Simplifying the Calculus of Progression

It’s good to have control over what you do. If you have the knowledge to design your own training program, that’s awesome. I hope everyone eventually will seek out the knowledge or develop the tools to put together a plan to improve their strength, mobility, skill, fitness, health, or (insert improvable quality here).

Do you know what the cool part is? There are an infinite amount of ways to do this correctly. How many lenses can you look through when considering strength training? You can break down training via movement patterns. You can look at the body in the context of individual muscles and their relationships with each other. You can look at the body through a cellular level and consider the adaptations they undergo in response to a stressor. These viewpoints will all be successful, as long as one simple principle is observed. I feel confident that to improve any skill, whether it be physical or mental, there must be a concrete PROGRESSION to your training.

Continuity of the Training Process

We naturally enjoy variety. It’s easy to jump from workout to workout, from program to program, from exercise to exercise. It’s mentally stimulating and honestly, it’s fun to try new things. However, it creates the illusion of progress. It is always easy to make initial performance gains in something new. After a couple sessions though, these improvements stagnate. What do most people do? They switch to something new, which leads to initial performance gains in that new movement/skill/ability, etc. If you’re trying to be decent at a bunch of things, this might be a viable strategy. What if you are trying to be really good at one thing? Well, you might need to stick to a training framework for more than a couple workouts. Each session should build on the previous session. This should happen four 4-6 weeks at the minimum. (Disclaimer: Everyone is different. I’m aware of that. The timelines are different for different people. This is a general statement, so tweak it a little bit if you feel the need. The important thing is that you need a progression.)

Advanced periodization has been a popular topic recently. Complex programming can be extremely effective, provided it is applied correctly. Simple progression strategies can pack just as much of a punch and can be implemented with a bit more flexibility. Here are a few of my favorite.

Sample Progression Strategies

Sessions need to build on previous sessions. We’ve established that. The question of the day: How?

Once again, a variety of ways exist. Some of them are straightforward and obvious. Some aren’t. Once again, we’re going to examine this from a strength training viewpoint.

1.) Weight/Intensity

Try and lift a little bit more weight or make things a little bit harder each session. It’s important to not start at your outright maximum effort the first session, because you will quickly stall out. Your first couple sessions should be all about dialing in form, generating proper tension, and doing things safely. After that, shoot for a small increase in total weight lifted each session. There are an infinite amount of ways to structure your weight increase, find the one that works for you

2.) Rest Periods

This way of manipulating intensity has a profound effect on your conditioning and endurance. Simply cut a little bit of the rest period each session. If you work with kettlebells, barbells, train specific bodyweight exercises, or practice sport specific movements, you can reduce the rest periods while maintaining the same load. This will lead to performance increases in the long run. 5-10 (ish) seconds per set is a good place to start.

3.) Tempo

“Tempo” refers to the speed of your exercise.

A way to increase the difficulty of a session would be to make the pushing phase of a press or pulling phase of a row or pushup as fast as possible. Trying to be explosive will recruit different muscle fibers, leading to different recruitment patters and stimulating different physical adaptations.

Another way to play with your tempo is to focus on eccentric work. For a bench press, a concentric movement is pushing the bar up away from your chest. Lowering the bar to your chest is eccentric. By trying to make the eccentric portion of your exercise as slow and controlled as possible, you will stimulate different parts of the movement and kick start strength development for different movement patterns.

4.) Position

This is one of my favorite sneaky ways to make things harder. By playing with your stance, you can do the same exercise, with the same weight, and make it feel totally different. Let’s examine a simple shoulder press. Why? I’m going through a pressing program right now so it’s at the forefront of my thinking.

A simple progression for a shoulder press would go from 1/2 kneeling to tall kneeling to standing to split stance to single leg stance. Here’s a quick video going through this sequence.

As you can see, the single leg stance shoulder press is fairly challenging even with a light weight.

Why does this work? Different stances change the orientation of our center of mass or leverage of the weight you are moving.Different COM orientations will affect movement patterns in different ways, recruiting different muscles or forcing a higher intensity contraction from certain stabilizers or prime movers.

5. Density

This is another sneaky way to build some endurance and add volume to your session. The most simple way to go about this is to work off of set time periods. Let’s say you are doing a density session with kettlebell snatches. Set a timer for 15 minutes and do sets of ten on each arm. Over the course of a month or so, try to complete more sets in that 15 minute period.

Depending on your goals, one of these methods (or one not listed) may be a better choice than another method.

The Takeaway

It’s a wonderful thing to be in control of your training regimen. I hope everyone reaches that point in their quest for improvement. Do it however you want. There is no place for dogma in the realm of improvement. If it works, it works. However, I strongly believe there must be a thread connecting each session to the next one and the push for adaptation must grow slightly stronger over time. These are some ways I like to encourage that to build strength. I’d love to hear from you all how you create continuity in your training. Feel free to share!

Need some guidance developing your training program? I have a couple spots open for training. You can apply here.