You laid the foundation by considering adherence and how to make your program fit into your life. Then you decided how your volume will be distributed via frequency and intensity. It’s specific towards your goal, so you should know which intensities you’ll be in more than others and how often you’ll be training.
Now, it’s time to factor in improvement and actually getting better so you can see your gains increase over time. The most fundamental concept of progression in exercise science is Progressive Overload.
It’s very simple and intuitive, so I won’t spend too much time on it but it’s this: Doing more work over time. In strength/hypertrophy training, we measure “work” by your training volume, so that should increase over time.
How can you increase your volume over time? There’s plenty of ways to do so. Bret Contreras, a well-respected and very accomplished researcher and glute-training extraordinaire devised 12 ways in which you can increase the work amount of work you do in this article:
- “Lifting the same load for increased distance (range of motion)
- Lifting the same load and volume with better form, more control, and less effort (efficiency)
- Lifting the same load for more reps (volume)
- Lifting heavier loads (intensity of load)
- Lifting the same load and volume with less rest time in between sets (density)
- Lifting a load with more speed and acceleration (intensity of effort)
- Doing more work in the same amount of time (density)
- Doing the same work in less amount of time (density)
- Doing more sets with the same load and reps (volume)
- Lifting the same load and volume more often throughout the week (frequency)
- Doing the same work while losing body mass (increased relative volume)
- Lifting the same load and volume and then extending the set past technical failure with forced reps, negatives, drop sets, static holds, rest pause, partial reps, or post-exhaustion (intensity of effort)¹”
All of these methods will increase the amount of work you do over time, so you have plenty of tools at your disposal. It’s not a matter of simply increasing the weight every week. That’s also not possible for some exercises.
Now that you have an understanding of progressive overload and some strategies on how you can apply the concept, let’s move on to some considerations and things to remember when developing your program and how you’re going to progress.
Progress Will Be Different For Everyone
Your progress will be different from your friend’s and that of a professional athlete. The amount you progress will depend on the training stimulus you give yourself, training age, and genetics.
Think about it: Progressive Overload. You should be structuring your program to be rigorous and feel like it’s difficult to complete. In reality, training never gets easier. You just get better and “used to” the feeling of getting your ass kicked by the weights. That’s not to say that you need to kill yourself in the gym every time; but find that balance where you’re progressing with some sessions that feel like shit, but it shouldn’t be every single time.
Training age is a huge factor for the amount of progress you’ll experience. When you’re brand new to weight training, the gains you’ll experience are going to be insane! You’ll increase your muscle mass and strength weekly and feel like a god. After a few months, that will begin to slow down, and you’ll really need to be smart about your programming, playing with different training variables, exercises, and other elements of training.
Once you become an intermediate trainee, the gains come frustratingly slow. I’m currently cutting at the moment after an aggressive bulk for 6 months (I put on about 25-30 pounds). My lean mass, which measures all non-fat tissue and substances in your body including muscle, is coming in just 5 pounds above where I started. So as of now (and I’m not done cutting yet), I’ve netted 5 pounds of muscle. But, that’s going to decrease further as my body fat percentage and weight drops. I’ll probably have netted only 1-2 pounds of muscle gained in the past year and a half.
While this sounds terribly slow and not worth it, it has been because my strength has increased dramatically. Anyway, that was just an example of how progression decreases significantly over time. That’s why it’s important to love the process of training and enjoy this beyond the way you look in the mirror.
The last bit is genetics. Genetics pay another role because people as experienced as me can still possibly see newbie gains or similar to it simply because they’ve been an athlete forever or their parents were. Keep this in mind though, if your genetics aren’t that of a pure bred athlete, you shouldn’t quit because you aren’t progressing like someone else. Part of training is overcoming the difficulty and struggle you put yourself through each session. That’s an award in itself. Be proud of ANY progress you experience because it’s yours and no one can take it from you.
Progression Is Not a Linear Process
This is huge to keep in mind because it’s easy to get into the mindset that you need to be increasing weight, reps, frequency, etc. all the time. That’s just not true. As your training age increases, improvements are going to come slower, and you may even get caught up in some stale programming and lose progress. This is also normal and completely part of the process. The chart of progression is not a straight line to the right. It’s up and down forever. The important thing is that, over time, it’s generally increasing. Whether that’s a week, month, year, 10 years, etc. it’s different for everyone, so buckle up and be ready for the long haul of getting better.
During some periods, you may hit the wall and feel crappy or simply not want to push too hard. When you feel this way, it could be worth it to do a de-load. A de-load is simply reducing the volume you’re doing for a period of time, usually one normal cycle of training. I’m de-loading right now because I had food poisoning last week and it set me back a bit, so I’m reducing my volume, so I can recover fully and be ready to hit it hard again next week. There’s nothing wrong with reducing your work for a bit to give yourself enough time to recover and honestly just take a small break from training.
It can be taxing on your body and mind to lift often. You’ll need to de-load sometimes just to recharge physically and mentally, and that’s perfectly fine. Just make sure you’re not taking a month long hiatus!
Next week, we’ll discuss some ways you can structure your training so you can plan your progression in a calculated and intelligent way.
I hope you found this useful on how to progress over time. The real meat of how to progress will be in those 12 training variables I shared at the top, so I encourage you to look at those and see how you can make those fit into your own program. In addition, progress is just as much about improving mentally than it is physcially. Patience is something you’ll have to learn to adopt as part of your strategy because this endeavor of strength/hypertrophy requires a lot of it.
Good luck. Please let me know how else I can help.