Progression, there’s more than one way
Progression is a topic that is typically approached in a linear fashion when it comes to fitness. When we think of dieting or bulking we think of weight loss or weight gain. When we think of weight lifting we look at increasing our max and “PRs”. In bodybuilding, it’s size added to a particular muscle group. This linear outlook to fitness is repeated throughout most learning resources with magazines and click-bait websites using sensationalized headlines like “Add an inch to your bicep in 30 days” or “Increase your bench by 20lbs in 5 minutes with these 3 simple tips”. The reason these headlines are so appealing is that they are very visible representations of progress. For example, with weight loss, a pound off your gut can provide a huge visual stimulus to both the person achieving the weight loss and the audience who sees it. Kim at the office comments “Wow, you look like you’ve lost some weight!” over some watercooler chatter. These sort of comments are rewarding and reinforce the linear model of progression in the gym. However, sometimes it can come at a cost to other important elements of your fitness.
Let’s use Joe the wannabe powerlifter example. Joe really wants to bench heavy. He’s internalizing every step in the Muscle & Fitness magazine article to increase his bench press prowess. He goes to the gym and follows their horrible tips, but via the placebo effect and newfound motivation, he cranks out a 20lb PR. Let’s visualize this rep. He lifts his ass off the bench to add more leg drive and his bench tilts upward on the right side as his stronger shoulder compensates for weakness in his left. His face turns blue as he tries to hold his breath. He bounces the bar off his chest. His grip resembles more of a suicide grip than a proper bench grab. Elbows flare out at the bottom of the rep rather than maintaining tucked and in a strong position. Joe racks the weight and hops up excited with his new PR. He tells all his buddies. Joe is the bench press PR king. However, poor Joe is looking at only linear progression. He’s so focused on a PR that it’s come at the expense of his form. If he keeps this up he’s very likely to injure himself in the long run. In addition, he’s not doing himself much justice for his lagging chest and will likely end up with a muscular imbalance on his right side if he keeps leaning on that right delt for power.
I’m going to use myself as an example now. For the past year, I’ve had the same max on my overhead press. I have very long arms and with my frame it feels more comfortable to keep my grip closer on my overhead press. You can imagine the range of motion as a result of this combo. Thus it makes it very challenging to increase the weight on my overhead press and I’d rather not sacrifice form just to hit a 5lb or 10lb pr as I know shoulders are very prone to tearing when put in a bad position. Well, how am I supposed to grow my shoulders if I’m not progressing in weight? I’ll tell you right now compared to my 2013 contest prepped shoulders, these 2015 arms have definitely put on some size. Specifically in the last year they’ve become a lot more round and “3D”. How’s that possible? Well, because even though I’m lifting the same amount of weight, my form looks completely different. My rep range and exercise volume is different. My poise is different. When I talk about this sort of stuff…it sounds incredibly boring. “Ya ya ya form, smorm, your overhead press is weak”. If you’re a beginner lifter, this is probably going on inside you head, but I’m trying to appeal to the future intermediate or advanced lifter in you. Planting the seed that will allow you to focus on a different type of progression when you’re not making the massive leaps in strength like you used to. With all that said, let me show you two ways to progress in the gym aside from just putting on weight.
Rep and Set (Volume) Progression:
This one goes hand in hand with increasing the amount of weight. I’m starting easy because this concept is very easy to grasp onto. Let me begin describing this progression method by filling you in on your body’s thoughts on weight-lifting. Attention: Your body has no f***ing idea what 135 pounds are. It doesn’t know the different between 8 and 12 reps. It doesn’t even know what time it is. Your body DOES understand that something is heavy and it needs to grow to compensate just in case it needs to lift that heavy thing again. It knows that you need to sleep and recover from all those heavy things that tore muscle fibers today. So when you’re in the gym loading up 315 pounds on your bench versus the 310, it only matters to your ego. In reality, if 310 is heavy for you, your muscles are going to grow. If you fail at 4 reps when your target was 5, your body is not going to NOT grow just because you didn’t hit 5.
Now that that’s clear, let’s discuss rep and volume progress. This is something I’ve used extensively with my overhead press that I talked about above. Let’s say the first week you use 200 pounds on a bench press for 3 sets of 8 reps. 200 x 8 x 3 = 4,800 pounds of volume that your body was subjected to. Let’s say next week you aren’t comfortable moving up in weight as you were hitting failure on that 8th rep or extremely close. The next cycle you do 200 lbs for 3 sets of 9. Guess what, you just increased your total poundage volume by 600. The next cycle you don’t want to move up in weight again, but you add in an extra set. You do 200 lb for 4 sets of 8. You’ve now hit 6,400 pounds of volume on your bench. Consider each rep and each pound you subject your body to as progress to your physique or your total. Finally, you can break this down to an even smaller intraset level. Let’s say you’re doing 4 sets for 10, 10, 8, 8 with 200 pounds on bench. You’ve increased your volume to 7,200. Let’s recap.
- Add sets to increase total volume performed on an exercise.
- Add reps to increase total volume performed on an exercise.
- Add reps intraset to increase total volume per set on an exercise.
This one is a bit more intangible and tougher to grasp, but an important scheme for progression, especially at the advanced stages of lifting. Let’s use the example from above. When he’s breaking his form down to hit the PR he’s doing much more than just increasing his chance of injury. He’s actually taking volume and stress away from the muscle groups he’s trying to target. This happens to a ton of weightlifters not just on the 1 rep maxes, but also when they are going to failure on the 9-10th rep exercises. Examples: you round your shoulders and tuck your head on the final reps of a pull up, your grip tightens and you start pulling with your arms during a close-grip pulldown, your arms and shoulder shifts forward to add momentum during a db or barbell curl (pelvis usually shoots forward too). These are massive form breakdowns, but rather poise during an exercise. We want to hit that last rep so badly that we lose track of what causes the hypertrophy in the first place; tension on the muscle group.
The best way to do this type of progression is on a daily/monthly basis. First focus on maintain form through the last couple of reps in a set. Then focus on controlling and actually focusing on the muscle the entire exercise rather than just the rep count. Using a bicep curl for instance, watch yourself in the mirror. Use absolutely zero tilt during the exercise. Control your decent and ascent with the weight. Keep your shoulder back in the sock to prevent the delt from taking over. If you want some great examples of poise checkout the instagram @3dmj_godfather. He’s one of the best natural bodybuilders on the planet and he’s the king of poise. Watch one of his barbell rows where he removes every bit of momentum from an exercise. He doesn’t even grimace during a set.
Poise is not going to be your best way to progress in the short term, but it is going to significantly help with longevity in the gym. For a natural bodybuilder, this is key as it takes much longer to grow muscle. Preventing injuries is just as important as that next PR.
- Keep the same poise (aka control) you had during the first rep for the last rep. Even when you’re going to failure.
- Try not to grimace during an exercise.
- If your form is sacrificed or you need momentum to finish the set, perhaps you need less weight.