How do we progress?
This can be tricky but also a very simple question to answer.
We have to consider 2 main aspects:
1.When we think of the when part of the equation, how do we know when we can make any changes to a workout routine to make it more effective?
Surely, we will be a bit bored of doing the same workout after 3 or 4 weeks. But boredom is not the best indication that something needs to change. When it comes to strength training, unfortunately for a lot of us, repetition is key. The more reps we put on for each muscle group, the better results we will get.
However, there’s a catch: remember in the previous section we discussed volume? Doing 50 push-ups a day (chapeau to those who can manage that) is a lot of reps. But not necessarily, a lot of results. If you can comfortably do 50 push-ups a day and fully recover in 24hs, then you’re certainly not working close to failure and doing enough stimulating sets.
We could say that comfortably doing the number of reps and sets indicated using the current load (weight), something you used to find challenging and used to be able to take close to failure in those parameters before, is a good indicator that a change is needed.
Introducing: RPE. RPE is the Rate of Perceived Exertion, meaning how do you feel when doing a certain exercise? Is it challenging enough? Can you get to the last rep and feel you’re getting fatigued and close to failure? Or is it too challenging and you cannot complete the last 2 or 3 reps at all? And on the other side of the spectrum: is it so easy that you could do more than 5 repetitions in addition to what you are doing? Is it so not challenging that you don’t feel like you’re putting in any effort?
Let’s make it visual, shall we? If you Google the RPE scale, you’ll find many images, most charts related to cardiovascular levels of effort. This is valid. But we got a great RPE scale (thanks to Luke Tulloch) for what each number represents in strength training.
2. Now, to answer the HOW of the progression questions.
And the queen of all principles of exercise is Progressive overload:
When we talk about training, we are implying there is a goal behind our sessions, ideally, we have a program to follow, and we are making notes every session to be able to see our progress. Otherwise, it is simply exercise.
Mind you, exercise is very much needed, and in no way should it be undermined. You have and will continue to hear me say that movement is key to a good quality of life. And exercise of any kind is the number one hack to a longer, healthier one.
However, if you have a specific goal in mind in terms of strength, hypertrophy, and endurance, then you will need a program to follow and a way to track your progress. And that is training.
Training of any kind follows certain principles, like that of specificity, meaning it has to be specific to the individual and their goals; or reversibility, which means pretty much “use it or lose it” (if you stop training, the progress you made can be reversed)
When it comes to progress and adapting a program, the key, however, is the principle of progressive overload-
Overload refers to:
In order to progress, we will put our bodies under stress with training, and this stress or overload can be achieved by playing with any of those variables.
We call it progressive overload because we cannot modify all the variables at one given point of the program and expect good things to happen. If we tweak it all, we will end up failing at the exercises and not progressing
Instead, we will want to increase the stress or load gradually as we progress in our training. The increase can be achieved by adding more weight, changing the tempo of an exercise (for instance instead of going down to a squat at the usual speed, we can go down in 1,2,3 hold 1 second down, and then come up) or adding more sets or reps, for example.
So, let’s say at the start of your program (week 1-day 1) you are doing 10 split squats with no added weight and that feels like an 8 or 8.5 on our RPE scale.
By week 4, you do your set of split squats and realize these 10 reps are feeling more like a 7 on the RPE scale. In other words, it feels easier to do this exercise in this manner. The following week, we will want to switch up this exercise a bit to make it more challenging for you again and get you back on your 8 or so of RPE.
Here’s is when progressive overload comes into play. How can you make this exercise more challenging?
But you cannot make all these changes at once.
For the exercise to continue being effective, you’ll want to change just one thing. Choose one and stick to that for a couple of weeks. When it gets easy again, we can make another change in any one of the variables mentioned before.
If you change too many things at once, you’re more likely to get overworked and take longer to recover.
So progressive overload is just that: making progressive changes to continue getting stimulating sets and reps.
Circling back to the boring repetitive programs, we can always add more and play with the different variables to ensure maximum effectiveness in these “boring” routines.
I love this passage from an article in Stronger by Science:
More is More • Stronger by Science
If you want to get stronger, the best thing you can do is train more, provided you’re sleeping enough, managing stress, and have good technique.
Sure, other factors certainly matter. And sure, it’s certainly possible (though unlikely) to overtrain. But in the simplest terms possible, your current program is probably less effective than it would be if you just added an extra couple of sets to each exercise. If you’re not making progress, your default thought shouldn’t simply be, “time to find an exciting new program!” It should be either “time to add more work to my current program” or time to seek out a new program that employs more volume than my current one.”
LAST PART HERE