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PRIME TIME COACHES ROUNDTABLE...

…OPTIMAL PROGRESSION STRATEGIES

Hey Team, I’ve asked some of the very notable coaches here to join in a discussion with me tonight. The topic is optimal progression strategies.

To get us off & running (and I have my coaching call with Eric Cressey from 3-4pm pacific time, so after this post, I won’t be joining in until 4pm), I’ll present what I think are the three essential questions relating to progression.

First however, let’s make sure we’re all starting on the same page: In order for biological tissue to adapt (for most of us, read “grow”), it must be repeatedly exposed to mechanical stress. This stress must, by definition, be greater than what the tissue in question is normally accustomed to. HOWEVER, it should not be so great as to cause injury.

So there is a sweet spot: just enough to cause growth, but not enough to cause harm.

(Now a side discussion here is that muscles grow in response to micro-traumatic insults caused by training. So you’re always “injuring” yourself, but these injuries are within your ability to heal and supercompensate to them).

Now to the three questions:

  1. WHEN do I progress? Every set? Every workout? Every week?

  2. HOW can I progress? By adding weight? By adding reps? Adding sets? Decreaing rest? Using more range of motion?

  3. How LARGE of a progression should I take? Small increase in stress? Medium? Large?

Well, I guess that was about a dozen questions, and you’ll no doubt have your own. So go ahead and post them here, and us “guru” types will respond to them during Prime Time tonight…

1.What type of progression is best suited for what strength quality improvement or is a combination of various loading patterns going to allow for s synergistic effect? e.g for MS development is adding weight enough? Is adding reps for endurance-strength emphasis enough?

  1. What type of un-loading is recommended for specific types of focused mesocycles? e.g when a mesocycle is emphasizing MS is the un-loading concept the same as for a hypertrophy emphasis mesocycle?

  2. How does the CNS adapt over-time to high-end intensity of load; can a pattern of progression that gradually emphasizes (over the course of months or a year) higher percentages of training sets being devoted to 85% and/or more intensity ranges allow the CNS to become more resiliant to fatigue accumulation?

  3. What frames of referance do you coaches use to discern between novices, intermediates and advanced trainees? How many years of hard training before you would call someone an advanced trainee?

Amir

[quote]AMIRisSQUAT wrote:
1.What type of progression is best suited for what strength quality improvement or is a combination of various loading patterns going to allow for s synergistic effect? e.g for MS development is adding weight enough? Is adding reps for endurance-strength emphasis enough?[/quote]

One quick & easy answer is that when local muscle endurance and/or body comp improvements are wanted, increasing density is a nice way to go: LA production has long been associated with increased GH secretion (although organizing your workouts based on anticipated hormonal changes is a controversial subject).

When MxS strength is the goal, we want higher TENSIONS. You can do this two ways: move the same weight faster and/or move more weight. I think the former method is under-rated personally.

[quote]
2. What type of un-loading is recommended for specific types of focused mesocycles? e.g when a mesocycle is emphasizing MS is the un-loading concept the same as for a hypertrophy emphasis mesocycle?[/quote]

Neural fatigue leaves longer-lasting traces than metabolic fatigue…people who are focused on max strength and/or speed strength need to pay particular attention to periodic unloading. I like a 50% volume reduction every 4th week, while maintaining intensity and density.

[quote]
3. How does the CNS adapt over-time to high-end intensity of load; can a pattern of progression that gradually emphasizes (over the course of months or a year) higher percentages of training sets being devoted to 85% and/or more intensity ranges allow the CNS to become more resiliant to fatigue accumulation? [/quote]

Chad? Your thoughts from an acedemic perspective?

[quote]
4. What frames of referance do you coaches use to discern between novices, intermediates and advanced trainees? How many years of hard training before you would call someone an advanced trainee?[/quote]

I’d base it more on performance, but time in the trenches must also be considered. To me, novice means 2 years or less of consistent dedicated training. Advanced = 4 or more years of consistent, dedicated training.

[quote]Charles Staley wrote:

  1. HOW can I progress? By adding weight? By adding reps? Adding sets? Decreaing rest? Using more range of motion?

[/quote]

This is a question I often get at seminars. There are several ways to progress:

  1. Via external loading: i.e. by lifting more weight (provided that proper technique is maintained)

  2. Increasing volume 1: doing more reps while keeping the load the same (e.g. progressing from 10 reps at 200lbs to 12 reps at 200lbs)

  3. Increasing volume 2: doing more total sets. This is often the traditional way of progression, especially when “tradition” comes into play! While it’s true that adding more sets (if loading can be sustained) will cause more physiological damage, there is a point where the returns actually become negative.

For example, progressing for 3 total sets per muscle group up to 9-12 total sets might spark new growth, but bumping it more than that could actually lead to stagnation and regression. Especially when one is dieting down.

  1. Increasing training density: Performing more work per unit of time. This is best accomplished by reducing the rest intervals between sets while maintaining external loading. Many coaches are now aware of this method. I always gradually reduce the rest intervals with my athletes, and Charles obviously uses this method of progression with EDT.

  2. Increasing eccentric loading or work: it is a well know physiological fact that the eccentric (lowering the weight, negative portion) portion of an exercise causes the most damage to the muscle fibers and thus carry a greater potential for growth stimulation. Fast twitch fibers (with the most growth potential) are preferentially recruited during eccentric work, making this doubly effective.

One can increase eccentric stress either by slowing down the negative portion of the movement or by increasing external loading during the eccentric portion (either with weight releasers or by having a partner push down on the bar during the eccentric portion).

  1. Lifting the weights faster: Force = mass x acceleration. You can thus increase force output either by lifting more weight (see progression method no.1) or lifting the same load with greater acceleration. More force = more intramuscular tension, which is one of the top 3 factors involved in growth stimulation (along with total time under tension and work density).

  2. Using more complex exercises: I’m not talking about squatting on a swiss ball here! But progressing from structurally simple exercises to more complex ones increases training stress. For example, a leg extension is easier than a leg press, which is easier than a squat.

  3. Using advanced training methods: Pre-fatigue, cluster sets, rest/pauses, drop sets, iso-dynamic contrasts, tempo contrast, etc. These can add training stress (and should thus not be abused) and represent a progression in the difficulty of a program.

  4. Better mental focus: Some will say booooooooring … but never neglect the mental aspect of lifting. If you are training for strength and power you need an efficient nervous system. If you are a bodybuilder, being able to focus on your muscles working will increase the efficacy of your sets. In layman’s terms … if a client progress from working out, breezing through the exercises to having 100% focus on each set, he has progressed.

  5. I really wanted to get a top ten list, but I have nothing more to say!!!

This is an EXCELLENT point, often not considered

If you’re a guy who can do, say, 15-20 pullups in one set, try this tomorrow: do 5x5, but focus on range of motion and mentally “connecting” to the lats. Use the cues that most of us are aware of, such as bringing the elbows to the torso as opposed to thinking of simply pulling yourself up to the bar). Don’t be slow, but DO be very methodical, precise, and deliberate.

Then tell me how sore you are the next day!

[quote]Christian Thibaudeau wrote:

  1. Better mental focus: [/quote]

Thanks Coach Staley! Now can you answer your own questions? I’d really like to know what your thoughts are on those three major questions.

And CT, if you dont mind, would you also like to add anything to CS’s replies to questions?

Thanks guys!

Thread is already looking awesome.

Amir

Well honestly, here’s my take: the body can stall out when exposed to monotonous progression stragies, just like it can habituate to monotonous loading parameters and exercise menus. So use all the strategies that we’ll discuss here tonight.

Another observation I’ve had for a while now is that beginners can make very fast progress with respect to absolute load progressions early on, but all good things always come to an end, so then most people start looking more at volume-based progression once their PR’s in 1RM’s start slowing down.

Once you start slowing down with intensity and volume-based progression strategies, you still have a third strategy, which many people sadly never gravitate to: density.

[quote]AMIRisSQUAT wrote:
Thanks Coach Staley! Now can you answer your own questions? I’d really like to know what your thoughts are on those three major questions.

And CT, if you dont mind, would you also like to add anything to CS’s replies to questions?

Thanks guys!

Thread is already looking awesome.

Amir[/quote]

Charles, this kinda answers your first question:

“1) WHEN do I progress? Every set? Every workout? Every week?”…

The answer could be “every REP”. By trying to improve focus and neuromuscular connection on each rep you make the training process much more effective.

On a side note, could this be one of the reasons we see a lot of ex-gymnasts become good bodybuilders (training guru Charles Glass comes to mind)…

[quote]Charles Staley wrote:
This is an EXCELLENT point, often not considered

If you’re a guy who can do, say, 15-20 pullups in one set, try this tomorrow: do 5x5, but focus on range of motion and mentally “connecting” to the lats. Use the cues that most of us are aware of, such as bringing the elbows to the torso as opposed to thinking of simply pulling yourself up to the bar). Don’t be slow, but DO be very methodical, precise, and deliberate.

Then tell me how sore you are the next day!

Christian Thibaudeau wrote:

  1. Better mental focus:

[/quote]

ANOTHER great point CT. Not suprising it comes from someone with an O-lift background either. For anyone who’s never seen an organized Olympic lifting club go through their paces, put it on your list! You’ll really be struck by the amount of focus and attention to detail that you’ll see.

[quote]Christian Thibaudeau wrote:
Charles, this kinda answers your first question:

“1) WHEN do I progress? Every set? Every workout? Every week?”…

The answer could be “every REP”. By trying to improve focus and neuromuscular connection on each rep you make the training process much more effective.

On a side note, could this be one of the reasons we see a lot of ex-gymnasts become good bodybuilders (training guru Charles Glass comes to mind)…

Charles Staley wrote:
This is an EXCELLENT point, often not considered

If you’re a guy who can do, say, 15-20 pullups in one set, try this tomorrow: do 5x5, but focus on range of motion and mentally “connecting” to the lats. Use the cues that most of us are aware of, such as bringing the elbows to the torso as opposed to thinking of simply pulling yourself up to the bar). Don’t be slow, but DO be very methodical, precise, and deliberate.

Then tell me how sore you are the next day!

Christian Thibaudeau wrote:

  1. Better mental focus:

[/quote]

I see what you’re saying there coach.

What Im understanding is this.
I had my own theory for maximal frequency per week being the number of strength qualities one trained per week. Train two strength qualities per week? Expose all your movements to the loading parameters needed to enhance those specifric strength qualities and the more advanced a trainee the more strength qualities he would train (you mentioned to me once before that 4-5 may be the upper limit) the higher his freqeuncy and subsequent volume would be.

Ive been bugging out when it comes to a lack of emphasis here on T-Nation about a larger plan of progression. Which I think CW is trying to change, first he wanted everyone to train twice a week then thrice then four times etc etc.

Do you CS, think that maybe like different mesocycles have different strength qualities emphasized that maybe they also need to emphasize different progression patterns that would correlate well with the strength quality being focused upon? So in this way even progression pattern emphasis would change from mesocycle to mesocycle?

Thanks for all your time CS, I know how busy you are and your free time is GREATLY appreciated.

Amir

[quote]Charles Staley wrote:
Well honestly, here’s my take: the body can stall out when exposed to monotonous progression stragies, just like it can habituate to monotonous loading parameters and exercise menus. So use all the strategies that we’ll discuss here tonight.

Another observation I’ve had for a while now is that beginners can make very fast progress with respect to absolute load progressions early on, but all good things always come to an end, so then most people start looking more at volume-based progression once their PR’s in 1RM’s start slowing down.

Once you start slowing down with intensity and volume-based progression strategies, you still have a third strategy, which many people sadly never gravitate to: density.

AMIRisSQUAT wrote:
Thanks Coach Staley! Now can you answer your own questions? I’d really like to know what your thoughts are on those three major questions.

And CT, if you dont mind, would you also like to add anything to CS’s replies to questions?

Thanks guys!

Thread is already looking awesome.

Amir

[/quote]

What exactly are the advantages of increasing training density? Muscular endurance has been mentioned as one, in addition to muscular growth. What about strength? Why would doining 15 singles at 85% 1RM performed with one minute of rest between sets be better than 5x3 with 2-3 minutes between sets?

Coach Staley,

You recently outlined a workout where explosive push-ups and pistols alternating sets of 5 for 15 minutes. I am a powelifter and I am always looking for extra workout ideas. Could I use this program as an extra workout? Or would you recommend something else?

Amir, at the risk of sounding dismissive, you’re at risk of developing PBA (Paralyis-By-Analysis) here! That said however, I suggest looking into gradual long term progression approaches, using all the strategies we’ve listed here. Mix them up and be creative. There is simply no hard science when it comes to these questions, so you’ll need to become a study of one.

In my own training as of late, I’m using the same weight, sets, reps, and rest interval several times in a row believe it or not. Each workout, I’m looking for a reduction of difficulty and control. So for example, I might clean 220 for 10x3 with 3 minutes of rest between sets, for maybe 3-5 workouts in a row. Over those 3-5 workouts, I’m trying to “learn” what 10x3 with 220 feels loike, how difficult it is, how much it hurts (if at all). Then, once I have a day where it feels significantly easier, I’ll bump the weight up slightly (5-10lbs) and start over.

[quote]AMIRisSQUAT wrote:
I see what you’re saying there coach.

What Im understanding is this.
I had my own theory for maximal frequency per week being the number of strength qualities one trained per week. Train two strength qualities per week? Expose all your movements to the loading parameters needed to enhance those specifric strength qualities and the more advanced a trainee the more strength qualities he would train (you mentioned to me once before that 4-5 may be the upper limit) the higher his freqeuncy and subsequent volume would be.

Ive been bugging out when it comes to a lack of emphasis here on T-Nation about a larger plan of progression. Which I think CW is trying to change, first he wanted everyone to train twice a week then thrice then four times etc etc.

Do you CS, think that maybe like different mesocycles have different strength qualities emphasized that maybe they also need to emphasize different progression patterns that would correlate well with the strength quality being focused upon? So in this way even progression pattern emphasis would change from mesocycle to mesocycle?

Thanks for all your time CS, I know how busy you are and your free time is GREATLY appreciated.

Amir

Charles Staley wrote:
Well honestly, here’s my take: the body can stall out when exposed to monotonous progression stragies, just like it can habituate to monotonous loading parameters and exercise menus. So use all the strategies that we’ll discuss here tonight.

Another observation I’ve had for a while now is that beginners can make very fast progress with respect to absolute load progressions early on, but all good things always come to an end, so then most people start looking more at volume-based progression once their PR’s in 1RM’s start slowing down.

Once you start slowing down with intensity and volume-based progression strategies, you still have a third strategy, which many people sadly never gravitate to: density.

AMIRisSQUAT wrote:
Thanks Coach Staley! Now can you answer your own questions? I’d really like to know what your thoughts are on those three major questions.

And CT, if you dont mind, would you also like to add anything to CS’s replies to questions?

Thanks guys!

Thread is already looking awesome.

Amir

[/quote]

Christian’s response is pure gold, so I don’t have much to add except this:

Who says that progression has to be linear? In other words, why does one need to utilize identical loading parameters from week to week in order to best gauge progress? Obviously, an experienced lifter should always seek to push the envelope in terms of resistance utilized in order to provide a continued training effect. However, there is often a time when it’s best to drop the weight and leave a few reps in the hole in order to allow for progress. In my programming, what I call the “adjusted volume-intensity score” fluctuates every week. I find that most people make the best progress with the following approach:

Week 1: High (introductory loading - learn the movements)

Week 2: Medium (push the weights)

Week 3: Very High (this should kick their ass completely - usually maintain or slightly increase the weights and markedly increase volume)

Week 4: Backoff week

Here’s a sample loading scheme for a recent program I wrote:

Decline Close Grip Bench Press

Week 1: Work up to a 3RM over 5 sets
Week 2: Take a 1RM
Week 3: 7x3 at 93% of the 3RM attained previously
Week 4: 3x3 with a 5-6RM load, focusing on maximal acceleration

I’ll often change exercises as well, especially in more advanced athletes.

[quote]Charles Staley wrote:

  1. WHEN do I progress? Every set? Every workout? Every week?

  2. HOW can I progress? By adding weight? By adding reps? Adding sets? Decreaing rest? Using more range of motion?

  3. How LARGE of a progression should I take? Small increase in stress? Medium? Large?

Well, I guess that was about a dozen questions, and you’ll no doubt have your own. So go ahead and post them here, and us “guru” types will respond to them during Prime Time tonight…[/quote]

It can be better from an arousal/concentration perspective. When rests are short, you don’t have time to fall “off-task.”

Also, if you’re neurologically “average” (and by definition, that means most of us!), we need the neural drive more than we need the rest. If you rest too long, you lose neural drive? not good if you’re average. If you’re a neural stud on the other hand, when you maximally exert yourself, you’re getting a LOT more out of your true potential than us average guys do…therefore, you need a longer rest.

Make sense?

[quote]MikeTheBear wrote:
What exactly are the advantages of increasing training density? Muscular endurance has been mentioned as one, in addition to muscular growth. What about strength? Why would doining 15 singles at 85% 1RM performed with one minute of rest between sets be better than 5x3 with 2-3 minutes between sets?[/quote]

You could, but out of respect for the specificity principle, you’d want to wind that kind of stuff down as a meet approaches. So don’t use this stuff as “meat and potatoes” lifts; use it as the side dish.

And why am I always using food analogies…? Hmm…

[quote]general_lfl wrote:
Coach Staley,

You recently outlined a workout where explosive push-ups and pistols alternating sets of 5 for 15 minutes. I am a powelifter and I am always looking for extra workout ideas. Could I use this program as an extra workout? Or would you recommend something else?[/quote]

Nice way to take these concepts and make them practical!

[quote]Eric Cressey wrote:

Who says that progression has to be linear?
[/quote]

I’d like to add, and this is in accordance with what Charles stated earlier, that progression cannot be planned in the pure physiological sense.

I do not mean that we cannot plan our training in advance, but that it’s impossible to know exactly when will an athlete be ready to take it a notch higher.

This is why coaching is both an art and a science!!!

Not to mention that progression cannot be unilateral … meaning that you can’t expect to constantly go forward. At some point you may need to take a step back to be able to walk three steps forward.

Periodization is a good thing. However “sheet of paper periodization” isn’t! I know coaches who plan the training of their athletes a year in advance… I’m not talking about defining general goals and broad training cycles. But complete sessions 52 weeks in advance!!! How can these coaches know:

a) what their athlete will need at any specific point in time. For example, after 3 months of training, the coach might find that the hamstrings are too weak and out of whack with the rest of the posterior chain… what does he do? Change his sessions? Keep the same plan? And if he changes the sessions, how does that affect the subsequent phases of training?

b) the “life situations” athletes might face. For example an athlete might become sick for a week. Where do we pick up? The week before the one he missed? The week he missed? The week he should be based on his planned schedule?

c) Unexpected good physical preparedness. What if an athlete walks in the gym feeling like he could destroy the universe? That he is strong as a bull ready to break some PR … BUT alas … the plan calls for 2 weeks of transition. Are we to miss the chance to take a step forward just because the plan doesn’t call for it? The opposite is also true … what if a hard session is planned, but the athlete for whatever reason is not in shape?

d)Progression. What if an athlete is gaining well on a certain exercise BUT the plan calls for a change. Do we go with the plan? Keep on using the effective exercise until it doesn’t work anymore?

e) Lack of progression. What if the athlete doesn’t progress as fast as the coach thought? For example, if a periodized training plan calls for 6 weeks of limit strength training, but after those 6 weeks the athlete hasn’t improved much. What do we do?

You see in my opinion one must have a general plan. But training regulation/adjustments is what separate the great plans from the “okay” ones.

Actually my head WAS about to explode.

Alrighty coach, thanks again, will analyze your responses again and apply!!

Thanks!

Amir

[quote]Charles Staley wrote:
Amir, at the risk of sounding dismissive, you’re at risk of developing PBA (Paralyis-By-Analysis) here! That said however, I suggest looking into gradual long term progression approaches, using all the strategies we’ve listed here. Mix them up and be creative. There is simply no hard science when it comes to these questions, so you’ll need to become a study of one.

In my own training as of late, I’m using the same weight, sets, reps, and rest interval several times in a row believe it or not. Each workout, I’m looking for a reduction of difficulty and control. So for example, I might clean 220 for 10x3 with 3 minutes of rest between sets, for maybe 3-5 workouts in a row. Over those 3-5 workouts, I’m trying to “learn” what 10x3 with 220 feels loike, how difficult it is, how much it hurts (if at all). Then, once I have a day where it feels significantly easier, I’ll bump the weight up slightly (5-10lbs) and start over.

AMIRisSQUAT wrote:
I see what you’re saying there coach.

What Im understanding is this.
I had my own theory for maximal frequency per week being the number of strength qualities one trained per week. Train two strength qualities per week? Expose all your movements to the loading parameters needed to enhance those specifric strength qualities and the more advanced a trainee the more strength qualities he would train (you mentioned to me once before that 4-5 may be the upper limit) the higher his freqeuncy and subsequent volume would be.

Ive been bugging out when it comes to a lack of emphasis here on T-Nation about a larger plan of progression. Which I think CW is trying to change, first he wanted everyone to train twice a week then thrice then four times etc etc.

Do you CS, think that maybe like different mesocycles have different strength qualities emphasized that maybe they also need to emphasize different progression patterns that would correlate well with the strength quality being focused upon? So in this way even progression pattern emphasis would change from mesocycle to mesocycle?

Thanks for all your time CS, I know how busy you are and your free time is GREATLY appreciated.

Amir

Charles Staley wrote:
Well honestly, here’s my take: the body can stall out when exposed to monotonous progression stragies, just like it can habituate to monotonous loading parameters and exercise menus. So use all the strategies that we’ll discuss here tonight.

Another observation I’ve had for a while now is that beginners can make very fast progress with respect to absolute load progressions early on, but all good things always come to an end, so then most people start looking more at volume-based progression once their PR’s in 1RM’s start slowing down.

Once you start slowing down with intensity and volume-based progression strategies, you still have a third strategy, which many people sadly never gravitate to: density.

AMIRisSQUAT wrote:
Thanks Coach Staley! Now can you answer your own questions? I’d really like to know what your thoughts are on those three major questions.

And CT, if you dont mind, would you also like to add anything to CS’s replies to questions?

Thanks guys!

Thread is already looking awesome.

Amir

[/quote]

One more thing …

I think that we need to differentiate progress and progression.

Progression is an increase in the difficulty of a training program (an increase in the training stress). As in the principle of progressive overload.

Progress is an improvement in the fitness/physical state of the athlete.

An athlete can progress (improve his capacities and/or structures) without having to resort to constant training progression.

The opposite is also true … progression doesn’t always lead to progress.