How to Progress a Workout
Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S., Pn1
Milo was the most renowned wrestlers of his time. He was reported as a 6 time Olympic victor, and over that 24-year span, he was one of ancient Greece's greatest athletes.
Milo’s story begins as a young boy when a calf was born in his town. As the legacy goes Milo would pick up the calf and carry it around town every day. Each day as the calf grew, Milos strength would grow with it.
After 4 years Milo was carrying a full-grown bull and one of Greece’s strongest athletes.
Milo’s methods form the foundation of modern weight lifting and training - Progressive Overload.
Progressive overload is the gradual increase if stress placed upon the body during training. It is the key to building muscle, gaining strength, building endurance or any similar athletic feat.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that novice weightlifters constantly when left to their own devices consistently choose weights lower than necessary to maximize their strength gain. Anecdotally, many gym-goers fail to see long-term results because they fail to progress their exercises. They either do the same exercise over and over never increasing the difficulty, or they change their workout constantly never giving the body a chance to adapt.
If the above sounds like it may apply to you, then fear not. In this article, I will go over several ways you can increase the difficulty of your workouts and continue seeing results. No bovine necessary.
Lifting a 20lb weight is harder than lifting a 10lb weight.
People who lift bigger weights are stronger and more muscular than those who don’t.
Weight is the easiest and most intuitive way to increase the difficulty of an exercise, making it a great and easy place to start. Heavier weights put more tension on your muscles. This tension stimulates new muscle growth and develops strength.
Tempo refers to the speed one performs an exercise. There are two ways to use tempo to make an exercise harder - lifting quicker, or lifting slower.
Explosive lifts are great for building power. The quicker your able to lift a weight the more powerful you are. For example, a vertical jump, a sled push, or a medicine ball throw are all examples of explosive exercises. The more powerful you are the higher you’ll be able to jump, the faster you will push, and the farther you will throw. Explosive exercises can pose an increased risk of injury. Speed should come after strength, and strength after a person can demonstrate good technique.
The other way to increase difficulty is by slowing an exercise down. Slowing an exercise down is a great way to build control of a movement. It forces you to own each part of the movement without relying on momentum to complete the exercise.
A slow tempo can also increase the time your muscles are under tension which is great for stimulating muscle growth. Lifting slower is a great way for someone with injuries or a beginner to build without adding weight and over stressing their joints.
Doing more is harder than doing less. If you lift a weight 8 times, then the next workout you lift it 10 times you will have increased the difficulty of the workout.
Volume is most often measured in sets and reps.
1 rep - short for repetition - is performing an exercise one time.
1 set is when you perform a set of reps. For example, 10 reps per set would mean you performed the exercise 10 times in succession.
To make an exercise harder and a workout harder, you can add more volume. Add more reps and sets. A beginner may start a workout by doing 5 push-ups. During their next workout they do 6, then 7, then 10. Each workout they do a little more and get a little stronger.
However, there are limits to how much you can do. At a certain point, too much volume takes away from the quality of your workout. This decrease in quality and intensity can take away from your ability to achieve your goals. Below are the number of reps that correspond to certain changes in your body.
- Strength - 1-5 Reps
- Hypertrophy - 6-12 Reps
- Endurance - 12+ Reps
Adding too many reps can take you from doing a workout based on building and maintaining muscle to one that builds muscle endurance.
I recommend a combination of Volume and Weight. For example, if your goal is to improve muscle mass and or body composition then find a weight you can do 8 reps with. Each workout aim to do more reps with that weight. Once you can do 12 reps each set with that weight you would increase the weight decrease the reps and repeat this process.
Body Position / Exercise Selection
Changing and progressing to newer and harder exercises is a great way to challenge your body and progress.
A proper program will use exercises that are at the skill level of the performer. But, as you get stronger and more skilled your exercises may change too.
For example, a push-up performed on an incline may eventually progress to one on the floor.
A Deadlift with two legs may progress to a single leg DL.
An exercise that uses a Dumbell may progress to a barbell or vice versa.
Changing your exercises is a great way to increase the challenge of a workout. However, before progressing to any new exercise you should master the previous one.
For example, a push up is a moving plank. You should master the plank before a pushup, as if you can’t do a good plank, you won’t be able to do a good push up.
Rest is how much time for recovery there is between sets and reps. Rest is an important factor in the results you see. Too much rest and your body doesn’t get challenged enough. Too little rest and your exercise quality diminishes.
How much rest you need can depend on a couple of factors. The first is the goal of your exercise. Again these are generalities but they help to provide a guideline.
- Strength - 3-5 minutes between lifts
- Hypertrophy - 1- 2 minutes
- Endurance - < 60s
The second factor to how much rest is your activity level. If you're a beginner, you will need more rest than someone more advanced. Many of my beginners may need a minute or 2 between sets before they can give me another good effort.
A great way to build up and increase the difficulty of a workout is to gradually decrease the rest time. For example, doing 3 sets of 10 squats with a minute rest and working down to 3 sets of 10 squats with 30s rest.
Rest brings us to the related topic of density. A workout's density can be measured by the amount of work you do in a given amount of time. For example, the workout program that completes 40 exercise sets in an hour vs the one that completes 20 exercises sets in an hour. Workout 1 will be denser than workout 2.
You can increase the density of a workout by doing more work in a given time period or by doing the same work in less time. We can show this using the workout below as an example
- Rest 1-minute
- Plank 1 minute
- Push ups
- Farmer Carry 1 minute
- Sled Push 3 times
- 30s rest
The same work in a less time -
This could be an example of doing the first workout in 10 minutes instead of 20 minutes.
More work in a given time -
If both workouts were the same time, you can see that the 2nd workout is more challenging as it requires more work. The rest times are replaced with plank and farmer carries along with a few sled pushes at the end.
Periodization is the systematic planning of physical training. It’s the basis of how we organize and manipulate the variables above to get you results.
Hard days/ easy days, Down weeks, Split routines are all ways people apply periodization and are all things as a beginner you can ignore for now.
Starting off your preferred method would be a linear periodization. Simply put this is increasing the difficulty in a predictable manner.
Lifts 5lbs week 1, 10lbs week 2, 15 lbs week 3 and so on.
This is the quickest and simplest way to improve as a beginner. You can likely see good result using this method for about 6 months to a year of consistent training. After that time you may plateau, and I will address how you can continue in another article.
For now, we'll keep it simple.
How to Progress
Master the movement first
As a beginner, your main task will be learning how to do each exercise correctly and with good form. Look to increase difficulty only after you feel comfortable with the exercise. Failure to master the movement first can set you up for failure, diminished results, and injury.
Pick one variable at a time
Once you master an exercise, then it’s time to increase the challenge.
Pick one variable at a time. Trying to change too many variables at once can be overwhelming. It can complicate your training make it difficult to know what adjustments to make when you eventually plateau.
If you're looking for a place to start and ways to progress forwards check out the Zero to One Training Program below
As a beginner, you don’t need any special periodization schemes (if you don’t know what that is then good. You don’t need to - at least not now).
Instead, focus on good form and being better than you were the workout before.
If you did a 10-second plank, then aim for a 15-second plank.
Each workout you will get a little better. Eventually, you’ll be doing things you wouldn’t have imagined at the start.
Keep a meticulous log of it
You can’t expect change if you change nothing and you can’t manage change if you don’t measure it.
Tracking your progress is essential to seeing results. Otherwise, you go into each workout guessing how much you need to do.
With a workout log you’ll be able to keep track of each workout, and like a video game, you will know the high score to beat each workout. For example, if you did 5 push-ups your goal will be 6 push-ups.
A workout log can be an expensive journal, a notebook from the dollar store, a spreadsheet or you can use the pdf below. What you use doesn’t matter as long as you can use it to keep track of your progress.