On the surface of things, they seem complementary: progress and progression. So how can one stand in the way of the other? Understanding how progression can limit progress starts with a good understanding of just what progression is, and an honest look at how and why we're using it.
Ignoring the temptation to quote Webster's, let's try to nail down just what progression means in the context of strength and conditioning work. Broadly speaking, we can define a progression as any change that demands more from the lifter.
Any one of dozens of variables can be adjusted, ranging from sets, reps, and load to tempo, base of support, and center of gravity. More weight on the bar? That's a progression. More reps per set, or more sets per workout? That's a progression, too. Change the stance, grip, bar position, speed of each rep, rest period between sets, order of exercises, frequency of training... you get the idea: still all forms of progression.
When Progression and Progress Don't Match
Each of the above modes of progression—as well as the countless others we could list—serves a specific purpose. Put simply, more weight makes you stronger, more volume makes you bigger, and more speed makes you faster. This should be obvious enough that it goes without saying, and yet there's a growing tendency to progress exercises in ways that don't match—and sometimes even contradict—the client's goals. More is not better. Better is better. And better depends on the client's goals.
Keeping the Basics, Well, Basic
Most of my clients are looking for more strength, more muscle, and less fat. How exactly they define and prioritize each of these goals varies—as do the resources at our disposal in pursuit of these goals—but at the end of the day, these goals are the modern training trifecta. You could make a hell of a career out of doing nothing but making people stronger, leaner, and more muscular.
The trick is, each of these goals has something in common: they're built on accumulated volume of work, and on specific movement proficiencies and their contribution to the increase in volume. In other words, you need to lift a lot of weight, and be good enough at each exercise to increase the load you're moving.
"I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times." –Bruce Lee
What Mr. Lee is so effectively telling us is that if your efforts are scattered, you never really master anything. A client being introduced to a new version of the squat every few weeks probably does a lot of things very poorly, while a client who's been crushing one version of the squat for a few months has probably gotten good enough at it to start seeing some real improvements in form and strength.
I just finished writing a hypertrophy–driven program for a friend with literally decades of training experience (as both an athlete and as a solid trainer in his own right), and very happily included heavy doses of Safety Bar Squats, Barbell Bench Presses, and Trap Bar Deadlifts. Over the course of 12 weeks the program progresses—sets and reps and tempo and the like—as do specific exercises, but these basic variations do not. I'm not in the business of changing things at random—of "shocking the body" or trying to "confuse" the muscles—I'm in the business of driving results for people. In this case, as well as many others, that means keeping the basics basic.
Why a Plateau *May Be a Good Thing
I'd probably see a whole lot more traffic if I'd written something about "plateau–busting secrets", but the reality is, as frustrating as strength plateaus can be, they may signify an important—and positive—shift in the body.
We all know that the body's first adaptation to any strength–driven stimulus is neuromuscular; this is quite literally "Training 101". What we sometimes fail to consider is what that means for a client and their goals.
When I'm given a new exercise, my body tries to meet the new demands by improving neuromuscular efficiency—increased rate coding, better inter and intra–muscular coordination, less antagonist activation—in short, looking for the physiological version of low hanging fruit. Neuromuscular adaptations are relatively "inexpensive": they don't require new tissue or substantial resources. But as someone looking to build muscle, they don't really help.
So what happens when I run out of neuromuscular improvements? I plateau, until my body gets to work on the harder process of building new muscle.
If I'm constantly bombarded with novelty—BOSU this and Booty Band that—I spend most of my time making easy neuromuscular adaptations, and do very little to change the physical reality of my body composition. It's 10,000 kicks with very little behind them.
*About that asterisk: sometimes a plateau is just the shitty reality of years of training and the fact that this stuff is hard. And in a lot of these situations, change may be just what's needed. I'm not opposed to novelty—and certainly not opposed to progression—I just think it needs to be applied intelligently.
So What's Up?
None of what's been said so far has been particularly revolutionary, so why are so many trainers progressing clients in such random fashion?
I'd argue that it comes down to two factors: confidence and confusion.
On the one hand, it takes a certain degree of confidence to tell an experienced client or athlete paying you good money that you'd like to do some chin ups. They know how to do a chin up, and could probably find a cooler–looking exercise in the latest issue of Men's Health. The question is, is fancy the point? Or is it something subtler: technique, timing, volume, frequency, or sets, reps, and load? Unless you know what you're doing, it can be intimidating to program the basics. Ironic, isn't it?
The second factor—confusion—seems to apply in a number of ways. Complexity gets confused for proficiency. Difficulty is confused with effectiveness. Novelty is confused with value. And our own boredom is confused with our client's (I see literally thousands of squats each month, while my clients perform maybe a few dozen. And guess what? It doesn't really matter if I'm bored or not.).
It's worth stating outright: putting five more pounds on the bar or squeezing out an extra rep or two are tried–and–true forms of progression.
Proving The Rule
As the saying goes, "the exception proves the rule". As I mentioned, I'm certainly not opposed to progression strategies that go beyond increased load and/or volume, and regularly apply them in my own programming. Here's a partial list of scenarios that typically get me thinking about alternative modes of progression:
Goal Specific: certain goals may require a more aggressive approach to progression: if the goal is improved coordination or stability, it probably makes sense to vary the stimulus more frequently than if the goal is maximal strength in a specific lift.
Engagement: the world's best program doesn't work if no one shows up to run it. If you need to add some variety to keep someone showing up (and kicking ass once they do), go for it.
Movement quality: a certain degree of movement variety is necessary for overall movement quality. My strength and hypertrophy work is heavily slanted towards bilateral, sagittal plane work; balancing that with unilateral patterns with more frontal and transverse plane demands actually improves those big, basic, bilateral movements.
Accessory work: I'm more likely to change a row variation than a squat variation for a few reasons. If I program a squat, my focus is likely on output; how much, how fast, how many... If I program a row, it's more likely that the focus is sensorial; what do you feel and can you find the positions and sensations that we're after? Too much variety likely limits output, but can actually enhance sensation. I've started to think of this as a sort of "movement conjugation"—the same patterns expressed in different positions taking the place of a single verb being used in various tenses.
The Balancing Act
Smart, effective use of progression is anything but algorithmic; it's why I don't worry about being replaced by an app or a machine. Every rep is an assessment, every session an opportunity for feedback, with one central question guiding the way: "are we making progress?"
And while I can't provide a list of rules and formulas to tell you what to progress and when to do it, I've found a few thoughts to be helpful.
Basics should usually be basic
Use the minimum effective dose when you do progress a movement
Remember the goal
Keep them engaged
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