People often associate progress in the gym only with being able to lift heavier weights. This is a fairly one-sided view of how to progress. There are various ways to add progressions in your workout which challenge your muscles and fitness.
1) Add more weight
So let's get this one out the way! The standard progression most people have is to add weight to the bar. It is a straight forward sign of improving your strength levels and is simple to measure and compare against previous workouts for example:
Week 1) Squats - 3 x 10 @ 60kg
Week 2) Squats - 3 x 10 @ 62.5kg
Week 3) Squats - 3 x 10 @ 65kg
The drawback to this is there’s only so much weight you can keep adding to the bar until progress starts to stall.
2) Add more sets
Another standard progression that people often use is to add more sets to their exercises. Again, it is another straight forward way to add some progress to your routine. For example:
Week 1) Squats – 3 x 10 @ 60kg
Weeks 2) Squats – 4 x 10 @ 60kg
Week 3) Squats – 5 x 10 @ 60kg
It is another good progression but the drawback is that there are only so many sets you can keep adding before your workouts end up lasting 90 minutes – 120 minutes. So use this sparingly.
3) Add more reps
This is another good progression indicator but not everyone thinks about comparing this to previous workouts. Intuitively it makes sense when you think about it – a muscle that can handle 10 reps of a weight is stronger than a muscle that can only handle 5 reps of the same weight. The progression could look like this:
Week 1) 3 x 6 reps @ 155lbs
Weeks 2) 3 x 8 reps @ 155lbs
Week 3) 3 x 10 reps @ 155lbs
One potential drawback is that you might only want to work within a certain rep range. This is where you can combine adding weights with this progression in the following way:
Week 3) 3 x 8 reps @ 60kg
Week 4) 3 x 6 reps @ 70kg
Week 5) 3 x 8 reps @ 70kg
4) Reduce rest times
This is a progression that not many people tend to utilise or even think about as a progression. Being able to do your workout in less time is a good sign that your fitness is increasing. In this case you could follow something like:
Week 1) 3 x 10 reps @155lbs @ 60 seconds rest
Week 2) 3 x 10 reps @155lbs @ 55 seconds rest
Week 3) 3 x 10 reps @ 155lbs @ 50 seconds rest
Once you start getting your rest times down to 30 seconds and less, it might be time to look at bumping the weights or sets up to continue challenging yourself
5) Increased timed sets
In the previous point, the progression was to look at reducing your rest times. On the other end of the spectrum you can work in timed sets and look to increase the length of time of the sets. This is mostly applied to circuit training but there is another way this can be applied:
Circuit training example:
1) Press ups - 60 seconds
2) Lunges – 60 seconds
3) Crunches – 60 seconds
1) Press ups – 70 seconds
2) Lunges – 70 seconds
3) Crunches – 70 seconds
Escalating Density Training (EDT):
This is a method invented (I think) by Charles Staley which is a fantastic and brutal self regulating progression. In its simplest form it would look like this:
Week 1) Lunges & bicep curls – 5 minutes – as many reps as possible (AMRAP) in the sets
Week 2) Lunges & bicep curls – 6 minutes – AMRAP
You can work up to sets of 10 – 15 minutes using this method. The simplicity of this method is that you can also use various progressions within this frame work. For example if you manage 50 reps initially, once you can improve your reps by 20%, add 5% weight and start again. There is a knack to choosing the right weight for this type of training though so don’t go too heavy.
6) Make the exercise harder / Move to single limb
This final progression idea is more obscure than the previous ideas and is another fantastic progression idea. This is mainly due to it being difficult to measure progress in the strictest sense as you are looking to make an exercise harder.
Once you can handle a certain amount of weight in an exercise such as bench press, squats and Romanian deadlifts, look to move to single limb versions of these exercises i.e, dumbbell bench press, single leg Romanian deadlifts, rear foot elevated single leg squats, full single leg squats.
This is also where the TRX can pay dividends – trying to do press ups in a TRX is a lot harder than trying doing press ups on the floor.
The other way to look at making exercises harder is to switch the resistance method. For example:
1) Shoulder press with a barbell
2) Shoulder press with dumbbells
3) Shoulder press on the cable machine
4) Should press with sandbags
The 6 progressions I’ve given can be used during your workouts. Ideally not all at once though! The main thing that I should point out is that if you use any of these progressions, they do cause your muscles to work harder so watch your recovery and also don’t try and apply the progressions to all the exercises in your workout straight away. Look to apply one of the progressions to a few exercises in your workout and keep the other exercises the same – trying to push too much too soon with these will fatigue you.
This is my, mostly, Personal Trainer musings and information which I hope you'll find helpful!