There are many essential elements that should be included in any effective training program. Obviously, you've got to be smart when choosing movements. I usually favor compound movements, but single-joint movements have their place. Regardless of your movement selection, though, it's imperative to have a progression plan in place.
It's very difficult to make any substantial progress unless you know how to force your body to do what it's not used to doing. A training program is only as good as the planned progression that's included in the program. The problem is, a progression plan often isn't included.
As a guy who writes programs, I can understand why a coach might not prescribe a progression plan. Here are a few reasons.
- Individuality – In a perfect world, I would know exactly how your body is going to adapt to the training parameters. But I don't know. And even if I did know, that progression plan might be too much or too little for someone else.
- Lack of Experience – There are many coaches writing internet programs, but I sometimes wonder how many clients these coaches actually train. I often surmise that internet programs are designed for nothing more than the internet.
- Laziness – It's not easy to prescribe various progression plans. You must have a pretty good understanding of how a person will generally adapt to each phase. It's much easier for a coach to simply tell you to do "X" amount of sets and reps with hopes that the rest will take care of itself.
The simplest progression recommendation is to add more weight to the bar. This works well for beginners, and for the first few weeks of a training program, but eventually it'll stop working. And maybe you have plenty of strength but you need to boost your work capacity. Or maybe you're a guy who responds best to increasing reps, while your buddy responds best to lifting heavier loads. Or maybe you're in a fat loss phase. In that case, constantly adding weight to the bar turns out to be a lesson in futility.
So I'm here to outline my most effective progression plans for hypertrophy and fat loss. The purpose of this article is to help you understand which methods should be used and why. There are many factors to consider, ones that you probably aren't aware of.
Let's get started!
Goal 1 – Increase Muscle Mass (Hypertrophy Training)
Let's see, I probably only had a 95% chance of getting this one right. Is there anyone who reads Testosterone that doesn't want bigger muscles?
When training for hypertrophy you must ingest more calories than you expend each day. This above-maintenance nutritional plan allows you to get away with more extreme types of progression because your body is fed with plenty of nutrients. In other words, you're in a phase where overtraining is less likely to occur. Therefore, I recommend the three most intense progressions.
Increasing the load with each training session is one of the most effective, albeit demanding, types of progression. It takes the biggest toll on your joints and nervous system. The key is to increase the load in small increments. This forces your muscles to do more work, but it doesn't overwhelm your brain, muscles, and joints.
Many coaches, including myself, often recommend increasing the load 2% when you repeat a training session. But many people are anything but ecstatic about this approach. Let's say you did five sets of five reps (5x5) for the lying triceps extension with 40 pound dumbbells on Monday.
The following Monday you pull out a calculator and realize that you need to increase the load 0.8 pounds. (I probably don't need to go much further for you to realize the problems with the 2% approach, but I will.) You're immediately faced with a formidable challenge because your gym has a dumbbell set that only jumps in five-pound increments. So you're relegated to a 12% load progression instead of 2%.
How's he going to add 0.2 pounds next time?
And this is one of the many reasons why I favor compound movements. Had you chosen a close-grip bench press with 225 pounds to train your triceps, that 2% progression becomes 4.5 pounds. Without a leap of faith, you can presume that increasing the load five pounds is a relatively accurate and effective progression. When working with the 2% progression, if you're ever faced with a 7.5 pound load increase, always round down instead of up (increase the load 5 pounds instead of 10 pounds).
I like the 2% progression, but its applicability is limited to compound movements when the load is measured in hundreds of pounds. Anything less and you'll end up banging your head against the wall. Platemates (small magnetic weights) that attach to dumbbells and barbells help, but it doesn't eradicate the problem.
Of course at some point, strict 2% load progression becomes impractical.
Which brings us to the next progression.
I like the rep progression for single-joint exercises with lighter loads. With a rep progression you aren't forced to work with miniscule load progressions, but you can still overload your muscles. There are two ways to make the most of the rep progression.
First, if you follow traditional set/rep parameters such as 5x5, you can simply add a rep to each set when you repeat the training session. Depending on how close the first session was to failure you might not be able to add a rep to every set. For example, if on Monday you performed 5x5, the following Monday you might only get six reps on the first three sets. Hell, the fifth set might only be four reps.
That's fine, too. All that matters is that the total number of reps is higher. 5x5, of course, equals 25 total reps. 6, 6, 6, 5, 4 equals 27 total reps. Stay with the rep progression until you can complete two more reps with each set (5x7). At that point, increase the load to the next available increment and start the process over with a new set/rep range that you can manage with the heavier load.
The second way to use rep progression is based on a target number of reps. Let's say you want to do 25 total reps with a load that you could lift 4 to 6 times while fresh. The next time you perform the training session, increase the total reps by 2 or 3. Continue with this progression until you reach 35 total reps.
At that point, increase the load and start over. I favor this approach because I feel lifters get too hung up on a target number of reps per set. What they should really be focusing on is the total number of reps per lift per training session.
Increasing the number of training sessions for a specific movement is the most effective progression I've ever used for hypertrophy. But the frequency progression is not for everyone. First, you must have the luxury of training more often. Second, you've got to understand planes of movement.
For the sake of simplicity, I break down movements into: upper body pulling and pushing in the horizontal plane, upper body pulling and pushing in the vertical plane, and a squat or deadlift. If you don't know which muscles are emphasized in which movement, this information is probably too advanced for you. But if you do understand that a wide-grip pull-up primarily trains your lats and upper back muscles, keep reading.
The frequency progression is not complicated, unless you make it so. If you're struggling with pull-ups, and if you want a bigger upper back, you should increase the frequency of pull-ups. If you simply added more volume you'd just augment your recovery time. Start the first week with three sessions for pull-ups. The next week add a fourth. The third week add a fifth.
The fourth week increase your pull-up sessions to six. Hold the frequency of six pull-up sessions per week for the fifth week. On the sixth week, perform one pull-up session before returning to anywhere between three and six on the seventh week. Here's how the frequency progression looks for the pull-up.
- Week 1: Monday, Wednesday, Friday
- Week 2: Monday A.M., P.M., Wednesday, Friday
- Week 3: Monday A.M., P.M., Wednesday, Friday A.M., P.M..
- Week 4: Monday A.M., P.M., Wednesday A.M., P.M., Friday A.M., P.M..
- Week 5: Monday A.M., P.M., Wednesday A.M., P.M., Friday A.M., P.M..
- Week 6: Wednesday
- Week 7: pick up with your schedule on any week between 1 and 4
If you're struggling with pull-ups, add more sessions of pull-ups
Take note that I didn't increase the number of training days per week; I increased the number of total sessions by implementing morning and evening workouts. I've found that twice-daily workouts work better for hypertrophy training compared to increasing the frequency to six days in a row. Each morning and evening workout should be separated by at least six hours.
On week 7, you have a few options. If your upper back is still lagging you can jump back into training it six times per week. Just be sure to unload every fourth week and only perform one training session for the pull-up. The other option is to revert back to three, four, or five sessions per week. Again, you'll unload every fourth week. What frequency you use should depend on what your schedule allows.
Use the 2% load progression for compound movements, use the rep progression for single-joint or light movements, and use the frequency progression for the movements that train your lagging muscles.
Goal 2 – Burn Fat (Metabolic Training)
When training for fat loss you must burn more calories than you consume each day. This below-maintenance nutritional plan necessitates less demanding types of progression since you're more likely to overtrain when you're short on nutrients. Therefore, I recommend progression methods that don't mandate lifting ever-heavier loads, but instead force you to increase your metabolism by boosting excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).
Before I get to the progressions, let me explain what EPOC is.
After you finish training your body needs more oxygen. When you're training with weights, or simply running outside, your body uses up a lot of oxygen. Your body must restore that oxygen debt to maintain homeostasis. In essence, your body must return to its pre-exercise state. It does this by replenishing energy sources, re-oxygenating your blood and restoring circulatory hormones, decreasing body temperature, and returning ventilation and heart rate to normal.
All of these steps collectively are known as EPOC, and all of these steps take energy. Therefore, the higher your EPOC, the more calories you'll burn after exercise. Alwyn Cosgrove refers to this as "afterburn."
Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)
Therefore, when training for fat loss you should implement progression methods that force your body to use more oxygen. Here are the progressions.
Progressively decreasing your rest periods without changing the load is my favorite method to boost fat loss. Since you're not increasing the load, your muscles and joints aren't beat up by the lack of nutrients in your diet. Instead, you force your energy systems (mainly anaerobic glycolysis) to work harder.
Before I outline how to use the rest progression, I must revert back to my opening statement about the importance of selecting the right movements. There's no place for single-joint movements in a fat loss workout!
Does that mean you should never perform any trap raises, external rotations or other joint integrity exercises? Of course not. If you need to strengthen your lower traps or rotator cuff, you should include exercises for them. But this isn't part of your fat loss session per se, it's an addition after your fat loss training is finished.
Beyond the proper movement selection, the rest progression is pretty simple. You'll start with a relatively short rest period, say, 60 seconds between each movement in a circuit, and then decrease the rest periods in five-second increments each time you repeat the training session. Here's an example.
Week 1, Workout A
- A. Pull-up
- Rest 60 seconds
- B. Dip
- Rest 60 seconds
- C. Clean
- Rest 60 seconds and repeat
Week 2, Workout A
- A. Pull-up
- Rest 55 seconds
- B. Dip
- Rest 55 seconds
- C. Clean
- Rest 55 seconds and repeat
The first factor you must respect is the initial rest period. If 60 seconds isn't challenging, the rest periods are too long. In other words, if 60 seconds rest isn't enough to make you sweat and feel a little nauseous, you're not doing yourself any favors. You must start with an effective plan if you want the progression to work. If 60 seconds was too long for your first workout, decrease the rest periods by 10 seconds the next time you repeat it. From that point, stick to five second rest progressions.
You can stick with the rest progression for as long as you're training for fat loss. I've worked with people who started with 60 second rest periods, and three total body workouts per week, who progressed to 10 second rest periods with the same movements, loads and reps. They all lost a substantial amount of body fat by supercharging their EPOC. The rest progression really does work wonders for most.
Adding an extra set to each lift during a training session is another effective progression for metabolic training. It's effective because adding a set is less taxing than increasing the load or adding reps, but it's sufficient to boost your work capacity.
There are two ways to use the set progression, depending on how your training sessions are structured.
If you follow the typical set/rep plan with, say, 5x5 you'll simply add one set each time you repeat the workout. So if on Monday you did 5x5, the following Monday you'll do 6x5. The load won't change and neither will the rest periods. You'll keep adding a set for as long as you keep experiencing results. If you're new to training, you might be able to go from 5x5 to 10x5 over the course of five weeks and still get results.
If you're experienced, it's likely that your body will adapt quicker. In that case, you might want to limit the set progression to three weeks and start with a higher volume. You could go from 8x3 to 10x3 over the course of three weeks.
There's another way to use the set progression if you have a target number of total reps with each lift. Let's say your target number is 25 reps with a load you could lift fresh for 4 to 6 reps. And let's say on Monday your sets for the pull-up went as follows:
- Set 1: 6 reps
- Set 2: 5 reps
- Set 3: 5 reps
- Set 4: 5 reps
- Set 5: 4 reps
The following Monday you'll add a sixth set and perform as many reps as possible, so it looks like this:
- Set 1: 6 reps
- Set 2: 5 reps
- Set 3: 5 reps
- Set 4: 5 reps
- Set 5: 4 reps
- Set 6: As many reps as possible
Overall, I like to emphasize the rest progression. For fat loss, three total body sessions per week is the upper limit for most people. Use the rest progression on Monday and Friday and use the set progression on Wednesday.
Use the rest progression for two sessions each week; use the set progression for one workout each week. Stick to circuits derived of compound movements.
It doesn't matter if you're training for hypertrophy or fat loss, you must have an effective progression plan in place. Use these methods and you'll always be forcing your body to do more work over time. This ensures that you're never left spinning your wheels.