Progression Variables – It’s what all the cool kids are talking about.

Based on some conversations that I’ve had recently with several different clients I decided to make a fairly comprehensive list of methods of progression. Oftentimes, athletes or other clients have trouble coming to terms with what they perceive to be a lack of progression in their physical development. This is especially prevalent as they progress and reach higher levels of strength and fitness. As with most things in life, the better you get at something, the smaller the relative improvements are. While this is sometimes a matter of perspective, or lack thereof, it can also be a simple lack of understanding of the scope and/or complexity of possible variables. Included below is a list of variables that can be used to monitor progression in most training modalities. I will try to provide some practical examples of each variable as well.

  • Increase static load – This is probably the most common form of progression. Put more weight on the bar.
  • Increase repetitions – This is pretty straight forward. Do more reps than before.
  • Increase sets – This one is also easy. Do more sets than before.
  • Increase frequency – This variable can be a little more complex but works best when considering how to improve a major movement pattern  or a specific muscle that is weak rather than as an overall strategy for long term progression. To increase frequency, you would simply train a movement or muscle more times within a cycle than you had in previous cycles. This  may mean bench pressing 3x/week rather than 2x/week or doing daily hamstring curls.
  • Increase dynamic load – If you are employing accommodating resistance (bands/chains/weight releasers), you could add more resistance in the form of more chains, thicker bands, or more weight to be released
  • Decrease rest period – Take shorter breaks between sets. This is an increase in training density.
  • Decrease overall work period – This is actually a combination of several of the listed variables but also can stand alone in certain cases. By decreasing the overall work period, you are also increasing training density. Remember that for all of these, all other variables are kept static.
  • Decrease stability – Since most exercises exist on a force-stability continuum, decreasing the stability represents a positive adaptation to training. This is not one that I recommend modifying very much unless you are fairly advanced in your training knowledge. There are a lot of physiological changes that occur when removing stability in terms of tendon compliance and both afferent/efferent nervous communication. But if you squat a certain weight with a very stiff bar and then complete the same feat with a much “whippier” bar, you can count that as progress.
  • Increase average velocity – Simply move the weight faster.
  • Increase acceleration or rate of force development (RFD) – Again, move the weight faster  but in a specific way. By achieving peak velocity in shorter time or being more “explosive” with the weight, you can demonstrate progression. There are a number of other kinetic/kinematic variables that could be altered but for brevity’s sake, we’ll leave it at increasing velocity and acceleration for now.
  • Decrease body weight – Improving your strength-to-bodyweight ratio (relative strength) is critical for many athletes. It is highly correlated to speed, jumping ability, and agility which are probably the top three goals I hear from trainees. If you perform an exercise at a lower bodyweight than you previously had, this can be viewed as an improvement.
  • Increase ROM/distance – By increasing the distance that you move the resistance, you are increasing the amount of mechanical work performed. This can be accomplished in a number of way and is best suited for some exercises over others. Squatting to progressively lower boxes or deadlifting from a deficit are two of the most common ways that we manipulate this variable in the gym.
  • Increase mechanical disadvantage – This is kind of a tricky one and is related to the one above. While they may seem almost identical, there are some subtle differences. An example of this would be switching from regular to stiff leg deadlifts, adding or removing a box during squatting, benching with loose feet as opposed to a full setup, pausing in the hole of a squat or on the chest during a bench, etc. Basically, any mechanical change to the exercise which makes it more difficult can be viewed as progression.
  • Decrease excitement level – There is an important relationship between how athletes perform and their level of excitement which varies depending on the sport/activity. The optimal excitement level for performance in the weightroom varies from individual to individual but in, in general, pretty high. If you perform a lift without having to get as “pumped up”, this would indicate an improvement.
  • Decrease RPE – Rating of Perceived Exertion is a subjective, albeit well researched, variable. It basically describes how hard you perceive a lift to be. I think that this is a very important and often undervalued variable for intermediate and advanced lifters. What may have been your all-time PR is now your everyday or training max. Because you can’t continue to add volume and intensity in a linear fashion without suffering major setbacks, you should look to this as an indicator that your programming is still working for you. One top lifter who relies heavily on this variable is Mike Tuchscherer. You can read more about his ideas on programming here.
  • Improve form/control – I’ve you’ve ever been to a powerlifting meet or seen an athlete execute a true 1 rep max, you’ve likely seen some pretty rough form. If you can keep all the other variables constant and continue to improve the form, technique, and control throughout the lift, increases in the training process are occurring.

A few additional notes are important when considering this information.

First, not all of these work for every exercise. There are some that work better for certain movement patterns or muscle groups. It’s beyond the scope of this article to fully discuss the intricacies of which variables work best in which situations but feel free to experiment within reason.

Altering more than one variable at a time is pretty common but muddies the water. This is another area where a good coach becomes almost a necessity. Most programs use 4-5 of these variables in cyclical fashion to create undulating models of progression. The specific size and length of the waves is on place where the art and science of strength and conditioning are evident. If you are going to program for yourself, be sure to be mindful of how many variables you are changing within each micro-, meso-, and macro-cycle and the interrelationship between them.

If any of this doesn’t make sense, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to clarify.