How to ensure PROGRESS in the gym.
We strive for progression.
We want to better ourselves, to make consistent progress and to ultimately see results.
For those that train regularly, like myself, we want to continuously see results and to an extent expect it. We want to see a positive outcome from the hours of effort put into the cause. The benefits of regularly performing exercise are almost endless, that's a given, but it can be extremely demotivating when your progress halts.
Almost everyone that is working towards a goal experiences some form of plateau. If it's increasing strength, fat loss, speed, fitness, building muscle, flexibility, learning a new skill, whatever the goal, the chances are we've seen results slow right down, stop or even go the other way at some point.
There's nothing worse as a trainer (and I see this time and time again) seeing someone put the time, effort and consistency into going to the gym but with that in place, doing the same exercises at the same weight, with the same rep ranges and sets all whilst never seeing any true, impactful change. The plan is the same and so is the end result.
So what can be done to break any plateau and to ensure consistent progression?
Simple, PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD.
This is the gradual increase of stress placed on the body during any training routine to ensure growth. Essentially, in order to become stronger, a plan must be in place to make sure sure our muscles are working harder than what they are used to.
The main reason most people don't see results is because they simply aren't challenging themselves.
Below are ways you can manipulate your current training routine to ensure consistent growth using progressive overload methods...
1 - INCREASE THE LOAD (or WEIGHT)
This is where you increase the weight used for exercises, week to week or even session to session. Let's take SQUATS. You perform...
Week 1 - 4 sets of 8 reps at a weight of 100kg
Week 2 - 4 sets of 8 reps at a weight of 102.5kg
Week 3 - 4 sets of 8 reps at a weight of 105kg
Week 4 - 4 sets of 8 reps at a weight of 107.5kg
This is fairly self explanatory in that you can see from the above you're lifting more each session and will therefore see progression. This is usually the most common method people opt for but can also lead to another plateau fairly quickly, in that it's near impossible to continuously keep adding weight to an exercise and ensure good form, week on week, year on year.
2 - INCREASE THE SETS
A common misconception is that progression is defined by increases of load. You don't necessarily have to add weight to an exercise to get stronger. Alternatively, you could look at overall sets performed...
Week 1 - 3 sets of 8 reps at a weight of 100kg
Week 2 - 4 sets of 8 reps at a weight of 100kg
Week 3 - 5 sets of 8 reps at a weight of 100kg
Week 4 - 6 sets of 8 reps at a weight of 100kg
By increasing sets, you increase volume, which in turn will increase the amount of stimulus applied to the muscle, ultimately ensuring progression!
3 - INCREASE THE REPS
This has been a main focus of mine recently in my training, increasing repetitions! Now this is similar to the sets increase, only we'd look to keep the sets the same and just increase volume by doing more reps....
Week 1 - 4 sets of 6 reps at a weight of 100kg
Week 2 - 4 sets of 8 reps at a weight of 100kg
Week 3 - 4 sets of 10 reps at a weight of 100kg
Week 4 - 4 sets of 12 reps at a weight of 100kg
It's important to note that you can increase reps by any number on any set also, they don't have to go up in 2s! If you perform 4 sets of 6 reps during week 1, but on week 2, only increase to 7 reps on say the last 2 sets - great! It's more load at that weight! It's still progression!
4 - INCREASE TRAINING FREQUENCY (times per week)
Training frequency is yet another way to get more volume in. If you do an extra session, you'll be putting that muscle under more tension, thus usually resulting in progression. Currently squatting using the above methods will be great in terms of progressively overloading that muscle group, but instead of squatting once a week, we could potentially increase that to twice a week. Increasing training frequency particularly works well if you discover you have a certain area lacking in strength (triceps in a bench press, glutes in a squat etc) to further develop that muscle.
You can absolutely use any of the above methods and see great results, but I'd recommend choosing one that works for you and roll with that. I wouldn't advise increasing weight, sets, reps and frequency all in one week for example, as the chances are it'll be too much of a jump and could lead to injury or complete burn out. You'll naturally adapt to the stimulus. If you find yourself in this position, it's time to change once more.
Below are some other things to consider if you feel like you're not seeing results...
SLEEP AND RECOVERY
Sleep is the foundation to pretty much everything you do on a day to day. If you have a poor nights sleep, you're going to know about it the next day! It'll more than likely affect everything you do. That's why it is important to do our best to get enough sleep in over time. Same with general rest. If we are consistently smashing the gym, eventually we'll hit a brick wall and be asking ourselves - now what? As it's important to regularly train, it's also important to be consistent with recovery too - stretch, sleep and try to rest, it's key for progression!
HYDRATION, PROTEIN and CALORIES
If we are dehydrated, we're going to struggle. We require water for adequate muscle function, if we are lacking then the gyms going to feel a lot tougher! Protein and overall caloric intake is key, especially when looking to progress in the gym. We simply cannot recover properly with little to no protein in the diet and calories are vital to ensure we have the energy to perform in our sessions. Check in on both to make sure you're getting enough.
INTENSITY OF SESSIONS
Train with INTENSITY! This one often gets overlooked. If someone approaches me and states they are struggling to progress or cannot seem to reach their goals, I always ask if they are training with intensity first and foremost. Are you pushing yourself? Are you truly working hard to progress? It's simple things like this that seems obvious, but when we actually try that extra 2.5kg on a squat or that extra burpee in a HIIT class, realise there's more in there to give. TRAIN WITH INTENSITY!
There are numerous factors essentially as you why your progress may have halted, but by addressing one or numerous of the above will enable you to get critical with your training, break that plateau and ensure consistent progression going forward.