constant tension on the muscle you are working. The same goes for any other muscle group or movement. Timing example (Bench) - Lowering (Eccentric phase) 4 seconds, Transition period (Time between eccentric and concentric) 0 seconds, Pressing (Concentric phase) 4 seconds. You may have come across an article or two and have seen something similar to that for the tempo. If you were to do ten reps with that timing pattern you would be at a total of 80 seconds of constant time under tension. Changing the tempo would either increase or decrease.
Increasing Length of Training This one is easy, instead of working out for 45 minutes, you workout for one hour. Now, people will likely tell you that you shouldn’t workout for longer than an hour due to a rise in the stress hormone cortisol. People need to remember that hormones are released for a reason and cortisol has positive roles as well as negative when out of balance. In the beginning of any fitness endeavor there is really no point in working out for 2 hours but at a certain point training length can be changed to cause additional growth. When people tell me I work out too long, I just tell them that is something that small people say! "Long story short, progress. That’s it, people overcomplicate a very simple thing when getting into fitness. Keep getting better, keep beating the logs, eat, sleep and recover and you WILL see results."
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