Secrets of Progression and Variation: the two principles of highly effective exercise programs by John Sifferman

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Old Time StrongmanDesigning effective strength training programs from scratch might seem complicated at first, not to mention a lot of work. But after reading this tutorial, you’ll understand how to change your workouts at just the right time in order to avoid plateaus and keep the results coming, week after week. All it takes is an understanding of two essential training tactics: progression and variety. By balancing both of these variables, you will achieve consistent, repeatable results over time. The trick is to stay on the same training program long enough to allow positive changes to occur, while changing your program often enough to avoid stalling or progress plateaus.

The 2 Principles Of highly Effective Exercise Programs:

Let’s begin by defining these important terms: progression and variation.

The principle of progression says that you must continually increase the magnitude of the training stimulus or intensity above that which you are accustomed to. This ensures that your results will continue to improve over time. Progression can be applied by changing your training frequency, number of exercises, difficulty of exercises, number of sets, or any combination of the above. The most frequently used method of progression is to regularly increase the weight you lift on each exercise.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association handbook puts it this way: “Even the most effective and individualized program will not allow a client to meet his or her training goal unless the resistance training workouts provide a progressive stimulus.” (2004)

It’s pretty straight-forward: A program without progression is a program that doesn’t stimulate progress!

The principle of variation, on the other hand, is the process where you change something in your workout program to expose your body to an entirely new training stimulus. This can be done by altering exercise choice, frequency, load, volume, or rest periods. Having variation in a training program will ensure consistent performance improvements, lower the risks of over-use injuries and prevent overtraining, alleviate boredom, and help maintain training intensity.

As you can see, progression and variation are similar, but unique and it’s important to use both methods for optimal results.

Why Your Body Doesn’t Like To Change

Why can’t you just train really hard all the time for great results? Well, the human body is amenable to growth and change, but that doesn’t mean it won’t fight you all the way! While our bodies, at a cellular level, are very efficient at making positive (or negative) adaptations, it does not like changing. When you are trying to lose excess body fat, your body wants to keep it, and even put on more to “protect” itself. It works in the other direction as well: When you’re trying to build more muscle, your body will fight you just as hard.

On a physiological level, your body likes homeostasis. The fewer changes it has to make, the happier your body will be. Your job is to shock your body with a new or progressively more difficult training stimulus, to “force it” it to change.

When you’re training, you’re literally forcing your body to respond in order to prepare itself to handle the new stress or heavier workload in the future. All of a sudden, your body feels as though its homeostasis is being threatened and it “panics” and adapts to the training stress as a way of trying to restore equilibrium. As a result, this may improve your nervous system efficiency, increase VO2 Max, strengthen tendons, ligaments, and muscles, increase muscle size, or a combination of these factors.

In a sense, variation and progression are ways to “trick the body” before it figures out what you’re up to. You have to look at this as a never ending process because as your body continues to adapt, your body becomes more efficient at the tasks you’re asking it to perform. You’ll get the best results by timing this precisely so that you never stall in progress or hit that dreaded training plateau.

Do You Know Your “Training Age?”

How many years you have been training is called your “training age.” This is not to be confused with your chronological age. Unless you were born with a barbell in hand, chronological and training age will be different! For example, if you are 30 years old and you started training when you were 20, your training age is 10 years, and that makes you an advanced trainee. Your training age has a major impact how quickly you progress and how frequently you’ll need to change your program. In most cases, the higher your training age, the more often you’ll have to change your programs.

Usually, people who are fairly new to training will get results very quickly and also be able to use the same workout program longer before hitting a plateau. If you’ve been training consistently for less than a year, then you fall into this beginner category. If you’re a beginner, it’s generally safe to assume that you can stick with the same program (with little variation) for 12 weeks, sometimes even longer.

Intermediate (1-2 years of consistent training experience) and advanced (3+ years) trainees, on the other hand, will not progress as quickly and may need to change their training programs much more often than beginners.

I have found 6-8 weeks to be a golden time for changing an intermediate athlete’s program. Sometimes, advanced athletes will have to change their program as often as every 3-4 weeks to elicit adaptations, with minor changes on a weekly basis!

The next question is, what specifically should you change?

7 Ways to Make Progress With Strategic Variation

1. Increase poundage:

Increasing the weight you’re lifting is the most common method of progression. For example, if you squatted with 135 pounds for 12 repetitions last week and put up 140 for 12 repetitions this week, you’ve created an overload and forced your body to work harder. That means increased strength and muscle growth.

2. Increase training density:

Doing more work in less time is also a great way to progress. This is easily accomplished by shortening your rest periods, which forces your body to work harder and recruit more muscle fibers (due to the accumulation of fatigue). Charles Staley is famous for promoting this training method, calling it Escalating Density Training (EDT).

3. Increase training volume:

The simplest way to do more work is to do more work! Simply add more sets or reps to your training session. For example, on one week you might perform 4 sets for a certain exercise then bump it to 5 on week two and 6 on week three. While this method can be highly effective, you have to be careful not to overdo it as it can lead to overtraining. Increasing volume only works up to a point. You can also increase your repetitions. For example, if you did 135 for 10 repetitions last week this week you do 135 for 12 repetitions, you’ve increased your training volume and achieved a progressive overload.

4. Use special training techniques:

Certain training methods such as drop sets, supersets, complexes and circuit sets are additional ways of making your body work harder. These methods can be highly effective although they should not be overused, due to the tremendous stress they can place on the nervous system, joints, and muscles, which can easily lead to overtraining.

5. Increase the intensity of your resistance training:

Percentage of intensity is a way of expressing how much of your one-rep maximum (1RM) you are capable of lifting. Instead of just adding more weight to the bar, or picking up a larger dumbbell after a week, you can base your weight increases using the principle of intensity.

Below you will see a chart detailing intensity. More specifically, it shows you how many reps you should be able to perform with a given percentage of your 1RM (Note: these numbers are estimations, because differences in your dominant muscle fiber type can influence the number of reps you can perform at a given percent of one RM. This chart provides an excellent general guideline, however).

% of 1RM

Estimated Number of Repetitions That Can Be Performed

100

1

95

2

93

3

90

4

87

5

85

6

83

7

80

8

77

9

75

10

67

12

65

15

6. Increasing the time under tension:

For most people, precise tempo recommendations are not essential to progress, they’re more like icing on the cake. In fact, sometimes, concentrating too much on tempo can even distract you from using perfect technique or optimal intensity. Nevertheless, when your muscles are under constant tension for a longer period of time (45-70 seconds per set) it’s generally believed that greater hypertrophy will occur. The easiest way to increase time under tension is to lower the weight slowly, while maximally contracting the muscles the entire way down and eliminating pauses between repetitions.

7. Use more challenging exercises:

Simply changing your exercises is often enough to provide a progressive overload. For example, moving from machine exercises to more complex and technique-oriented free weight or even bodyweight exercises can add a new level of challenge. You can also trade out some of your isolation exercises for compound/multi-joint movements. This will make your body work harder due to the intramuscular coordination factor.

One of the people who has greatly influenced my own training philosophy is Coach Scott Sonnon, founder of RMAX, who strongly endorses the idea of continually “sophisticating” your movements.

Squat thrusters, which is the combination of a front squat and an overhead press done simultaneously, are a good example of sophisticating movement. Basically, you are taking two movements and “chaining” them together. Some trainers call these “hybrid” exercises. Once you understand this concept, the possibilities for variation are limitless.

A change of exercise can sometimes be a form of progression, if the exercise is more difficult. Other times, a change of exercise is a form of variation if the exercise is simply different, but not necessarily more difficult. Either way, you can benefit. For example, instead of doing pushups, you can switch to doing flat bench presses with a barbell. When it’s time to vary your training again, you can do flat bench press with dumbbells. Later on, you can replace this with incline or decline presses. You can even attach resistance bands to the barbell and the bottom of the bench to work on explosive acceleration (speed training). Adding chains to the barbell is another way to vary this simple exercise.

As you can see, there are many ways to add variety to your training program and these seven techniques are only a handful of the many methods you have at your disposal. The key is waiting long enough with one variation to allow your body to adapt and progress before switching training variables again.

Periodization: Fact or Fiction

I like Mel Siff’s definition of periodization in his book Facts and Fallacies of Fitness. Siff wrote, “Periodization refers to the long-term planning or, cycling, of a series of training sessions to enable an athlete to reach peak form on specific occasions. It involves appropriate prescription of factors including the content, load, intensity, and volume of training for each microcycle (typically, a period of about a week), mesocycle (a period of a few weeks or months), and macrocycle (typically a period of about a year or more. It requires careful integration of supplementary conditioning activities, such as weight training or ‘cross training,’ into the weekly, monthly, or annual sports practice programme.” (2002)

Some coaches swear by it, others think it’s just another fad fitness program. I think good coaches from either viewpoint can get great results. I suggest you think of this as a way of optimally preparing to peak for an athletic event or body composition goal that is six months to a year away. You’ll notice that this sounds a lot like what we’ve already been talking about, and the word integration (from Siff’s definition) sticks out in my mind.

Methods will change, but principles will stay the same. Periodization is simply a systematized way of integrating tried-and-true training principles (like progression and variation) to reach a specific goal. You do not need a perfect, systematized periodization program to succeed. You do need to utilize the training principles of specificity, overload, and progression. You also need adequate intensity and the variation in your program to prevent a plateau.

Below you will see a simple example of a periodized strength training routine. Very simply, it is a series of phases you will pass through over a five week period, in which various training parameters are changed on a weekly basis.

Week #:

Sets/Reps per exercise:

% one-rep maximum:

Frequency per week:

Description:

Week 1

3×12

67% 1RM

3 sessions

Base conditioning week

Week 2

4×10

75% 1RM

4 sessions

Increase volume

Week 3

5×6-8

80-85% 1RM

3 sessions

Increase intensity

Week 4

10, 8, 8, 10, 8, 8

65-67% 1RM

3 sessions

*Wave loading intensity

Week 5

2×12-15

65-67% 1RM

2 sessions

Back-off week

*Wave loading is a strength training technique that involves the rising and falling of poundage from set to set, thus requiring a change in repetitions each set. Wave loading is usually performed to accelerate your strength development, increase your explosiveness, and increase your work capacity.

Summary

There are many ways to add variation into your training program. You could follow a strict periodization program, or you could select group of exercises that never change, only making occasional variations in sets, reps, tempo, rest intervals, load or other variables. You can adjust the sets and reps to do more work or a higher intensity of work in order to achieve a different training effect.

For certain goals, you can even switch training programs completely every 6-8 weeks in order to keep the body guessing. Bodybuilders sometimes call this the “muscle confusion principle” and many people choose this option for simplicity’s sake. Just doing movements from a different angle (incline press, instead of flat bench press) or with a different training tool (dumbbells instead of barbell) may be enough to elicit positive adaptation.

By using the principles of progression and variation, you have a huge set of tools at your disposal for ensuring that your progress keeps on coming. Listen to your body, and if you’re feeling bored with your training program, or stressed out before hitting the weights, it may be time to reevaluate your training program and make some changes. If you’ve gone 8-12 weeks without making any changes except for increasing weight, it is definitely time to modify your program — and remember about training age; if you’ve been training for many years, you may need to change something in your routines every few weeks!

Designing workout programs doesn’t have to be complicated. Should it ever start to seem confusing, forget about trying to get it perfect and just trust your intuition. There may be occasions where your workout program needs a total overhaul. But sometimes, all it takes to achieve a new spurt of progress is just the slightest change or the smallest new challenge.

References

Earle, Roger; Baechle, Thomas. NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training: National Strength and Conditioning Association. Human Kinetics: Champagne, IL (page 383) 2004.
Siff, Mel. Facts and Fallacies of Fitness. Denver, CO. (page 135). 2002.

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