Understanding What Makes you Progress


What you're getting yourself into - 1843 Words
Estimated Read Time - 15 minutes
Level of Technicality - Moderate

Do not assume; assess.
— Coach Steve


Anyone who has been lifting for a good amount of time and read some literature on the subject has a basic understanding of tracking volume and intensity and it’s (generally) inverse relationship (Volume goes up, intensity goes down and vis versa). I’m going to assume you have a book where you track your progress or some sort of log. More often than not when you hit a wall and plateau you may look back at that program that got you so strong in X lift and think to yourself maybe you should just go back to repeating it. Repeating programs rarely has the same affect but by adding a little to an existing one that has worked can do the trick. In this post i’m going to dig past the superficial surface of the intensity and volume discussion and talk more broadly about not just measuring metrics but attempting to understand and identify the metrics that contributed to greater success in any lift, as well as how you can add to an existing program.


The first thing I want to say is that there are many variables to progress. Some are more quantifiable than others. Certainly you can track things like sleep, food, volume, rest periods, etc but some things, although slightly trackable are more ambiguous such as quality of sleep, stress, sympathetic nervous system recovery and so on. We will be focusing our attention on the things we are capable, without, or at least to a minimum doubt track; such as but not limited to: volume, intensity, number of sets and reps, variation lifts and accessories.


The Right Tool for the Right Job


Before I delve into some simple ways you can make sense of the data you have gathered from training or are going to track in order to monitor and evaluate progress I will be assuming you have a basic understanding of trackable metrics and how to gather them along with the basic principles in the discipline of periodisation. I will not be covering concepts such as phase potentiation, accumulation passes, etc but be specifically honing into the metrics that each phase, block, microcycle and so on is aiming to achieve. So for example, if your goal is to monitor hypertrophy getting a DEXA scan or taking measurements before and after a period of training would be paramount to confirming what you are doing is working; your body weight is insufficient evidence to warrant you are getting the best possible response from a critical standpoint. After confirming positive results you would then track back through the metrics that got you there. You would then repeat the experiment and isolate a single variable to manipulate (or run your program again after tweaking or adding). If this sounds time consuming you would be right, and there is indeed much trial and error. Such is the cost of finding what your body and its individual needs respond to best. If you are a coach the process is the same but you have the benefit of an objective point of view for your athlete.


Isolate and Eliminate

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own”
— Bruce Lee

One of the most difficult things about epidemiological studies (population based studies) is the fact that too many variables can confuse the results and the margin for misinterpretation of results is high. That is why after a correlation has been established there is a further process of more well controlled studies where variables that existed prior are eliminated and everything that can be controlled, is controlled so that correlation can be confirmed as causation or dismissed. In other words; if there is too much shit you are tracking and changing you will never know what works and what doesn’t.


What this means for anyone looking to test a variable is pretty simple. Pick one that you want to isolate. If you think adding more working sets on days that you are training bench increase your bench then add a set or more for the training block and absolutely nothing else. Otherwise you risk confounding your answer and not knowing whether doing 4 sets of 6 repetitions gave you a better response than 3 sets of 6. If you manipulate too much you will have no idea what has worked; it’s that simple. I cannot emphasise this enough; pick one thing to change in a training program that has previously worked for you and see if it gives you a better result.


Simple Models

I cannot emphasise this enough; pick one thing to change in a training program that has previously worked for you and see if it gives you a better result.


A simple model you can follow could be increasing overall volume by increasing sets performed. I prefer adding sets so that form can be more easily adhered to as sometimes adding a single rep going from a 5 to a 6 repetition scheme can have more detrimental affects on form than adding an extra set of 5. In addition an extra set actually adds more volume overall than repetitions typically, unless you are doing 10 sets of 3, in which case repetitions would add more volume.


A practical example would be to take 3 x 5 @ 100kg (for example) and turn it into 4 x 5 @ 100kg. That’s 500kg more each session. If you do this let’s say twice a week, thats a total of 1000kg or 1 tonne of extra volume. Multiply that now by 6 weeks and thats 6 extra tonnes of work on that lift. At first adding an extra set may not seem much but it can drastically change the amount of workload you do in a week, month and training cycle. That is a simplistic metric to monitor, possibly the most simplistic. Be warned however; simply throwing more volume at something does not necessitate progress and sometimes is actually counter productive to progress altogether. Do not assume; assess.


You could go a step further and add frequency without changing sets or intensity. Adding another day of training for a given lift may have the same overall result in volume but can give you a very different response. This is where complex models can come into play.


Complex Models


This deserves it’s own post, but I will give you a concise example this time and expand on it another time in greater detail. Manipulating variables or a single variable in an undulating or rotating pattern can and has worked very well. There are several ways you can go about doing this. Take a look at the table below and I’ll explain. 

Click to Enlarge


As you can see through this table there are many variables you can tinker with or rotate through. You can rotate volume weekly and see if that makes a difference. Rotate intensity weekly for the block, rotate total sets; increase average sets for the week by adding a set on a heavy or light day, alter set to rep ratio, increase the percentage of work coming from variation lifts like rack pulls or wide stance squats. To say the list of things you can change and measure is a lot would be an understatement but in my experience most people and coaches don’t even consider these variables worth measuring. It seems by focusing purely on the amount of weight you use in working sets everyone has forgotten how to manipulate, measure and assess other variables that influence absolute strength. 


You may be thinking; what happened to changing only one thing? If you have a measure of strength you can base the variable(s) you are manipulating over a training cycle you can do this. So for example using an AMRAP (As many reps as possible) every other week or month to determine progress if you are rotating variables to find out what works best. Think of this method more like the population based studies I mentioned. You have an idea what is working but the theory would need further testing.


A Real World Example

I currently train the 10th ranked female in Australia for the 63kg junior division (Brenda), soon to be in opens. She has deadlifted 180kg in official competition at a bodyweight of 61kg and is currently on track to pull 200kg by June this year (2017). When she first came to me she was gifted with the leverages for the conventional deadlift and could deadlift 130kg for a max at the time. Just short of one year later she deadlifted that 180kg. 


I am giving you this extreme example because I want to give you an insight into how she went from 130kg to 180kg in a year using what I have mentioned above. Careful planning and individual analysis as well as hard, hard work got her there, not just genetics as most people tend to think. Eventually I will illustrate a step by step guide of how to quantify and assess what variables will impact your strength in a given lift and how to, from a general stand point incorporate these steps into a workable program. This post would be a very large one if that were the case. Instead I will give you an idea of what went into her training variables leading up to that 180kg pull; what variables I monitored and what I learned about her individual abilities and limitations. 


Click to Enlarge

The graph above tells a story. You see in Brenda’s program I had placed AMRAPs strategically into every other week and rack pulls into every other week up until the 7th week where rack pulls became a staple in her training protocol.


What I learned about Brenda during this 12 week period was invaluable from a coaching perspective. On average she could pull in her AMRAPs 3.4 reps more than what her projected 1RM would be, even with 80-85% (in other words she could pull 8 reps with something she should technically only be able to pull for 5 reps with based on her final 1RM), in addition the biggest impact on her deadlift was the amount she could rack pull. As her rack pull from below the knee went up it was a guaranteed transfer to her deadlift 1RM. The discrepancy between her 1RM for a rack pull and her deadlift 1RM was approximately 10kg. I also learned that adding accessories like RDLs (Romanian Deadlifts) after her main work sets helped her positioning and setup in her conventional deadlift but deficit deadlifts were useless for her and would mess her position up in a regular deadlift.


After this 12 week protocol she pulled 170kg, a 10kg PB; but the real gem was I had learned so much from the variables I was measuring and rotating that after her deload I made a 6 week peaking program based on what I had learned. She then went on to pull that 180kg deadlift in competition with ease, taking gold and lifter of the day.


Brenda is not a special case. I do this with all my athletes and for good reason; it works. (My Instagram account has many but recently Marcel hit a 12.5kg PB on bench going from 127.5kg to 140kg in 7 weeks as another example) Monitoring progress over short, medium and long term programs gives you insight if you pay attention. If you think this only applies to lifting you would be mistaken. You can do the exact same thing with other athletic endeavours such as sprinting, throwing, etc. I’ve given you some basic yet extremely useful tools, now all you have to do is learn how to pay attention to what matters.



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