Progression in Strength Training

When starting a strength training routine, it can take a while to find the magical combination of exercises and corresponding weight levels that work for your fitness level. Unfortunately, once you find that sweet spot, you can’t just stay there forever. Sure, the first time you lifted that weight four weeks ago, it felt a little heavy but still manageable. All of it sudden though, it starts to feel light, and all of the benefits and returns from that exercise start to decrease and slowly disappear. It’s time to progress.

One of the hardest parts of building a strength training program is progression: knowing when to increase your training, how to do it, by how much, and for how long. It can be intimidating to knowingly make your workouts more difficult, while trying to balance achieving more benefits from your workout, while not hurting yourself. Advancing in this way, in order to continue to challenge your body and mind, is incredibly valuable for your workouts.

Exercise Progression

Within an exercise, you can progress and move to the next level in three main ways: performing more sets, performing more reps, and adding more weight. Increasing the number of sets you perform can be a great option based on your particular program. In general, aiming for 2-5 sets of a particular exercise is a good route to take. If you’re on the lower end of that spectrum, give it a shot and add an extra set or two to your routine and see how you feel.

Another way to advance your workout is to perform more reps, or repetitions. When you’re exercising, you’re performing a certain number of reps, whether you consciously decided on a number, subconsciously decided, or it was decided for you by your body’s strength. If it was difficult to get to a certain number reps when you first started that exercise, and now you barely feel anything when finish, it might be time for an increase. Make a conscious decision the next time you perform that exercise to keep going and shoot for a higher number. Aiming for somewhere between 5 and 15 reps is a good goal.

If you get past 15 or so reps of an exercise, it might be time to add more weight to your exercise. This can be a bit intimidating, since knowing how much weight to add can be tricky. Preventing injury should be your top priority, which can be done by slowly and incrementally adding weight to the point where the exercise feels challenging but not painful. Adding the smallest weight you can find, usually 2.5 or 5 pound increments, and testing out the exercise, will make sure you’re not adding too much too fast and risking overuse.

Another way to strategically add weight to your training load is through calculation. Along with calculating your 1 rep max (1 RM), you can also use these calculations to find out your weight and rep progressions. By seeing how many reps maximum you can perform of a certain weight, you can see on the 1 RM chart what percentage that weight is of your 1 rep max. From there, you can calculate approximately what weight you can increase to, and still maintain your ideal number of reps. For example, if you can perform 10 reps of 150 pounds, that would be 75% of your 1 rep max. Your 1 rep max would be 200 pounds. If you want to increase your weight to be able to perform 7 reps of that, as laid out in your strength training program, you would aim for 83% of your 1 rep max, which would be 166 pounds. To perform this safely, test the exercise with 160 pounds first, and move up to around 165 as needed.

Program Progression

At a certain point, you may feel that you hit a plateau. Either you cannot increase your reps or your weights, or you no longer feel any substantial increases in benefits. Getting past either of these plateaus can be challenging, but there are a few core methods to move past these standstills. By modifying your program, and changing things up from week to week, you can work to advance your routine. By switching in new exercises, working in lighter days and heavier days, and having some fun with cross-training and other modalities, you can ensure continued progress.

Working in variations of your staple exercises can also help switch things up mentally and physically. If your strength training program is just you performing the same squats, deadlifts and bench presses three times a week, you’re going to quit. You can work in variations of exercises, with modifications like changing the grip, using dumbbells instead of the barbell, changing up your range of motion, or adding in eccentric training, which can all add some variety into your routine. Some of these exercises may also challenge different muscles, which only improves your training. Most importantly, you’ll work to prevent burnout by keeping things interesting and engaging for every session.

By following safe and smart progression tactics, you’ll stay safe and engaged throughout each workout session and the rest of your fitness journey. Keeping both your mind and body interested and challenged is key to a successful program that you can maintain in the long term. Having fun and pushing yourself mentally is just as important as keeping your muscles active.