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Educational Articles

Your Program Sucks: Part 3

10 November, 2019
Sebastian Oreb

Your Program Sucks: Part 3

…because you dont know how to progress (but that’s ok, you will soon)

Progressive overload is often spoken about but not always understood. It is a topic that I so often see people overcomplicate or misinterpret, but as always I am a big fan of the “keep it simple” method and this is how I want to present it to you today.

This is Your Program Sucks Part 3. In Part 1 of this series I introduced my hierarchical model of programming, where I place correct lifting technique as the top priority of things to get right to ensure your training success. In Part 2 we discussed why your load selection might be the reason your training results are sub-optimal, and how the “no pain no gain” mentality can actually send your training backwards. I even dispelled the myth of the infamous 3×5 holy grail reps scheme, which may have been a little bit shocking for some of you and I do apologise.

So far we have been on quite the journey together. After the the big 3×5 scandal, I bet you are wondering what interesting and new revelations I have in store for you next. I can promise you interesting, but the concept of progressive overload is far from revolutionary.

The third programming principle we are going to discuss is something that is believed to have been borrowed many times over from champion Olympic wrestler, decorated soldier and famous historic figure Milo of Croton. Milo was a Greek athlete and soldier who was famous for his incredible strength, and is described as the grandfather of what we now call progressive overload. According to legend, one day when a newborn calf was born on his property Milo lifted it onto his shoulders and carried the calf around his property. He repeated this every day and of course the cow grew bigger over the months and years, but by such a small amount each day that it would have been a barely noticeable to Milo. Little by little as the calf increased in size, so did Milo’s strength, until eventually he was carrying a fully grown cow over his shoulders.

Whether or not this was actually the first example of progressive overload, I’m sure you will understand the analogy. We have already talked about moving well and working at the correct intensities, but these two things in isolation will leave your training a little bit incomplete if you do not understand and apply the concept of progressive overload.

This brings us to the third programming commandment:

If you are staying a the same weight, reps and sets week after week and failing to ever increase difficulty, then you are simply not getting stronger and your program sucks.

This commandment is quite different from the previous two in the sense that so far I have suggested for you take a step back with your training but now I am telling you to take a step forwards, and then continue stepping forwards each and every week. As a full disclaimer- the reason I have put this as the third principle is that it is of third most importance to lifting technique and load selection, and if you don’t get those two right then your progressive overload sucks and you need to go back and reread Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

With that out of the way, let’s have a look at what progressive overload is and some of the common reasons why people are failing to achieve this.

Progressive overload describes gradual, measurable and planned strength training improvements over time. There are three key ways we can achieve this:

⭐⭐⭐ Increasing the weight on the bar (also known as a load-related cycle): This is my absolute favourite way to overload because we all want to put weight on the bar, be really cool and get stronger. This one gets 3 gold stars.
⭐⭐ Increasing the reps (rep-related cycle): Increasing the reps each session is also an excellent way to achieve overload in your training. This is a little bit less cool than increasing the weight, but still quite cool. 2 gold stars.
⭐ Increasing the sets (set-related cycle): This one is like the last person to get picked for the football team. It’s not the best option, but it is an option, but I’ll most commonly reach for the other two players. On rare occasions it can actually be quite useful, although most of the time it’s better to leave it on the bench while the other two do their thing. 1 gold star.

As you can see here, progression in your training is not always about adding more weight to the bar. Honourable mention goes to achieving progressive overload through improving the quality of your movement, but this can be difficult to measure week to week as “quality” of movement is quite subjective (based on opinion or feelings) while load, reps and sets are objective measures (based on facts or statistics instead of opinion). It is important for me to clarify here that to properly measure progression through an increase in load, reps or sets, all attempts should be made to ensure the “quality” of a particular movement remains consistent across your sessions (technique, tempo, range of motion, equipment used, etc.). So for example if you increase the weight lifted but cut your depth short for squats, it is not completely clear whether or not you have actually progressed in this movement.

Now that we have covered what progressive overload is, let’s go over some common reasons that stop people from utilising this training principle:

#1. Starting the program too heavy, leaving you with nowhere to progress to.

This one is very common, and that’s why I’ve listed it first. I’ll explain a bit more.

Let’s imagine that you can squat 100kg for 5 sets of 5, and this is roughly your limit. You are about to begin a 5×5 strength training block where we aim to increase the load by ~5% each week. When selecting weights for the first week, lots of people would want to choose 100kg because that’s what they can do. But take a second to imagine what 105kg will look like in week 2, when your current strength limit is 100kg- it’s probably not going to look very nice. The intelligent decision is to choose 95kg in your first week, then increase up to 100kg for week 2 to guarantee a seamless session. Week 3 is where the magic happens and the progression begins. We can now bump the weight up to 105kg which represents a 5% increase in strength capacity over a 3 week period, and after the two previous weeks of successful training you will have a much better chance of this session going well. Week 4 we reserve for deloading if needed. Those who have been doing this for long enough will understand that 5% over 3 weeks is pretty damn amazing but also not something you can sustain as you become a more advanced lifter, so I’ll explain more on this and offer some alternatives at the end of the article.

#2. Fear of increasing the weight

This might be the result of a previous injury or simply due to lack of confidence. Fear can lead to “paralysis by analysis” where people become paralysed because they are focussing on the wrong things and this apprehension drives them to look for excuses not to progress the difficulty of a movement. It’s important to always move in a safe and pain free range, but it is equally important to progress within this range. Interestingly, our modern understanding of progressive overload was actually developed by an army physician (Dr T. L. DeLorme) who first applied this principle as a more aggressive rehabilitation technique to drastically improve the outcomes for WW2 orthopaedic patients. With the right guidance, you should be able to progress your training and move past the early stages of rehab and on to achieve training success.

#3. Lack of knowledge about the importance of progressive overload

Some people simply do not know that they need to be increasing the weight each week. There are a lot of people who are “chasing the pump” or reaching fatigue in their sessions but not actually achieving any kind of measurable overload. Overload is a critical component that will influence the outcomes of your training, it also provides an excellent way to stay accountable and improve training motivation. Incorporating progressive overload in a training cycle will reap both short term and long term benefits.

#4. Complacency or lack of direction in training

This can happen to the best of us, and might be a sign of burn out or poorly defined goals. In the grand scheme of a lifelong training career, everyone will have peaks and troughs in their training. If you’re a powerlifter, it is possible to get a little bit tired of just bench, squat and deadlift. I think most will agree that they feel the best when working towards some kind of goal, and a fix for this particular roadblock might be as simple as adding a new goal or movement into the training as a new stimulus for the athlete to work towards.

There is a simple solution to all of these objections and that is to seek out and employ a good coach. Please understand when I say this that I’m not trying to sell my coaching to you. To be completely honest, I don’t PT anymore so it wouldn’t be an option anyway. I am however encouraging you to do your homework and seek out the services of someone who knows strength training and has a track record of achieving excellent client results in what you want to achieve.

We have discussed what progressive overload is and some of the reasons people are not including this in their training. I am going to finish this off by adding to the template provided in Your Program Sucks Part 1, and suggest a really nice approach to overloading your training while still following the first two guidelines of good technique and correct intensity selection. I really hope that this helps to simplify progressive overload for anyone that has found it confusing, or confirm its importance for some people who already understands this principle. Stay tuned for the next article where we will take a look at training specificity vs training variety, and how to balance these two principles to tailor your training to your goals.

WEEK 1: Underachieve

95% for beginner lifters
92% for more experienced lifters

Think of a weight you can do for 5 clean sets of 5. If the weight you are imagining is a weight that you might fail the last rep of the last set on, then it’s too heavy. Pick a new weight. Ok got it? Now beginners should reduce this weight by 5%, and more experienced lifters I’d like you to reduce your weight by 8%. Whatever that leaves you with is the weight you should be starting your first week off with.

In the first week you will be performing at either 95% or 92% of your capacity for 5×5 (note: this does NOT refer to the percentage of your 1RM you will be working at).

WEEK 2: Achieve

100% for beginner lifters
97% for more experienced lifters

In this week you will add 5% to the weight from your first week. Beginners, this means you’re now doing the weight you thought you could do in Week 1 but you will do a much better job of it. The more experienced lifters will now be working close to their capacity for 5×5, but not at full capacity yet.

WEEK 3: Overachieve

105% for beginner lifters
102% for more experienced lifters

This is where things ramp up and we start to push your limits a little bit with an additional 5% increase. Both beginners and experienced lifters will now be working above their perceived capacity for Week 1, and after two successful weeks of training this should be a really good week of training.

WEEK 4: Deload

More information on deloads in a future article- stay tuned!

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