Making progress in the gym is what we should all strive for. However, I still see too many people always using the same weights or never changing their training routine. This will only work for so long, until they reach a plateau and stop improving.
On the flip side, I also see a lot of beginners go straight to loaded barbells and heavy dumbbells with poor technique, putting themselves at risk for injuries by not knowing where to start.
This 5 step guide will provide you with some simple guidelines to help you pick the right exercises and understand how to progress them over time to get the best results possible.
Step 1: Pick The Right Exercises
Before we get into the details of how to progress an exercise, we first need to make sure that you pick the right movements for the goals you have set.
If you want to increase your whole body strength, you need to focus on primary movement patterns, including compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and chin ups. But if you just want to increase the size of your upper body, you'll need to be more precise and target that body part with a combination of compound lifts (barbell rows, bench press, etc.) and isolation exercises (tricep pull downs, bicep curls, chest flys, etc..).
What I'm saying is that you can't pick random exercises to include in your routine. Just because your friend does it or because you saw it on Instagram doesn't mean that it has a place in your workouts.
You need your work in the gym to have the best transfer possible towards the outcome you're seeking (following the principle of specificity). This will ensure that you take the shortest route to success without wasting unnecessary time and energy.
You also need to match the exercises that you pick with your current levels of strength and skill. If you've never lifted a weight before, starting with a barbell squat (the bar alone weighs 45lbs) is probably not the best choice. It would be much safer to start with a less complex exercise, like the bodyweight squat or the goblet squat.
Now that you know what exercises to perform, it's time to get to work. But before you start piling on the weight, you need to ensure that you can perform the exercises safely and efficiently. This is where the importance of lifting technique comes in.
Step 2: Master Technique
I don't care who you are or what your background is. If you want to keep progressing in the gym consistently and avoid getting injured, you NEED to learn how to lift with great technique. This is a prerequisite that is overlooked by many beginners and even intermediate lifters.
The best way to learn good form is to practice it. But just going through the motions isn't enough. You need to spend time in "dedicated practice", focusing on every detail of the movement you're performing.
This is ideally done under the eye of a trained professional who can spot mistakes and give you appropriate feedback right away. Another option is to find knowledgeable training partners who can show you the ropes.
If you're training alone (not recommended for beginners), I suggest you film yourself lifting light weights for 10-15 easy reps and compare what you see and feel with technique videos online (check out over 160 exercises on the Upside Strength YouTube channel).
This step is easy to skip over, but you need to look at it as a long term investment. If you take the time to learn technique first, it will open up the following weeks, months and even years to consistent progress. On the other hand, if you neglect proper form you might start using more weight sooner but you will quickly hit a wall, stop improving and put yourself at risk for injuries.
Now you're doing the right exercises and you're doing them well. Let's look at how to progress these exercises over time.
Step 3: Apply Progressive Overload
Along with specificity (we talked about it in step 1), progressive overload is another very important training principle. This fundamental law of training says that "a training adaptation takes place only if the magnitude of the training load is above the habitual level." (Zatsiorky & Kraemer, 2006)
In plain English, it means that if you want to keep improving, you need to do a bit more work today than you did yesterday. This sounds simple, but most people have a hard time taking this concept and practically applying it to their training.
One thing to understand is that applying progressive overload doesn't necessarily mean increasing the weight. The goal is to be doing a little bit more total work than you did the previous week or training session.
Here are a few ways you can accomplish that:
-Increase the load (more weight)
-Increase the volume (more sets and/or reps)
-Increase training frequency (more days per week)
-Decrease rest periods between sets
-Change lifting tempo (E.g. lift slower)
To make this as practical for you as possible, here's a real world example: Greg started training with me about 7 weeks ago. One of the exercises in his routine is a dumbbell row. Below is the progression we have followed so far.
Week 1: 15lbs x10 / 15lbs x10 / 15lbs x10 (3 sets of 10 reps at 15lbs with each arm)
Week 2: 17.5lbs x10 / 20lbs x10 / 20lbs x10
Week 3: 20lbs x10 / 20lbs x10 / 22.5lbs x10 / 22.5lbs x10
Week 4: 20lbs x10 / 22.5lbs x10 / 25lbs x10
Week 5: 22.5lbs x12 / 25lbs x10 / 27.5lbs x12
Week 6: 25lbs x15 / 27.5lbs x15 / 30lbs x15 / 30lbs x15
Week 7: 30lbs x15 / 35lbs x10 / 35lbs x10 / 35lbs x12
Put in graph form (I know how much y'all like graphs!), you can see that through this gradual increase in reps, sets and weight, Greg is progressively lifting more total weight each week. This is progressive overload in a nutshell.
Step 4: Change Your Routine Every Few Weeks
When you are exposed to a new exercise, the first few weeks will yield great returns. But as time goes on, the progress you can achieve by training that particular exercise diminishes. Dan Jon famously said, “everything works for about two weeks. Nothing works after about 6 weeks”. A good rule of thumb is to change your program every 4 to 6 weeks to prevent performance plateaus.
When you change your program, you need to provide enough novelty for your body to adapt to a new stimulus, but you also need to stay close enough to what is required to reach your goal. You’re avoiding accommodation while respecting the principle of specificity.
Let’s say that like Greg, you are working on improving your upper body pulling strength. You’ve been doing dumbbell rows for the last 5 weeks, performing 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps each training session, gradually increasing the total workload (progressive overload). Now comes the time to switch things up. For the next 4 to 6 weeks, you can switch to a barbell row for 5 sets of 5 reps. This way you’re still working on your pulling strength, but the stimulus is different enough (different exercise variation, different loading scheme, different weights used) to allow your body to keep adapting to it.
Modifying your routine every few weeks also brings newness into your training which will help you stay engaged and motivated.
Step 5: Progress To More Complex Exercises Over Time
If you can implement the first 4 steps into your training routine, you’re already ahead of the game.
The last thing you need to do is to slowly work your way towards more complex exercises over time. This will add more exercises to your repertoire, allowing you to pick from a wide range of movements for your training. The more options you have, the better.
In most cases, the harder exercises will become necessary as you become stronger and need to start using bigger weights. For example, you can only use so much weight on a goblet squat before your ability to squat surpasses your ability to hold the dumbbell in front of you. At this point, you will need to move to an exercise that allows you to use more weight, so you can keep building up your leg strength without being limited by your upper body strength. See the progression below as an example:
As you learnt in step 2, you'll need to take a few sessions to practice those new exercises before you add a lot of weight to them, even if you’re already “strong”. The more exercises you learn, the better your movement base will become and the easier it will be for you to learn new exercises.
No matter what program you use, what exercises you perform or what “method” you follow, you will always be chasing one thing: adaptation. In today’s guide, I laid out the 3 most important principles of adaptation to training which are
Progressive Overload, and
If you can understand these principles and apply them to your training in a practical way, you will keep making progress for a long time. Always put things into context before deciding if something is good or bad. In my book, it’s all shades of gray. Stop trying to get “yes"/“no” answers. Instead, start thinking critically and use the information that you have at your disposal to make intelligent, informed decisions about which path to follow.
If all this makes sense but you'd rather work with a professional, you can contact me today for a free consultation. We'll go over your personal situation and goals to determine the best approach possible and take all the guesswork out of the equation.