For those who regularly strength train, seeing the weight on the bar increase each week can be a great motivator. Most people in the gym measure their progress solely through increases in weight. While weight increases provide an easy indicator of progress, using this as your only measure can invite injury, stifle motivation, and lead to stagnation with any workout program.
The Law of Diminishing Return:
Physiological changes, such as strength, are subject to the law of diminishing return. As time goes on and results are seen, further improvement requires more effort for incrementally less gain. This means that when beginning a training program, it’s common to see massive strength gains in relatively short periods of time. As your muscles develop over time, they inch closer to their maximum genetic potential. A 50 pound increase within the first few months of squatting can turn into 5 or 10 pound in the years following.
If you only measure your progress by weight lifted, then your goals are suddenly at odds with the law of diminishing return—and something’s got to give. When unrealistic goals, bad progression, and rampant egos keep adding weight to the bar, either injury or stagnation occurs.
At SPARC, we train movement first. It is safer and more productive to lift less weight with better form, than to jerk and squirm your way under heavy loads. This is why we use a method called double progression. Double progression has two factors: number of repetitions, and load.
Repetitions: Instead of setting a static repetition goal, like 3 sets of 10, give yourself a rep range based on the physiological change you desire. For instance, to gain maximal strength, you want to perform about 3-5 reps. For hypertrophy, you would perform about 8-12 repetitions. Your goal with every exercise should be to hit any number within the rep range, with perfect form. Your goal is to hit the top of the repetition range each set, with flawless form. Do not go up in weight until you can master the repetitions with the lighter weight. Here is a checklist for perfect repetitions:
- The weight was lifted and returned to the starting position with the correct tempo.
- Full range of motion was achieved with each repetition.
- Proper tension was maintained throughout the full range of motion (abdominal bracing, heels driving through the floor, glutes activated, etc.)
- The weight was lifted under control. There was no jerking, collapsing, or compensating.
- Proper breathing was maintained throughout the lift.
- You felt in control of the weight throughout the lift.
Only count the reps that meet every one of the above checkpoints. For example, if you performed 8 repetitions with full range of motion, but couldn’t hit full range of motion on the 9th rep, then only record 8 repetitions. This allows you to focus on the quality of your movement, first. If you cheat the movement, you are only cheating yourself and your results. On the other hand, if you execute 8 perfect repetitions, and feel like you could do 3 more with perfect form, go for it! Giving yourself a repetition range allows you to go above and beyond on the days you feel great. Pride yourself on not only lifting a weight, but doing it flawlessly. This will protect you from injury and give you something to strive for throughout training.
The Load: Again, do not progress in weight until you can achieve the top of the prescribed repetition range. If the range is 3-5, and on the last set you only performed 4 reps, you are not ready to progress in weight. Next workout, strive to hit that 5th rep. Conversely, if you cannot perform even the lowest number of the repetition range, the weight is too heavy and should be reduced for the next set. Follow these rules for weight progression:
- Upper Body Lifts: Increase or Decrease 5-10 lbs
- Lower Body: Increase or Decrease 10-15 lbs
When you increase in weight, your new goal should begin back at the bottom of the repetition range. If you performed 5 repetitions with 225 lbs on back squat, then next week try to hit at least 3 repetitions with 235 lbs.
Applying these guidelines to your training will set you on the path to safe and consistent strength gains. Sustainable progress demands focusing on the quality of your movement before the quantity of weight lifted.