Basic Strength Progressions
Updated: Jan 1, 2023
Performing warm-ups serves multiple purposes such as lubricating the joints, getting the core temperature, and working muscles warm and allows you to practice the movement before your work sets.
It’s important not to fatigue yourself too much during the warm-up otherwise your work sets will be compromised.
An inefficient warm-up for 3 x 5 @80kg on the bench press might look like this:
20kg x 20
40kg x 10
60kg x 8
70kg x 8
80kg x 3 x 5
The goal of the warm-up is to prime your body for the work sets therefore you should reduce the repetitions while increasing the load for your warm-up sets.
This is known as ramping-up.
Perform 2-5 ramp up sets before your main work set. Rest periods during this aren’t particularly important however a full rest period is required after your last ramp up set prior to your first work set.
Using the same example of 3 x 5 @80kg on the bench press, a better way to warm-up might look like this:
20kg x 10
40kg x 6
60kg x 4
70kg x 2
80kg x 3 x 5
You could do the same thing but reduce the reps to 8, 5, 3, 1 respectively.
Experiment and see what works best for you.
Typically speaking, the heavier the exercise is, the more ramp-up sets required. The lighter the exercise is, the less ramp-up sets required.
Squats and deadlifts will benefit from more ramp-up sets because these exercises utilise the heaviest loads.
Bench press and rows might only need 2-3 ramp-up sets.
The most important thing during ramp-up sets is to treat them as if they are your work weight.
Never just mindlessly pump through repetitions to get your warm-up over and done with.
Instead use the time to practice the movement with the same mindset, intensity and focus as your heaviest set.
To summarise the warm-up:
· Don’t fatigue yourself during the warm-up
· Reduce the reps as you increase the load
· Wait a complete rest period before your first work set
· Treat every ramp-up set as if it is your heaviest
'Stimulate, don't annihilate' - Lee Haney
Single Progression Method (SPM) & Double Progression Method (DPM)
This method is a simple method that has and will work for most trainees for a long time.
Simply assign yourself a repetition range and the number of working sets to be completed with the same weight across all sets.
3 x 5-8
3 x 6-8
3 x 5-10
3 x 8-12
2 x 3-5
2 x 12-15
The aim of the single progression method is once you achieve one set at your desired top end repetition range, you can increase the load for the next training session if all your sets fall within the desired repetition range.
The double progression method is the same as the single progression model, but you will only increase the weight if all sets hit the top end repetition range.
To explain how this works, let’s say you assign yourself 3 x 5-8 on the bench press.
Your working weight is 80kg.
Once completing the necessary warm-up sets, you proceed to the work sets aiming for the top end range of repetitions.
For the single progression method, when you can get 1 set for 8 repetitions at 80kg and your subsequent sets fall in the 5-8 rep range, you can increase the load by 2.5kg in your next training session.
For the double progression method, when you can manage all 3 sets for 8 repetitions at 80kg, you can increase the load by 2.5kg in your next training session.
It’s important that solid technique, the same range of motion and the same rest period is utilised. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter if you increased your repetitions or weight if you begin compensating with bad technique because it will eventually lead to injuries.
If you’re injured, you can’t train. You can’t train then you can’t get stronger.
Consistent rest periods matter as well because if one week you rest 2 minutes between exercises and the next you rest 4 minutes, that will make a difference. It should be noted that if you get better strength gains resting 4 minutes instead of 2, you should continue to rest longer.
Can you increase the weight by more? Maybe if the weight felt very easy because you started off too light due to a layoff from training or you started a new exercise and weren’t too sure what was your correct work weight. However, if your repetition spread is larger e.g., 6-12 then a larger increase in load is acceptable assuming you still fall within the desired repetition range.
Regardless, it is wise to spend 4-6 weeks building up to a challenging weight, that way you can build momentum where more training sessions are progressing.
It’s better to be more conservative and continue to make slow but steady gains rather than increasing too much and routinely running into plateaus.
During your next training session, continue to aim for 3 sets of 5-8. If your repetitions fall in the 5-8 range, continue performing the same weight at your next training session until you achieve 1 or all sets of 8 again. Then increase the load and repeat.
If your repetitions drop to 4 or lower, then the weight increase may have been too big, or you may not be resting long enough between sets. Resting 3-5 minutes between the same exercise is recommended for strength and hypertrophy gains until you become advanced level strong.
Here’s how a 6-week progression might look:
Both methods work well although the double progression method is going to be much safer, more reliable and work better in the long term.
Constant Reps, Increased Kilo Method (CRIK)
This is another method of progression that is just as effective where the repetitions stay constant, and weight is increased.
Let’s say you can do 3 x 6 at 70kg while leaving a rep or two repetitions in reserve in the last set.
Your next session, aim to do the same 3 x 6 but now with 72.5kg.
Increasing weight for all 3 sets will only last so long and eventually progression will be halted by failing to meet the repetition goal.
Instead with your next session, you might think of only increasing the weight for only 1 or 2 sets. The remaining set/s would be performed with the original weight.
You would start by increasing the first set only and the subsequent sets would be performed with the original weight.
The following session you would aim to increase the second and even third set in addition to the first set.
Here’s how an 8-week progression might look:
This is an excellent method to gradually introduce new loads allowing your previous gains to solidify.
Ascending Pyramid Training (APT) & Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT)
These methods are guided by the general idea behind the inverse relationship between intensity and volume.
The heavier the weight, the less repetitions typically performed. The lighter the weight, the more repetitions typically performed.
The pyramid refers to the number of repetitions. Both ascending and reverse are very effective for getting stronger and building size.
You’ll perform your first work set and then increase/decrease the weight by roughly 10% with an inverse change in repetitions.
With ascending your last set will be the most difficult.
With reverse your first will be the most difficult.
An example is laid out below:
The pyramid method can be combined with the single or double progression model.
For the reverse pyramid training, let’s say your goal is:
Your first work set, you would pick your heaviest weight of the day and aim to get 4-6 repetitions.
Your second work set, you would go 10% lighter and aim to get 6-8 repetitions.
Your third work set, you would decrease the weight by a further 10% and aim to get 8-10 repetitions.
The double progression method means you will increase the weight only if you achieve the top end number of repetitions for all sets.
For ascending, the same method would be used but simply in reverse so you would start at your lightest work set aiming for 8-10 repetitions and work upwards by increasing the weight as you decrease the repetitions with a similar format.
You should stay within your repetition range even if you can do more repetitions.
An example of ascending and reverse is shown below:
Reverse Pyramid Training Single Progression (RPTS)
A single progression model can also be utilised, but this only works for the reverse pyramid.
Let’s say your goal is 3 x 8. Your first set, which is your heaviest, you will aim to get 6-8 repetitions. The subsequent lighter sets will be performed to as many repetitions as possible but progression on them won’t matter as much as your first set. You can shoot past the repetition range if you desire to do so only if technique is solid, and range of motion is still there. You can even take larger jumps in decreasing the weight as the focus is only on the first set.
So even if your second and third set don’t achieve the top end repetition range, if your first set achieves the desired top end repetition, increase the weight the next training session.
Both methods work tremendously with the double progression model being more conservative which in many cases is a good thing. It allows us to stick with the same weight more often to solidify gains.
Total Repetitions (TR)
The total repetitions method is a maintain the desired intensity for a certain amount of volume to elicit the desired effect.
Here a repetition range will be prescribed such as 4-6 and a total repetition goal of 25.
The idea is to warm-up with 1-4 sets until you arrive at a weight you cannot do any more than the prescribed repetition range. This will dictate the load you will use for the remainder of that exercise for the workout.
You will perform as many sets as possible until you finish the total repetition goal so it doesn't matter if it takes 5 sets or 8 sets, as long as the desired repetitions are completed.
This style can hone in on the quality of each movement therefore once your repetition slows down noticeably compared to your first few repetitions, stop the set and continue on in the next one. Another reason to stop is if you reduce the range of motion.
Better to keep the quality of each repetition high and do more sets than to perform repetitions that are slow or short on range.
These 4 methods will make up the bulk of your training for many years to come. Different sets and reps will be required for different people. Raw beginners who need to learn and practice the art of movement and lifting will do something different. Advanced lifters will need slightly varied sets/reps to get even stronger than they already are.
At the end of the day, pick a system you enjoy and stick with it for as long as you are progressing while preserving technique and staying safe.
Progress is progress even if it’s at a snail’s pace. Eventually in time, these incremental increases will amount to something astounding.
Patience is a virtue.
· Any of the systems will work well, some being better for certain exercises than others so it comes down to preference
· Being able to reserve a few repetitions in the tank is necessary for training longevity and inevitable long-term results
· It’s better to be conservative rather than overzealous
· Warm-up appropriately
· Rest long enough (3-5 minutes) between the same exercise
· Only increase the load if your technique is still solid, the same range of motion is employed, and you have 1-2 repetitions left in reserve for your work set hardest set