T Nation

Progressive Resistance Training

Why progressive resistance training stops working and what to do about it.

Most of the readers of this site whose primary goal is to develop strength in some way, shape or form have probably reached the point where simple progressive resistance training has stopped working. If that weren’t the case, we would not need to look for new programs or methods to tease the next 5-10 pounds out of our bench press. I, for one have certainly reached that point. Progressive resistance worked for a while and then stopped. I heard about Louie Simmons and tried most of the things he talked about and started getting results for a while. After a while, my progress stalled again and I drifted back into the “more is better” mentality: More speed box squats; more dynamic bench presses; 2-3 different max effort exercises done in the same day. Needless to say I ended up with a sore back, sore shoulders, sore wrists. I then started to evaluate why some things had worked when I started doing them and why they eventually stopped working. I came up with the model I am going to describe. I do not pretend to be very strong, but I have started making progress again and believe that with this model in mind, I should be able to take myself to my potential.

  1. What makes you strong is high FORCE contractions. Here I believe that the force that muscles are required to produce is the trigger for increasing the FORCE PRODUCING CAPABILITIES of a muscle. Now force is not strictly dependent on load. How much force do you exert on a 300 pound weight to raise it? Well, studies have shown that to reverse a 300 pound bench press touch an go, the average person exerts 330-360 pounds of force during a brief period of reversal, but less than 300 pounds through the rest of the range of motion-because you have already given the bar some MOMENTUM.

  2. Why Westside methods are wrong in theory but right in application. If you were to try to understand the Westside system by reading about it you would probably conclude that there are two training methods that make you strong: 1) Trying to lift a sub maximal weight as fast as possible (Dynamic Effort Method) and 2) Trying to move a maximal weight regardless of how slow the weight moves (Maximal Effort Method). If you buy into premise 1 that high force contractions are the trigger for increasing the force producing capabilities of a muscle, the Westside model has some theoretical problems. First, the original recommendations for the Dynamic Effort Method were that you take 60% of your 1 rep raw max and perform 8 sets of 3 reps on the bench press as fast as possible and with about 1 minute of rest between sets. Louie Simmons wrote that it should take approximately the same amount of time to perform the 3 rep dynamic effort set as to perform 1 maximal repetition: About 3 seconds. The problem with this theory is that if you performed 3 reps at 60%, pushing as fast as possible, you would have to complete the entire set in 1-1.5 seconds to produce the same AVERAGE force as with a maximal contraction. Why does this method then work? The reason in my opinion is that the peak force production during the brief period of reversal with a 60% maximal weight is much greater than with 100% max weights. In other words, the speed of the repetition does not matter; what matters is the ballistic reversal of the weight. In practice (and in honesty I have never watched a training session from Westside, I am rather assuming that Louie Simmons has presented an accurate picture of his training practices in his many excellent articles) the Westside lifters practice a ballistic reversal of the weight-literally catching the weight and violently reversing it. What happens after the first 0.1 seconds or so in my opinion is inconsequential. What about Max Effort workouts and box squats? This brings me to my next premise.

  3. We all have different self protective reflex set points. In the beginning stages of progressive resistance training, our reflexes adapt to regular loading. Our muscles get stronger from the weights we lift and our tendons adapt along with them so that we continue to produce contractions with enough force to make our muscles stronger. At some point, our strength has out gained the adaptations of the tendons so that the tendons kick in their protective mechanisms before we can produce enough force voluntarily to cause strength gains. Someone like Ed Coan must have a very high set reflexive set point which allows him to produce effective contractions voluntarily using regular repetitions only. For most people, the case is different. For an typical trainee who has plateaued at say a 300 pound bench press, the problem is that to reverse 300 pounds they may produce 330-360 pounds of force. The problem is, they need to produce more: say 380-400 pounds of force. Their reflexes sense when the tension in the muscle rises to a certain level: say 360 pounds and inhibits the contraction from going even higher. This lifter will never produce enough force using regular repetitions to trigger further adaptations in the force producing capacity or a muscle. The key here is that:

  4. FAST APPLICATION of high force temporarily circumvents the protective reflexive mechanism. It takes some time for the reflexive mechanism to kick in and tell the muscle to let up on the tension. If one can get the force production of a muscle up to the level needed to trigger increases in force producing capabilities before the tendon reflexes can put a lid on tension, one can get an effective strength producing contraction. Voluntarily, muscle tension builds slowly, and the tendons are right there to shut em down when a certain tension is reached. Box squats break the eccentric-concentric chain. By relaxing the muscles briefly, the tendons also recoil to normal length. By rapidly flexing off of the box, the muscles can then reach the critical level before the tendons have stretched to the point that the kick in. The ME workouts done by Westside lifters have also developed to take advantage of this. It was originally presented that in the ME workout, you should choose an exercise similar to the main lift but which focused on the weak point in your range of motion. Now, it appears from my reading, that Westside lifters use almost exclusively broken eccentric-concentric chain movements on their ME day: Board presses and floor presses with a brief pause and chain supported goodmornings. Ballistic goodmornings would also suppress the protective tendon reflexes.

  5. Doubled over bands are the only progressive way to consistently bypass protective tendon reflexes. The time tested way of tricking the muscle into contracting fast enough to temporarily bypass the inhibitory tendon reflexes (and also to take advantage of excitatory tendon reflexes) is to increase the downward speed and acceleration of a weight before reversal. Raw weights, no matter what the load can only accelerated downward at 1 G, maybe a little more if you actively pull them down. Bands are the only mechanism that actually increases the downward ACCELERATION and also therefore SPEED of the bar. This is because all objects fall at the same rate. One weight that is twice as heavy as another has twice as much force pulling it down, but it also has twice as much RESISTANCE TO ACCELERATION and so it still falls with the same acceleration. When bands are added, the downward force is increased, but the resistance to downward acceleration that the weight has stays the same. Doubled bands can be increased progressively to match long term increases in strength. I also believe that the reflex set point rises with this type of training so that the tendons can be pushed to a higher threshold before they inhibit contraction. Also, I believe that this method of training will thicken the tendons, making them less deformable and therefore less prone to signal an inhibitory reflex. Finally, I believe that the use of bands can extend the period of maximal contraction by eliciting an extended excitatory response from the tendons.

Tell me: Full of crap? Any examples that support or refute this model? True/False: I should spend more time working out and less time writing dissertations.

By the way, Jim Parrish (Joe average) has pioneered the REGULAR use of doubled resistance bands. I do not purport to specifically represent his views.

thanks for putting so much thought into this. I have no idea as to the merits of your arguments but they are food for thought- worth considering and may affect my understanding over time.
Anyone else want to weigh in on this one?

IMO the main reasons that westside works are

  1. Dynamic Effort = Lot’s of Perfect Practice

  2. Max Effort = Increasing Neural Drive

  3. Supplemental Work = Fixing what is Weak

The third one I believe is the most important but most overlooked part of the program. If your’e squat is not going up, trying to squat more weight will NOT help! That is what Louie means by progressive resistance not working. Bring up your weak points-and it is not your damn quads!!!

My Squat was recently stalled. Someone noted that my upper back was the weak point. So for the next month I did upper back work nearly every session-and BAM (thanks Emeril)- my Squat shot up 50 lbs! The real problem is in identifying YOUR weakness.

Thanks for taking the time Major Dan. I wanted to also give some examples of well known training phenomena which make sense with this model:

  1. Russian olympic weightlifting has shifted over the years with experiment to the point where today, their model consists almost exclusively of FAST TENDON LOADING exercises: Different types of rack pulls, hang pulls and pulls off of boxes. All of these involve a situation in which the tendon remains unloaded right up to the instant of muscular contraction. This gives them a brief instant to get the muscle up to an adaptive level of force before the reflexes slow things down, but they have to do the different partial range movements because with the full movements, the reflexes have kicked in after only a short while.

  2. Poloquin was big on avoiding the stretch reflex to make the muscle work harder. This method never made me stronger, and what we have been hearing on T-mag for a while now is to forget about tempo. I realized that Poloquin was dealing primarily with athletes who engage in plyometric type actions on a daily basis. Their tendons are already developed and adapted beyond the level of their muscles, so their approach SHOULD focus on making the muscle work harder.

  3. The most outstanding bodybuilders always included big power type movements in their training, often before their strict hypertrophy training. Arnold benched 455 x 13, Franco Deadlifted 700+ for reps, Coleman does about half of his work on big HEAVY compound exercises, as did Yates. Haney’s basic training philosophy was to couple an explosive exercise with a strict, squeezing type of exercise such as powerfull rows followed by strict pulldowns. Higher reps is still key for hypertrophy, but by building strength and tendons along with muscles, and by priming the nervous system with heavy exercises first, you can trigger hypertrophy with fewer reps and sets.

There are other examples such as why individuals training for balance improve their balance dramatically in a very short time frame, and why compound exercises are NECESSARY for strength gains, because of synergistic excitation, as well as the fact that the weight is literally forced upon some muscles-again bypassing normal reflexive defenses.

Oh, and especially why regularly changing exercise selection and rep schemes works (for a while). The defense mechanisms have not been specifically trained to protect you against a particular movement pattern or a particular load/force combination.

[quote]pitt wrote:
IMO the main reasons that westside works are

  1. Dynamic Effort = Lot’s of Perfect Practice

  2. Max Effort = Increasing Neural Drive

  3. Supplemental Work = Fixing what is Weak

The third one I believe is the most important but most overlooked part of the program. If your’e squat is not going up, trying to squat more weight will NOT help! That is what Louie means by progressive resistance not working. Bring up your weak points-and it is not your damn quads!!!


I would throw in GPP/recovery work as a Westside innovation. I had never heard anyone talk about that before I read the Simmons articles 3 years ago.

But as for the other three:

  1. Prefect practice? A) Don’t they do their dynamic work raw? Lately I have heard a lot about people improving by practicing using the shirt and suit. B) Simmons says that most Westside lifters use a “catch and go” technique for dynamic benches. Is this perfect practice?
    C) I’ve known a lot of people go from a good box squat to a crappy non-box squat (Lifting raw). With a suit to catch you, I’m sure its different.

  2. Max effort for neural drive. Wouldn’t you agree that most of their max effort work either invloves a powerful REVERSAL, or a movement from static-dynamic or relaxed-flexed?

  3. Supplemental work on weak points: no question here except that isn’t most of this work designed around building HYPERTROPHY in weak muscles which can then be made stronger using other techniques?

I am simply throwing out there that the reason you don’t get stronger in the squat by suatting (aside from weak links) is that your nervous system just doesn’t let you flex hard enough voluntarily to cause strength increases with normal loading. You have to bypass this self protective mechanism somehow. Also, look at the Circa Maximal training. Lots of heavy doubled bands, along with free weight.

I fully agree with you mertdawg about the hypertrophy having to be trasferred neurologically. That is what I meant by “perfect practice”. Most powerlifters training traditionaly don’t get that much “practice”, and when they do it is heavy and the form breaks down. The dynamic effort gets around this.

I still have a hard time with their “shock plyo’s” and catch style. I compete in strongman and my training is almost completely starting strength. The stretch reflex does work pretty well-but not if you get sloppy. Good equipment will “catch” the weight-Strongman does not have this advantage.

The way that westside does their ME work-focusing so much on good mornings, deep box squats, and other chaos training helps carry their box work over into real meet squatting. I have seen the westside guys compete-yeah they post great numbers, but they bomb a lot too. Metal Militia trains a great deal with their equipment and seem to do better in meets consistently. Just an observation.

this one

Interesting ideas Mertdawg!

I think that you might be missing some information on the speed component of Dynamic effort work that Westside is so well known for. I thought Zatsiorsky explained it very well in ?Science and Practice of Strength Training? which Louie has recommended on a couple of occasions. Check out Chapter 2. The Readers Digest version follows.

Speed Work, as developed on the DE day has two very different modes of action. The first is simply to get to the maximal force of the contraction as rapidly as possible. The degree of contraction of a muscle, and consequently the total amount of force generated by that muscle, gradually increases over a period of time. IIRC it takes approximately 0.6 sec for a trained individual to reach maximal force. Untrained individuals take longer. The slower you apply force to the bar, the longer you have to spend under it, and the more chance you have of getting stapled at the bottom.

The next important mode of action is to impart as much energy to the weight as you can where you are the strongest, and the gear is helping you the most. This is at the bottom of the lift (well at least for us bench-specialists). Sticking points are simply places where our ability to place force on the bar are below the force gravity is applying, while those ?sweet spots? are places where we can apply substantially more force than the weight. Remember that so long as the average force on the bar is above the gravitational force on the bar, and the bar speed never goes below zero, you can apply the force in any manner at all. This easiest to show with an example:

Lets take a bar of 260kg, and a bench stroke of 0.20m. Acceleration due to gravity is 9.81 m/s2 so we have a downward force of 2550 Newtons (Mass x acceleration), and a total work required of (Force x distance) of 510 Nm. So if we were a machine we could apply 2550.1 N of force and the bar would smoothly, but slowly rise. If the machine had a point where it could only apply 2549 N, the bar would stick. A small nudge would get it through the stick and the machine would lock out. However we are not machines, well there is Garry Frank but he?s an exception, and so we put a varying force on the bar. If we were strong enough (and could contract our muscles instantly!) to apply 25500 N to the bar we would only have to push the bar for 0.02m and the resulting speed would drive the bar all the way to lockout. While nobody is going to start generating forces on those levels, you can see how advantageous it would be to start out as fast as possible.

So if you have a shirt on, and can drive the weight faster at any point, form a physics point of view you should. In essence you are saving up energy that you can spend later to get you out of a sticking point.

Sadly the real world is not a physics experiment, and there can be some drawbacks to benching fast. Notably if you use a Metal Militia style (Low touches angled to a lockout over your eyes.). Rapidly moving the weight on an angle is a quick way to end up crashing into the racks, and red lights. This is another reason why you see all of the Westside lifters benching straight up.

I don’t want to slow down the intellectual debate, but would you mind spelling things out a bit so idiots like me can keep up.