As my colleague Will Brink likes to say, “From Mentzer’s ‘one set to failure’ to Poliquin’s ‘German volume training,’ there is no program which recommends using progressively lighter weightloads from week to week.” Brink is of course, alluding to the universal requirement of all successful strength and mass gaining programs: progressive overload.
One well-known pro bodybuilder recently told me that as long as he was training to failure, he felt assured that he was using the highest possible intensity, and therefore, it didn’t matter what weights he used. Most people, after seeing his physique, would hesitate to argue with such convoluted logic.
(Incidentally, Matt Mendenhall jokingly calls this phenomenon the law of excessive mass: i.e., “I’m bigger than you, so I’m right!”) But I would remind such people that the individual in question possessed several attributes which allowed him to succeed despite his poor choice of exercise protocol:
1) He chose great parents for his avocation;
2) He was probably a dru… I mean, a recreational pharmacologist;
3) Perhaps most importantly, he possessed the ability to work extremely hard on a consistent basis for a long period of time.
With this in mind, you should immediately grasp the foolishness of “average” trainees (which the vast majority of us are) attempting to use this individual’s training methods.
Training is Stress!
Let’s start off with an analogy: If you went from a sedentary desk job to working as a lumberjack, your body would undergo some interesting adaptations as it struggled to cope with the unfamiliar environmental stressors inherent in that profession.
You would most certainly develop caluoses on your hands as a result of grasping axes, saws, and other implements for hours each day. These callouses, however, would be exactly the same size one year after getting your new job, three years after, six years after, ad infinitum. Why? Because after the initial shock, the degree of stress to your hands never changed over that period of time.
Training is no different. Most bodybuilders make great progress for the first year or two, but then never look any different from that point on. Many of these people understand the importance of progression, but lack the skills necessary to implement it properly.
The Training Load
In sports science jargon, the training load is defined as “the sum total of all training activities for a given unit of time.” The training load has two important components, both of which can be used to provide overload— volume, or the amount of work done, and intensity, or the difficulty of work done (Incidentally, as a rule of thumb, you should seek to establish a certain level of intensity first, and then add volume, rather than the other way around).
Before you can plan a certain level of progression, it becomes necessary to have a way of measuring each of these components. Volume is usually calculated as the amount of weight lifted multiplied by the repetitions performed with that weight. However, this traditional calculation is being called into question by some latter day thinkers. Charles Poliquin was the first to say that the actual time that a muscle is under tension (TUT) must be considered as well. If this seems too anal-retentive, let me ask you a question.
If you perform a set of 10 reps with 135 pounds, and your lifting speed (or tempo) is 6 seconds per repetition, and your training partner used the same weight and reps, but executed each rep at 3 seconds per repetition, did you each perform an identical amount of work? Clearly, no. This scenario illustrates the fact that the training load can be increased simply by gradually slowing down your lifting tempos over successive workouts. Reducing rest between sets also increases volume, since the workload will be performed in a shorter period of time. So, to use another example, if you and your partner both perform 3 sets of 10 reps with 135 pounds using identical tempos, but you rest one minute per set while your partner rests two minutes between sets, you achieved the greater volume.
Intensity is the second component of the training load, and it is normally expressed as a percentage of your 1RM (one repetition maximum), or the greatest amount of weight you can lift for one repetition in proper form. But here’s the catch with 1RM’s: they’re always changing. This means you never quite know for sure what your 1RM is for any given lift. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t test for 1RM’s every 8 weeks or so— you should. Doing so gives you a guideline to work with. It’s just important to realize that 1RM’s are a dynamic measurement. For this reason, I usually prescribe repetition bracketsrather than percentage of 1RM when I write training programs for my clients.
When considering intensity, it’s important to realize that any change in your exercise technique— no matter how slight— changes the equation altogether. For instance, if you normally use a 3 second tempo (meaning, you complete each repetition in exactly 3 seconds) when testing for your 1RM, and the next time you test you’re able to add 5 pounds to your 1RM but it took you an extra second to complete the lift, it’s not an accurate indication of improvement. Establish your testing parameters, and then stick to them so that you have a consistent protocol when testing. If you do not, you’ll have no real way of knowing whether or not you’re improving.
Incidentally many people use the phrase “high intensity” to describe workout that are actually high volume or high density (which refers to the work/rest ratio). So just to be clear about our terms, remember that intensity has nothing to do with how much pain you’re in, or the fact that you frequently experience reverse peristolisis and out-of-body experiences after your leg training— it simply refers to how much weight is on the bar relative to your current maximal ability. Using this definition, we could say that performing 315 pounds for 1 rep is more intense than 10 reps with 310 pounds, even though the latter effort is far more difficult to perform.
The Volume/Intensity Relationship
Volume and intensity are mutually exclusive concepts— you can’t have high intensity and high volume simultaneously. If this was possible, you’d be able to do three sets of ten with your current 1RM! Yet both volume and intensity are necessary to achieve results— high volume loads create more lasting adaptations, while intense loads create faster adaptations which are more temporary. This apparent paradox is one of the primary reasons for periodizing (or cycling) your training.
Although you can implement the principle of progressive overload by increasing volume or intensity, it’s important to realize that increases in volume are more sustainable than increases in intensity. In other words, for a trainee with 10 years experience who can squat 695 for a single repetition, it’s much easier to progress by adding reps and/or sets than it is to try to add weight to the bar during any given repetition bracket
Which Type of Progression is Best?
In his book Science of Sports Training, Thomas Kurz identified three distinct methods which can be used to increase the training load over time:
1) Rectilinear method: Loads are continuously and uniformly increased. An example of rectilinear progression is to attempt to add five pounds to the bar every time you perform squats.
2) Stepped Method: Load are sharply increased, then held at that level for a period of time, before being sharply increased again. An example would be using the same weight, say 185 pounds for five sets of five reps, for a period of four weeks, and then increasing to 225 pounds for four weeks for the same sets and reps, and so on. This method, when used by advanced athletes, can result in fast, but temporary strength increases. Not effective for beginning or intermediate lifters of less than 4 years of continuous lifting experience.
3) Wavy method: Loads are gradually increased for several sessions, and then decreased for one or more sessions, and so on. A classic example of this loading scheme is as follows:
While increases in load are slower than the previous two methods, this technique lends itself to more sustainable progress, and as a result more satisfaction, and fewer injuries from training.
The Law of Sustainable Progression
Should an athlete progress as fast as possible? Or perhaps as fast as is comfortable? Or, should you just choose some arbitrary unit— say 5 pounds per week? There is a way to make some sense of this. The key is to determine the amount of progression that you can sustain over a prolonged period of time. Let’s take the 5 pounds per week scenario, which incidentally, is commonly used by people who make great progress initially, but who hit a wall after a year or two. While 5 pounds a week seems like a very gradual progression, if you take the time to extend this level of progression over the long term, you’ll find that it equates to an increase of 260 pounds per year! In such a scenario, the athlete would be a world class powerlifter within 2 years! Since this happens to very few people, it is a useful analogy to prove my point.
The previous scenario violates what I call “The Law of Sustainable Progression.” Fast increases in training loads soothe the ego and make for fairly impressive short term gains, but they can’t be sustained. A slower progression over a longer period of time leads to better and more lasting results than a faster progression which can only be sustained for a short period of time. Further, large, sudden increases in training loads are associated with hitting an early and false plateau, which can lead to injury, as the athlete resorts to more and more extreme methods in an attempt to break out of this plateau.
So progress as slowly (and also as consistently) as you can. Equipment companies are responding to the concept of “micro-progression” by providing more variable weight stacks which allow for smaller jumps. One company, Benoit Built, makes specialized magnets (called Plate Mate) weighing between 1/4 and 5/8 of a pound which can be attached to plates, dumbbells, and weight stacks. The beauty of Plate Mate (besides portability) is that they allow you to make minute, yet sustainable progressions from workout to workout. Putting this concept in terms you can relate to, let’s assume you’re a 250 pound bencher. Using a progression of 2.5 pounds per week, you’ll be a 380 pound bencher in one year. Even this is a very significant increase, but by using sound training programs and recovery strategies (see sidebar entitled “The Role of Recovery in Progression”), it can be done.
In the Final Analysis…
Bodybuilding is a subjective sport. But because there is a very real correlation between training loads and hypertrophy, you can assure progress by carefully designing your training programs and then closely monitoring the results of these programs. If your training load is gradually and consistently increasing, you’re making progress.
Methods of Employing Progressive Overload:
1) By increasing time under tension. Start with 6 repetitions per set, utilizing a 4-0-1 tempo. Each set should therefore take 30 seconds to perform. Each workout, increase the tempo by one second per rep, until you reach 10 seconds per rep. At this point, should choose to increase the weight, reduce the tempo, and begin progressing again.
2) By increasing the weight lifted. Using a standard set/rep scheme for each workout, add between 2.5 and 5 pounds to the bar each session. 3) By increasing the number of reps per set. This method is useful with exercises where you initially have a low level of strength, such as pull-ups or dips. Using the same load each workout, start with 1-3 reps per set, and add one rep per set each workout. Once you reach more than 12 reps per set, you should then employ more weight and/or slower tempos.
3) By increasing the number of sets per workout. Although it has its place, be cautious when adding sets to your workouts. For example, going from three sets to four is a 25 percent increase in volume for every given exercise!
4) By increasing the range of motion. Using the same load each workout, start with a reduced ROM, and gradually increase it from workout to workout. For example, you can perform bench presses in a power rack, starting the movement from the bottom-most position, which is set by the height of the pins. On the first workout, you might only work the top 3″ of a bench press. Each workout, drop the pins one notch, until you reach full ROM.
5) By reducing the rest intervals between sets. This has particularly good results when attempting to improve relative strength. Using the same load, number of reps, and tempo each workout, simply reduce the rest intervals by 10 seconds each workout.
6) By using “stutter” or interrupted sets. Rather than performing a continuous set, you can select a heavier weight, and rest briefly (5-10 seconds) between each rep. One method I sometimes employ with my athletes is to ask for a maximum number of reps in a specified time period— say, 2 minutes. They can use any number of sets or reps— they might for instance perform a set of 8, rest 20 seconds, do a set of 7, rest 30 seconds, then 5 reps, etc., until the time period expires. When using this method, always maintain consistent exercise form and speed of execution.
Sometimes, two or more methods of progression are used simultaneously. For example, from workout to workout, you may choose to add both weight and reduce rest between sets. This is usually employed in situations where a trained athlete is coming back after an extended layoff, and is able to make rapid improvements from workout to workout due to his extensive training experience. The problem with this method however, is that when you do make progress, you won’t know which factor to attribute it to.
The Role of Recovery in Progression
Better recovery means more frequent training sessions and therefore, faster progress. Although recovery will take place regardless, there are two particularly effective means you can take to accelerate recovery from training: massage and nutritional management.
In my work with athletes, I have found that expertly-applied massage can improve recovery times by as much as 40 percent. In fact, I find it so effective that I require prospective clients to receive massage therapy at least once per week. According to my colleague Dianna Linden, an elite-level softtissue worker located in Santa Monica, California:
“Spasms keep muscle fibers in a contracted state and disable their capacity to perform within the muscle when it is under load, therefore decreasing strength by whatever percent of that muscle stays contracted by the spasm. This weakens the muscle and increases its potential to tear near the edges of the spasm. By working regularly with an athlete the therapist can provide feed back which is a far more accurate account of how the muscles are handling the stress levels they are exposed to.”
Of course, nutrition plays a vital role in recovery as well. Although there are many factors to consider, adequate protein is crucial— I consider one gram per pound of bodyweight per day a minimum standard. Creatine monohydrate and branched chain amino acids immediately following training.