This topic took me a long time to grasp, despite how easy it can be to describe. I also think that progression is something that we can easily just state as adding more weight. We take so much time determining reps, sets, volume, etc, why do we not take a systematic approach to progression and more specifically, progressive overload?
As a beginner, you don’t have to be very specific. You advance so quickly that you’re basically adding more weight to each movement every week. However, there’s an important step as you progress towards intermediate that forces you to periodize your progression. Many people get stuck during this transition, because they believe that they should be adding more weight when things seem to get easier. But, as an intermediate, the changes are happening so slowly that it’s hard to tell when it’s actually gotten easier.
The other side to this are people who plateau, and can’t seem to get stronger. They keep increasing the weight and doing less reps, increasing fatigue, and the problem keeps getting worse. Following a planned progression can be a huge help to break past a plateau by reducing fatigue and increasing strength.
Track Your Volume
Step one is tracking. If you’re not tracking sets, reps, and weight, there’s no point to trying to track progress. This can be done in an app like Gravitas (for those with iphone), or something as simple as an excel doc. I personally use an excel doc just because it’s easiest to customize.
To set yourself up well for tracking progress, you should be tracking your sets reps and weight in a way that you can easily see changes week over week. In a google sheet, I prefer to have each day on a tab, and track repeated workouts within the same tab. So that way, I can look back on the last few times I’ve done the same workout without having to move between tabs or docs.
As an intermediate lifter, you’re not going to be progressing as fast as you once did. Your compound lifts may be able to increase by 5 lbs increments with some regularity, but your isolation movements won’t.
Take the bicep curl for an example, if you increase your weights by 5 lbs every month, you’d gain 60 lbs on your curl in a year. This would be an impossible gain. For this reason, you’ll need two different progression strategies for your compound and isolation movements.
For your compound progressions, reference the table below.
|1||100 lbs||8, 8, 8||2400 lbs|
|2||105 lbs||7, 7, 7||2205 lbs|
|3||110 lbs||6, 6, 6||1980 lbs|
|4||100 lbs||6, 6 (deload)||1200 lbs|
|5||105 lbs||8, 8, 8||2520 lbs|
Each week you’ll be adding 5-10 lbs (depending on how you respond) to your lift, but reducing your reps by 1 on each set. This example is for a lift that is programmed for 3 sets of 6-8 reps. On the 4th week, you’ll reduce your volume significantly to allow you to recover and thus, reduce fatigue. From there, increase your weight and resume the original number of reps.
During the month, you’ll be reducing the overall volume load, but after each cycle, you’ll be slowly increasing your load and strength.
For isolation movements, you’ll want to extend the length of each cycle in order to slow down the weight progression. In the below example, more emphasis is placed on weight and volume rather than reps.
|1||40 lbs||14, 13, 12||1560|
|2||40 lbs||14, 14, 12||1600|
|3||40 lbs||14, 14, 13||1640|
|4||40 lbs||12, 12 (deload)||960|
|5||40 lbs||15, 15, 14||1760|
|6||40 lbs||15, 15, 15||1800|
|7||45 lbs||13, 12, 12||1665|
You can see a similar setup for the first 4 weeks, but instead of the weight increase week over week, there is an increase of reps. This does increase the overall volume load, where in the compound progress volume load actually decreases. This is because fatigue with compound movements accumulates more quickly and recovery is more difficult.
Here we aren’t attempting an increase in reps until week 7, and even then there is only a 100lb total volume increase distributed across reps (1560 in session 1 vs. 1665 in session 7)
To sum things up, take your progression seriously. If you aren’t tracking your progression, you’re losing out on gains, and potentially not progressing at all.