Progressive training, which literally means making progress over a period of time, is a helpful and motivating way to keep track of your strength. There are numerous ways you can make progress in weight lifting. The three most common ways are:
- Increasing the number of reps you do next time
- Increasing the number of sets you do next time
- Increasing the weight you do next time
I’m going to look at the third one, increasing the weight you do next time, in more detail. This is the scheme I have always used and in which I have always made the most progress. It is a very simple, logical, obvious way to train, but not a lot of people ever talk about it.
Say you start a programme and the first session calls for 5×5 squats at 50kg. You execute the squats like this:
- Set 1: 5 reps @ 50kg
- Set 2: 5 reps @ 50kg
- Set 3: 5 reps @ 50kg
- Set 4: 5 reps @ 50kg
- Set 5: 5 reps @ 50kg
Most people, the following session in the following week, would probably go up and do 5×5 at 55kg. In fact, this was the sort of programme my weightlifting coach wrote for me when I first started weight training. He expected me to go up in quite a large increment for all 5 sets, after just one week.
I’ve been training for about 7 years and I haven’t found much consistent, maintainable strength gains going up in weight for all the sets after such short periods of time. What do you think is scheduled in for week 3? That’s right – 5×5 at 60kg. Week 4 – 5×5 at 65kg… and so on. This style of training means you can hit bigger numbers relatively quickly. According to this programme, the person would be up to 100kg (double their start weight) in just 10 weeks! If this kept carrying on, the person would soon be lifting 1000kg. So just how realistic do you think this style of training actually is? It isn’t.
Hitting bigger numbers quickly isn’t actually a good thing
There are three main reasons why, in my experience:
- Other aspects of the body need longer to catch up – lifting more weight does not require solely your muscles. It also requires your ligaments, your joints, your heart, your nervous system and even your mind/mental strength. It is this combination of factors that create ‘true’ strength. It’s well known that ligaments and joints need longer to adjust to heavier weights than muscles. When you lift weights, your nervous system gets trained too. Your nervous system needs enough time to create motor patterns which will enable you to lift the most weight in the most efficient way. When you hit big numbers quickly, your mind doesn’t have much chance to develop its own ‘strength’ for the weight. Weights are scary! It takes time to get comfortable to a weight. If I started out squatting 50kg and in 10 weeks’ time I was squatting 100kg, I can assure you that that 100kg would mentally feel very daunting, very intimidating and very heavy to me. Compare this to my method of training which I discuss below.
- Injuries are therefore more likely
- Is the strength really maintainable? I debate this. In my personal experience, I haven’t found going up in weights in this very common manner, maintainable. It has also caused me to reach plateaus very quickly. Plateaus sometimes happen because it wasn’t ‘true’ strength that was built.
Making consistent, maintainable strength gains
The below method is how I have learned to create this true strength – which is the combination of muscles, ligaments, joints, your heart, nervous system and your mind. This method trains the whole body (mental and physical), but it has been the most successful way for me to get stronger and lift more weight.
Here is an example of going up logically and gradually:
That’s how the programme continues. You can increment the weight by whatever you want. I personally like to go up in very small increments, as low as 1kg (I have microplates) and generally not more than 2.5kg. When I’m having ‘a good day’ I go up by more or for multiple sets.
Download a sample logical programming template to open in Microsoft Excel
This is something I would especially advise for females, as we generally lift lighter weights than men anyway, so as a percentage of weight lifted, a small increment is comparable to men who would use a larger increment. For example, a man who squats 5×5 at 100kg and goes up by 10kg for the next workout (10kg is 10% of 100kg). If a woman squats 5×5 at 50kg and goes up by 10%, that is 5kg, not 10kg.
Something else to keep in mind is that the more advanced/the stronger you are, the smaller the increment will probably have to be.
What are the benefits of this scheme?
As mentioned above, this scheme builds ‘true’ strength. By going up so gradually over long periods of time, it gives your entire body a chance to adapt to the weights being lifted. It basically means that you end up lifting a particular weight for the prescribed amount of reps for a very long time. For example, in example 2 above, that person will have ended up squatting 51kg for 5 reps in 5 workouts (which could mean 5 weeks if the person was only squatting once a week). The fantastic thing about this is that the weight becomes mentally “easy” over time. What is the best way to get better at something? Do it a lot of times! Mental strength is as much a part of weight lifting as physical strength is. If you spend a lot of time lifting the same weight – whilst still making progress like in this scheme – that weight will no longer intimate you anymore. You will gain a lot of mental confidence training this way, and make sincere, safe progress along the way.
I have also found that, when I use this scheme (which I do all the time now, for most exercises I do – but especially for squats and deadlifts), I very very rarely plateau/get stuck at a certain weight! This scheme is very manageable. Each workout is very manageable. This is good for my confidence.
I’m a big advocate that you should train how you most enjoy and everyone has their rep/set schemes that they enjoy most. With this way of training, you may not ever need to change the rep/set scheme.
This style of training won’t suit everyone – it wouldn’t suit people whose main goal is to hit big numbers (as you can see, it can take a long time to hit big numbers), it’s not a ‘fast’ way to get strong, it could be considered ‘boring’ (I personally have autism, so repetition and sameness is very exciting for me and I don’t get bored, hence you can see why this scheme suits me even more!), you need to be patient with it, but it is a very safe, maintainable way and there’s a lot to be said for that.
It’s also very good for your confidence as it gives you plenty of chances to become ‘comfortable’ at a certain weight before going up. We all have personal blocks at particular weights, which can be scary and intimating to us. But for me, the only way to get over those mental blocks, is to lift those particular weights lots and lots of times! You can’t expect your body or mind to be comfortable and confident lifting a weight if you hardly ever do it! This scheme has been very successful for me – I hope you will make gains from it too.
- This scheme utilises different weights for each set or for each workout, but keeps reps and sets the same
- You can go up by larger increments or for multiple sets if you are having ‘a good day!’
- You can go by for any of the sets, it doesn’t have to be set 1, it could be set 5 (some people feel ‘stronger’ at the start of their workout, some feel stronger at the end!)
- This scheme builds mental confidence and helps you get over mental blocks and plateaus
- This scheme builds the joints, ligaments, nerves, heart and mind – creating ‘true’ strength!
- This scheme is good for people who prioritise safety and/or good technique or who have been injured in the past, and for those who really enjoy the whole lifting journey rather than ‘the goal’
- This scheme is good for people who like sameness and repetition, such as those with autism like me!
Download a sample logical programming template to open in Microsoft Excel