Well, hopefully something.
But the better question might actually be…
What aren’t you measuring?
Because there may be a few variables out there that you haven’t been paying any attention to that could have drastic effects on the outcome of your training sessions.
There are many ways you can progress in the gym
This is what they call the “big money” idea. The simple point that you can find evidence for improvements in the gym besides just using heavier weights or doing more reps. Not that there’s anything wrong with using heavier weights or doing more reps, just that it’s important to understand other forms of progression.
Keep in mind that the qualities you seek to improve the most will be the ones most closely related to your training goals. For example, heavier weights for strength, more reps for endurance, or better technique for performance. It’s really not even that black and white though. All of the examples will overlap and feed off of one another. Ideally, you would seek to improve all of them while specializing a bit more in one or two areas of your choice.
We shall begin with the obvious…
Doing more reps
Perhaps the most universally common method of progressive overload, and for good reason: It works! Do 15 pushups instead of 12. Do 25 squats instead of 20. Push a 45 pound bar over your head 10 times instead of 8.
When you do more repetitions you are creating a new stimulus for the body to adapt to. The human organism is very efficient, and therefore will not change unless your force it. If you went the the gym and did 10 lunges on each leg everyday for five years straight, do you think your legs would look a whole lot different after those five years? I’m banking that they wouldn’t, because they already adapted to the stress of those 10 lunges a looooong time ago.
Doing more sets
An extension of the whole rep thing since you can’t exactly continue to add reps for the rest of your life. Most people that have been training for at least 5-10 years aren’t doing sets of 100 when they used to do sets of 10. The bulk of your training will likely be done in sets of 5 to 25. If you did 3 sets of 12 reps in any given movement, you would be progressively overloading the system (your body) if you did 4 sets of 12 the next time using the same weight.
Using more resistance for the same amount of reps and sets
Another classic overload scheme. Up the poundage! This is the moment where you go for those twenty pound dumbbells and say “fuck you” to the fifteens. It’s where you slap another couple of fives on the barbell. It’s truly a great moment in your workout.
Please note the whole “same amount of reps and sets” thing, because it matters. Say you bench pressed 25 pound dumbbells 12 times. You did 600 (12*50) pounds of “work” in that set. Say you then tried the 35 pound dumbbells but could only muster 8. For that set you come out to 560 (8*70) pounds of work, even though the set may have felt more physically fatiguing. On top of that, if you were less confident with the 35s and as a result stopped the eccentric motion and inch higher each rep, you would have done even less work.
Note: The actual physics equation for work is force multiplied by displacement (distance). For training measurement purposes we essentially multiply that equation by the number of reps performed, assuming each rep contained the same displacment. I know it’s not perfect 🙂
Resting less between sets
This is a great one that tends to get overlooked. All you need is something to time your rest periods with. The implement doesn’t matter; stopwatch, clock, super advanced iPhone timer app thingy, anything that times!!!
The only thing to watch out for with decreasing rest periods is when you’re dealing with super heavy weight, as in 85-90% or more of your one-rep max for a given movement. For most people this isn’t going to be a huge issue, but if you’re someone who likes to go for the heavy 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s just be aware that 30 seconds of rest ain’t gonna cut it.
On the other hand, resting for 60 seconds instead of 90 after a moderately hard set of 8 reps in any given movement is a much more appropriate progression. This can also be easily applied to cardiovascular training, like resting less between 200 meter rows or quarter mile bike intervals.
Using less effort to lift the same weight for the same amount of reps and sets
Probably the most overlooked and in my opinion THE most important as you get more advanced in the training process. This one is huge in terms of joint health and longevity. It’s also unique because “less effort” is an indirect side effect of improving a bunch of other things.
Less effort can most effectively be achieved through increasing range of motion at your joints. If they have more capacity for movement, it will make it easier to get into the positions your exercises require. As a result, your technique or form on any given exercise should improve.
Using more efficient technique means you won’t have to work as hard to lift the same weight. This is a very good thing because you can still achieve the desired training stimulus without negatively stressing any piece of the system.
The goal should be to produce the largest amount force with the least amount of strain on your joints. You should attempt to train in positions that help you maximize this relationship, as well as train to improve specific joint capabilities in the process.
Let us review
- Understand that progression comes in many forms
- Start by doing more reps and sets per exercise
- Build on increased sets and reps by using more resistance and/or heavier weights
- Don’t forget that resting less between exercise sets is an often overlooked method of progression
- Strive to use less effort to do the same amount of work as training experience increases
- Train to maintain and expand the capabilities of your joints