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How to Properly Progress Your Workouts

One of the age-old questions in the world of working out is: How do I progress my workouts? Or how does one go about training progression? It’s an honest question that deserves a bit of clarification from all of the frustrating noise out there.

You may have come across such notions as chasing the pump, lift heavier each training session, and beating the clock for better results. Now, all of those (plus many more) have their merit. But it all depends on what you’re setting out to do.

Here I want to focus in on building muscle. Good ole-fashioned muscle mass. Put simply, you can either build muscle tissue or coax your muscular system into a variety of improved performance (muscular endurance, power, strength, etc.).

When it comes to building muscle one can’t just show up at the gym, lift a few weights and expect to grow. Well, actually you can. But that’s usually reserved for those just starting out and the body’s natural reaction to the new training stimulus. Don’t you remember those first few weeks and months of training when you seemed to be getting stronger each training session? Then a few more months go by and you hit the proverbial progression wall.

What happened? With such a haphazard plan your body got smart, adapted, and became efficient toward your current “program.” Without a system or two in place you’ll continue to stagnate, lose interest, and then quit showing up. Well, maybe I’m being a bit too dramatic.

Why is Progressing Your Workouts So Important?

Stop just mowing your grass. What do I mean? When you only mow your grass you neglect pruning the bushes/trees, digging up old roots, planting new vegetation, and laying down new mulch and other landscaping?

Your training should be looked at the same way. Are you going to the gym only to mow the grass? Only to maintain things? Or do you want to get some real, noticeable work done?

Going to the gym to maintain your physique is fine, but I don’t know anyone who’s had that goal. We all want to progress, get better, build muscle. So, why aren’t we looking at each and every training day that way? Why do so many of us simply spin our wheels day in and day out without anything to show for it?

This is where we need to change our mindset to one of progression.

I’m guilty of falling off the wagon. For years I took meticulous notes of my training: sets, reps, exercises, weight, and thoughts. But about two years ago I stopped. For the past two years I’ve either maintained or regressed quite a bit. I’ve had a few aches and pains, loss of strength, and I ended up scratching my head.

I finally decided to look to the past for help.

The Importance of a Training Journal

From the very first day of picking up a weight I’d always recorded my workouts. One of the great things about this (among many others) is the fact that you can look back, way back, and see how your training has evolved. It’s so surreal to get out all my old training journals and see the 10 sets of bench presses, 15 sets of pull ups, and other crazy routines that have helped shaped my training to this day.

Looking at all those “relics” I realized I needed to get back to keeping a journal for training and seriously pay attention to progress once again. Keeping track of all of the different aspects of each training session allows you to tangibly see what’s going on each day, trends in progress (or lack of), and a total sense of control of how to manage things each week.

As I mentioned before, I once again started keeping track of exercises, sets, reps, and any other important notes of interest unique to that day. I now established a track record of what’s working, what’s not so much, and where my training is headed. You also get a nice little side-effect of more focus and intent about your training.

If you have any apprehension of keeping a record ask yourself if your training is actually working. Have you progressed in the past month? Six months? Year? Where’s the proof?

Keeping a journal is just a simple tool to utilize so that you have a real, physical plan every single time you go to the gym. Why just spin your wheels?

How to Properly Progress Your Workouts

Okay, now let’s get to where the rubber meets the road. How do you go about progressing on the gym? You have a new attitude, your willing to track your training, so now how do we put it into action?

When I teach my Strength Programming and Conditioning class I recite the NSCA’s idea of progression. And I think it’s a safe bet. They state the 2-for-2 rule: If you are able to lift a certain weight for two consecutive sessions for two more reps above your normal range you can increase weight around 5% for upper and 10% for lower body exercises.

Now, the NSCA is basing this off of performance type training. However, it can still be applied to physique-building in my opinion. It’s a safe way to ensure you’re progression in strength is “sticking” and isn’t just attributed to a unique day of training where all of your planets were aligned and you simply kicked butt. It forces you to repeat your awesomeness.

What I Do for Progression

I take the suggestion above and simplify it a bit more. I will take one of two takes on each exercise. Which exercise gets what depends on how my strength is for that particular exercise, the risk of increasing weight, and my overall “feel” for the exercise. For example, I happen to be a pretty good puller so I’m rather comfortable increasing weight on pull ups and rows. Anything chest-related I’m a bit more careful about due to the fact that 1) it’s not my strong point and 2) my shoulders can get pretty jacked up if I go too heavy on presses.

  • Constant weight progression

I’ll choose the same weight for all of my working sets (hard sets minus any warm up sets). I’ll do my best to hit each set within my rep range. For example, I’ll pick up 75 or 80 pound dumbbells for incline bench dumbbell presses (an exercise that is a challenge for my strength curve) and go for 12 on the first set, 10 on the second, and maybe squeeze out 8 on the last set. Once I get to a couple of reps over those numbers I’ll up the weight by five pounds.

  • Pyramid weight progression

This method is much like the above but I’ll usually reserve this for exercises I feel good about (a higher strength curve) such as strict barbell bent-over rows. I may start with 185 pounds for 12 reps, 205 for 10, and then 225 for 6 or 8 reps. I feel better about this for anything pulling since I have long arm levers for rowing. Not so much for pushing.

Don’t Make it Complicated

This may seem like an oversimplified description of how to progress, but it’s worked for me over the years. And since I’ve started it back up into my own training recently I’ve been more focused, intentional, and connected to my programming.

By Brad Borland

Cancer Survivor, Military Veteran, University Lecturer, Strength Coach, Natural Drug-Free Bodybuilder, Husband, Father

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