Working in commercial gyms you see the entire spectrum of fitness knowledge in gym members.
In one corner is a bodybuilder using exquisite technique and controlling the weight like the seasoned pro he is. On the other end of the club you’ll see the dude going 100mph on the elliptical, set to the least challenging settings, slamming the pedals into the front of the machine while using both hands to vigorously strangle a ShakeWeight (true story).
If you ignore the ends of this spectrum of experience, you’re left with my favorite gym members: the folks who have been running the exact same workout program 3 days a week for YEARS without improving. They have the habit, but don’t know progression methods necessary to reach their goals.
Here are 3 basic ways you can progress your workouts to keep building strength and challenging yourself.
The most common form of progression is also the most straight forward. Add more weight to the movement. Keep the reps at a number where you can maintain good form with the new weight. For major lifts I strongly recommend increasing weight conservatively and as frequently as you can. Your long term success will benefit from taking a more measured approach. Progress too aggressively and you can hit a rough plateau or face in increased risk of injury.
Men, increase your upper body lifts by 10lbs at a time. If you’re progressing a single arm version of an exercise make it 5lbs per arm. Increase lower body exercises by 20lbs at a time.
Women, increase your upper body lifts by 5lbs at a time, 2.5lbs per arm. For lower body increase 10lbs at a time.
Men can generally handle larger jumps, but women adapt to the increases faster. With both it’s possible that you can make larger jumps than those above. I make clients prove they can perform a full set with control before bumping them up in load again. Sometimes, I have clients that Hulk out and move up weight several consecutive sets until they find their new challenging weight. Larger leaps are ok, but form comes first.
Men, I’m looking at you when I say - don’t be stupid with adding weight. Ego lifting has only caused injuries to body and pride. You’re not in High School anymore. Lift like it.
Adding Sets and Reps
Another classic, using the same weight for more reps is an effective way to progress. Depending on what adaptation you’re trying to achieve, certain rep ranges lend themselves to specific adaptations.
1-5 Reps = Maximal Strength
6-12 Reps = Hypertrophy
12- 20 = Endurance
20+ Reps = Why are you even doing this?
Let your goal dictate which rep range you want to work in. Pick a weight where you can only perform the minimum number of reps in that range. When you can eventually do all your sets with the highest number of reps in that range, you increase the weight.
Adjusting your sets and reps will also alter your total volume. Total volume in weight training is sets x reps x weight. Assuming you’re not altering the weight, the way to add volume is through more total reps.
Let’s say you’ve been squatting 135 for 3 sets of 10 (30 total reps at 135 = 4050lbs accumulated). You don’t have to increase the weight to make progress. You could add volume by switching to 4 sets of 8 (32 reps at 135 = 4320lbs), or 3 sets of 12 (36 reps at 135 = 4860lbs). Either way, you’ll increase the total volume proving you’ve built strength.
Adding total volume to a certain movement or muscle group may mean you need to adjust the volume of the opposing muscle groups too. Be careful that you don’t create a strength imbalance by only progressing a couple movements and ignoring the others. Staying balanced greatly reduces your risk of injury.
For example, if you’re increasing the volume on your bench press, it’s wise to increase the total volume on your row as well. The strength of these opposing movements need to be evenly matched to prevent imbalance injuries in your shoulders.
Adjusting Rest Periods
Your goal will dictate your rep range, which will dictate your standard rest periods.
1-5 Reps = 2-5 minutes rest
6-12 Reps = 45-120 seconds rest
12- 20 = 30-60 seconds rest
20+ Reps = Seriously, why are you doing this?
From here, you can increase the difficulty of your workout by adjusting rest periods.
*Disclaimer: I don’t recommend using short rest periods with sets of 1-5 reps. Moving heavy loads required rest not just for the muscles involved, but also for your central nervous system. If you’re building maximal strength please do not mess with your rest.
Assuming your goal is weight loss - which is a fair bet since it’s the most common fitness goal on Earth - shortening your rest periods is a great way to increase the demands on your cardiovascular system. You’ll burn a few more calories than you would have otherwise. Every bit of calorie deficit helps with you’re shedding extra body fat.
Hypertrophy, building bigger muscles, can get a boost from shorter rest periods too. Not allowing yourself to fully recover between sets can help cause a little more micro-trauma to the muscle fibers. Muscles grow when they repair this microtrauma, so maximizing controlled micro-trauma to your muscle fibers in a way that doesn’t cause injury is going to be helpful. Plus, you’ll get an absolutely insane pump from lifting on short rest. As the neckless gym bros put it “you’ll look swole, bro.”
To shave some time off your rest, take the rest period you’re already comfortable with and slash 15 seconds off of it. It’ll definitely suck at first, but you will adapt to the shorter rest quickly. If you have to, you can use less weight initially to maintain proper form. Try to avoid reducing the load if possible.
You can also take the opposite approach and increase the amount of rest you take between sets. Attacking each set with as much ferocious intensity as you can has its own benefits.
If you want to build strength, longer rest periods will allow you to take each set to near failure. The extra volume adds up quickly when you increase your rest between sets and squeeze out a few extra reps.
The extra muscle trauma from extra reps will help the muscle grow as well. There’s your hypertrophy.
Weight loss can benefit from longer rest because you’ll be able to attack your next set or circuit with more intensity. More intensity means more energy output. That’ll burn more calories too.
When it comes to adding rest time, you need to monitor your breathing and heart rate. You don’t have to have a FitBit on anything fancy, although it does help with heart rate monitoring. When you feel like your breathing and pulse have returned to a steady rate (ballpark HR = 120-130 bpm) you start your next set.
There are many more ways you can progress your workouts. But these should be plenty to get you unstuck if you’ve been in the same routine for a while.
All of these are progressions you can implement without changing the tempo or stabilization of the actual exercise. This way you don’t need to worry about the movement itself beyond using impeccable form.
Use these progressions in 4-8 week blocks and then switch things up again. Adaptations in your body are made in response to the specific demands you impose on it. Make sure your training aligns with your goals.
Talk to a training professional if you’re not sure that your training is achieving the results you want. They’ll know how to help you most efficiently.
Drop your favorite progression techniques or questions in the comments!
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