Pay close attention here: Progression is the single most important part of any weight training program. Progression means that you must challenge yourself to improve at every workout. The best method of progression is to increase the amount of weight you use. However, increasing weight is not the only method of progression. Any type of physical work you do that is above and beyond what you've done in the past will produce an adaptive response (you'll get stronger and/or more muscular). Your goal at every workout is to lift more weight, do more reps, lift the same amount of reps and weight in less time, or perform some type of workout or exercise you've never done before.
The biggest roadblocks to progression for most people are impatience and not keeping a training journal. Progression must be approached in a slow, steady and cyclical fashion. Progression occurs very slowly and is often done only one rep at a time. Sometimes progression even follows a pattern of two steps forward, then one step back.
Each time you start a new routine, you'll pick a weight that you know you can handle easily for approximately 6-12 reps. The starting weight may even feel a little on the light side. With each successive workout, you'll add reps and/or weight whenever possible. Obviously, it's not possible to add weight on every exercise at every workout indefinitely, otherwise you'd eventually be bench pressing 1000 pounds and squatting 2000 pounds. But that's ok: If you aren't ready to move up to a heavier weight, your goal is simply one more rep. When you reach the upper end of your rep range (usually 12 reps), then it's time to increase the weight. This system of increasing reps, then weight, is known as the double progressive system.
Here's an example of what workout progression on an exercise like the squat might look like over a period of two months:
245 lbs X 8 reps 245 lbs X 9 reps 245 lbs X 10 reps 245 lbs X 11 reps
245 lbs X 12 reps (goal achieved -time to increase)
255 lbs X 8 reps
255 lbs X 9 reps
255 lbs X 10 reps
255 lbs X 11 reps
255 lbs X 12 reps (goal achieved - time to increase again) 265 lbs X 8 reps
This is just an example, and seldom is your progression this linear. Sometimes you get stuck at the same reps, like when you're stressed, undernourished or sleep deprived. Some workouts, you're on top of the world and you jump up 3 or 4 reps at a clip. The example above is just meant to illustrate the principle.
On workout days when you feel strong enough to add weight, increase the weight in small increments. The problem with making large weight jumps at each workout is that you will plateau on your cycle much sooner. Sometimes you'll make fast progress and that's great, but other times you must be extremely patient and move up a rep at a time. In the example above, it took 11 workouts or about 8-9 weeks to move up 20 lbs - and that's fine! That's 115 pounds on your squat in a year! Be patient. Slow and steady wins this race.
Don't get too caught up in pre-planning your entire cycle of progression or getting too scientific about it. Sometimes trainers, books or articles make this topic of progressive overload and periodization seem incredibly complicated. It's not! Just observe the overall principle: Make your body do something - anything at all - that it's not used to doing and you will grow stronger and increase your lean body mass. That's what it's all about; that's the only "secret" in this entire game called bodybuilding. Just move forward in some way, shape or form at every workout; on at least one exercise.
The biggest mistake you could ever make (and it's a common one), is to repeat the same workout over and over again - this will only maintain your current condition, not improve it! You have to get out of your comfort zone and push yourself. Challenge yourself. Go into every workout with a mindset that you won't tolerate standing still; that you MUST move forward and make progress above and beyond the previous session. And don't hope for it - expect it!
It will help you with your progressive workouts if you add this to your goal and affirmation list: "I don't go to the gym to maintain,. I go to the gym to improve. And if I want to improve, then today, I must beat my previous workout and do something I've never done before." This mindset makes training extremely exciting. It makes you look forward to your workouts with an aggressive "I want to" attitude instead of a dragging your heels "I have to" attitude.
You should have a constant succession of little daily and weekly goals that keep you motivated. Never wing it. Always go into the gym knowing exactly what must be done each day. Use the visualization principle and see yourself doing it. Then do it. Move ahead. Move forward. Any little way will do. One rep at a time is fine; adding weight is even better.
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