First and foremost, I should make myself clear and tell you all reading this that it is an article for bodybuilding practise. Power lifters and Olympic lifters, while sharing the basic requirement of progression, go about their task(s) in different ways and to varying degrees. That is not to say that non-bodybuilders won’t benefit from this article, but for the most part, this is primarily focusing on those wishing to improve body composition and general aesthetics. It is also designed in regards to newer lifters, although I do hope that the more advanced can benefit in some way from it.
One of the things I see regularly in my gym are the lifters who are there each week religiously doing the same (excessive volume) workouts and using the same weights week in, week out. Y’know the types – the ones that never seem to grow (in some cases even when they decide they’re “hardgainers” and resort to steroids). All they have with them are their water bottles, their gloves, their straps (I saw someone using straps for preacher curls today, incidentally) and their weight belts. The latter being something they seem to wear no matter what body part(s) they are hitting that day. I’ve seen people get ready to bench but then breaking their focus because they forgot to put their belt on. It is really quite laughable. One thing I strongly believe they would benefit most from, as pitiful as it sounds is a small notepad and pen.
Albeit, this isn’t some fancy named brand of supplement that promises amazing gains in a very short period of time, but it is something that will aid you in the long run. If you keep track of every workout in one week, then you are left with a baseline. You now have something to improve upon. The following week you should try and lift more weight or the same weights with more reps. This is the basic principle of progressive overload. If you have a brilliant memory, then power to you, but I most certainly can’t recall every exact weight and reps achieved for every exercise I do. My training log has proved to be invaluable to me.
While strength increases aren’t the only way to gauge progression, they’re still a damn good one. But just because you didn’t progress on a certain lift doesn’t mean you’re not growing. In fact, it is very possible, albeit quite annoying to stay on the same weight and do the same amount of reps on an exercise for several weeks and still grow. There may be several reasons for the lack of progression. For instance, pre-fatigue may be hindering progression. If you do dips last in your routine, then they may very well not progress because of potential differences in your workout of previous exercises. For example, you may have opted to do an extra set on the bench, which has caused more fatigue in your pushing muscles than normal and has disrupted your usual dipping strength in sequence. This is not something to be worried about, providing your bench has progressed.
If you’ve stalled progression on all exercises, then there may be several factors causing this. Firstly, and this is going on the assumption that you’re in calorie surplus, because calorie deficit changes things (I’ll discuss later).
Are you resting enough?
Lack of sleep can be a progression killer. Just ask anyone, or try it yourself. Deprive yourself of a few hours sleep each night and see how your workouts go.
Are you eating quality calories?
Now, I realise a lot of people go along with “all calories are equal” but for me if I get all my calories from junk food my training suffers. Maybe you’re the same.
Are you training too much?
Overtraining isn’t something that suddenly hits you overnight. It’s something that happens gradually over a period of time. So if you start off with a 5 day a week split, you may make some great gains at first so to you, it’s flawless. Only after a few weeks you start to lack progression and possibly even start to regress. Some can get away with it for a considerable amount of time, but eventually it is something that will catch up with them and gains will slow and possibly cease. Generally, for the natural weight lifter, 4 days a week in the gym should be the maximum. Something I’m sure you’ve heard many a time before, but it still rings true; you grow outside of the gym, not in it. Volume can also be the difference between growth and regression. With volume too high, you stand to hinder progression. As with a lot of physiological processes, there is a bell-shaped curve under which growth lies in the area under the curve. Now, you can go lower volume, create sufficient muscular damage and grow at a steady pace, but too little and not grow much at all. Conversely, you can go overboard with volume and do too much muscular damage. The amount of damage necessary to create hypertrophy is still unknown, but at the end of the day, do too little or too much damage and you won’t induce hypertrophy (growth).
Is it time to switch up your exercise selection? If you’ve been doing the same exercises for an extended period of time without any further progression with all other variables in check, then maybe it is time to change your choice of exercises. You don’t need to change every exercise (unless boredom of your current routine is the limiting factor). It may surprise you how much difference a change in one exercise can make. For example, if you chest routine is currently barbell bench, dumbbell flyes and then weighted dips, switching to dumbell bench can be the world of difference and can spur on new progression. In fact, even changing up your rep range scheme can make a great difference. If you’re currently residing in the 8-12 rep range, then drop reps down to 4-8. Rep tempos are also a good shake up. Doing a much slower cadence and spending more time under tension (TUT) can be a great way to induce further progression without even changing up your exercises. But as mentioned before, boredom can affect you psychologically and thus, switching up exercises may spur on enthusiasm for training. As good as this sounds, however, switching up too much makes progression harder to assess so be conservative with change.
Now, while strength gains can be made without increasing muscle size, it’s an unlikely situation if you’re progressing each week not to be adding muscle. Your body adapts to a specific stimulus by ensuring that it’s better equipped for the possibility of it arising in the future. For example, a construction worker develops calluses on his hands because his body has realised and adapted for the heavy handling work that the man frequently performs. In the same way, if you stress your muscles by lifting a certain weight, your body repairs the muscle bigger and stronger for any potential future events. By lifting slightly more and more each week (or the same weight for more reps, inevitably leading to you being able to increase the weight) your body responds by growing bigger and stronger each week.
As mentioned earlier, calories can be the determining factor between progression and growth. I have yet to come across an individual who is hoping to merely ‘maintain’. Therefore, I have ignored anything other than ‘gaining’ and ‘cutting’. In case you’re unsure or can’t work it out, gaining involves calorie surplus (to gain weight) and cutting involves calorie deficit (to lose weight – preferably fat). If your priorities are to drop body fat, then progression on the weights is something that you shouldn’t expect to occur as frequently like with gaining. Without sufficient calories, your body’s ability for recovery is some what hampered, so don’t feel disheartened if you’re not adding reps or weight each week during a cutting phase. That’s not to say that you won’t still progress, because it’s very possible. Adding muscle in a calorie deficit is also very possible, but also quite unlikely. If you are on a cutting phase, the one thing you should hope for most is muscle maintenance. Don’t set your expectations too high and expect hypertrophy because anabolism and catabolism very rarely (if at all) occur at the same time in this regard.
Now progression in the gym is one gauge, but another is by how you look and also changes in bodyweight overtime (like I said, this focuses on looking pretty). For example, if your goal is to gain then weighing yourself regularly is a good idea. While once a week may not be absolutely necessary, at least every two weeks is still a good idea. If your strength is increasing in the gym, and you’re gaining weight at a steady pace then you’re more or less guaranteed to be growing. Weighing in every few days is actually a bad idea in my opinion. Water retention and fluctuations in intramuscular/liver glycogen storage can obscure weight and can be disillusioning. Also, believing that you’ve put on a lot of weight in such a short space of time or dropped a lot of weight rather quickly can be somewhat scary if you’re trying to gain and stay lean or trying to drop body fat while retaining as much muscle as possible.
If you decide that a weekly weigh-in is a good idea that you wish to adopt, be sure to try and keep variables as fixed as possible. Be sure to use the same scales, because different scales can be several pounds (lbs) out between them. Also, try and weigh yourself the same time of day every week. For me this is every Saturday morning upon awakening and after a bathroom visit. Again, as mentioned earlier, water and glycogen can affect weight so try your best to keep the time of day you weigh in static. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same time of day me, however. I know of one person who weighs in after training on Friday’s every week. The weight itself is really unimportant. What is important is how this figure changes by week to week. If you’re in a gaining phase, 0.5-1lb a week for the natural lifter is an ideal target. Anymore and you stand to gain more fat than you’d like. Although I’m sure 2lbs of muscle in one week is quite plausible, albeit unlikely. When cutting, weight loss of 0.5-2lbs is a good target. Anymore than 2lbs and you’re probably dropping muscle as well as fat.
So what if you’re gaining and you’ve not added any weight this week?
Well, since you’re aiming to at least add some weight each week, you need to re-evaluate your calorie plan. If you’re not, then do it. While not completely necessary for gaining, calorie counting is definitely a good idea if you want to try and keep body fat accumulation to a minimum. It is also extremely handy when you decide to cut, because it means more accurate assessments can be made during the cut about weight changes and how to deal with them.
If you’re trying to gain and you’re not being successful (and you’ve narrowed it down to a problem with your diet and not problems with training as discussed above) then simply add more calories to your daily consumption. Now you don’t need to suddenly add a huge amount of calories – simply upping your overall daily macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate and fat) ratios by 5 grams, protein, 5 grams carbohydrate (“carbs”) and 5 grams fat will yield an extra 595 calories! In fact, a mere 10g increase in protein or carbs alone will yield an extra 280 kcals a week which is probably enough to encourage a gain of 0.5lbs. This is of course assuming that you’re maintaining current weight. You may be in fact losing weight and so a larger increase in calories is required. Of course, this isn’t a problem – just add more protein, carbs or fat. But be a little conservative so you don’t suddenly increase calories too rapidly and encourage a sudden high gain in weigh, which will mostly likely be a higher percentage fat than muscle. Obviously, the same applies if your goal is to drop body fat, only manipulate calories in the opposite direction.
After reading this, you can continue training without logging your progression (in the gym and out of it) that is of course assuming you aren’t already doing so. If you do, then chances are that you’ll end up just like the guys in my gym, looking exactly the same week in week out and shifting the same weights week in week out. Alternatively, you can begin keeping tabs on key variables and start ensuring that they improve for the better. Combined, these tips will lead to a bigger, stronger and leaner you.
It’s your choice.
Written by Robert Clarke
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If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Techniques for Progress discussion thread.