Progress: Getting Past the Weight
One of the most enjoyable aspects of training is the ability to see consistent progress.
Getting better is probably the best feeling in the world and, when you lift weights, there’s a clear number on how you did that day.
This might be one of the best parts of weight training, but it can also be one of the worst. Aside from ego lifters who are always doing things wrong to lift more weight, it’s easy for the rest of us to get caught up with numbers as the only measure of how you’re doing.
Today, we’re going to get past the weight and talk about the different metrics you should be using in training – as well as the benefits they bring to training. If you’re ready to do more than just worry about the weight on the bar, stick with us and you’ll gain insights to measure and drive progress.
Habit Formation: The First Kind of Progress
One of the most important and underrated kinds of progress is the development of better habits. This is the basis for all of the progress you’ll see in other areas – whatever your goals.
Whether you’re getting into training for the first time or developing towards competitive/elite goals, your habits and processes are crucial. This could be something as simple as consistently going to the gym, or something subtle about your warm-up process for competition-style squatting.
Building better habits, one choice at a time, is a kind of progress you need, but it’s often overlooked. Put habits first and you’ll find that every other kind of progress is likely to follow.
How to Use it
Take every process around your fitness – training, diet, sleep – as a series of choices. If you make one better choice today than you did yesterday, you’re progressing.
Don’t worry about anything you can’t change: start with what you have and make one behaviour-change at a time. These are the individual units that build up amazing lifestyles and amazing athletes.
Start by being aware of the choices you make and the habits you have. From there, take one thing you can improve on and put time towards it every chance you get. This is the place to start and will carry you from total beginner to excellent results!
Volume accumulation: the key to significant long-term progress
One of the most important concepts you’re going to need to think about is volume accumulation. This refers to the amount of work you’re doing in a session, week of training, or a larger training block.
If you’re increasing the amount of work you’re doing over time, there’s almost no way to not get stronger. This is the basis of the Russian weightlifting system (at least from what we know about it) and it’s consistently produced great results for decades.
Think about acquiring more reps with a certain weight, more sets week-on-week, and the total tonnage you’ve lifted. These are the driving forces behind adaptation – whether that’s strength or muscle gains – as well as practice for technique.
How to use it
You can use total weekly volume as a way of measuring your progress, but also as a goal. Accumulating volume over time is the essence of a good program and you can increase it in a variety of ways: more weight, more reps, or more sets.
If you keep 2 of these variables the same, but increase the 3rd, you’ve achieved progress. We recommend working on sets first (for practice), reps after (for consistency), and then weight when you’ve built the strength and movement quality.
FOR QUALITY: Technical change and progress
There’s never a bad time to improve your technique. Training ‘for quality’ is a reasonable choice for any sport.
Your technique is how you channel your strength, being one of the best ways to improve your performance. The reps you have in training are chances to practice the best possible movement – and technical improvement is progress.
If you’re even maintaining your strength, then technical progress is a sign of improving our overall results. Improving how you move is an amazing long-term benefit and builds sustainable progress for years to come.
How to Use It
Take time to analyse your technique, be honest with the problems you have, and go straight to them in training. Practice the things you’re bad at until you’re not bad at them anymore.
These weak links tend to be the limiting factor in your performance and may even be injury risk factors. Improving them is the key to using your strength more effectively in future and lifting more, which is indirectly beneficial for size.
You should always be focused on technique, no matter your goal or session plan. However, light days are a perfect chance to take some time and work through these issues/habits, all without worrying about making the rep.
RPE shifting over time
Making a certain weight feel easier over time is something that you might have ignored. It’s easy to miss out on this kind of progress because it’s not flashy and you improve incrementally.
There’s no number on how hard something feels, so you should implement your own. This is the point of RPE (rate of perceived exertion): a 1-10 scale for how challenging a rep or set was. This allows you to measure the difficulty over time, as well as aim at making heavy weights feel less-heavy.
The intention is to take a weight that is an RPE 9 now (you could only get out one more rep if pushed), and make it easier in future. This is a way of monitoring your potential without maxing out all the time – saving your joints and keeping you on track with a training plan.
How to Use It
You can look at key exercises in your program and certain rep ranges. For example, making your current 3-rep-max (3RM) squat into a comfortable RPE 8.5 – 9 is a huge win.
In this kind of situation, making a max set submaximal is an indication you’ve made big strength gains. I also love doing this with exercises like the pause squat, which adds another layer of difficulty and decreases the actual weight you’re using.
It makes sense to use RPE on lower rep sets where fatigue is less of an issue. Using sets of 1-3 repetitions to gauge RPE and practice heavy lifting is a great way to consistently work your RPE down for a certain weight/reps.
If you’re making changes to your body composition, it’s going to be difficult to keep progressing with weight alone. If you’ve ever tried making serious gains during weight loss, you’ll know that it can be easy to get demotivated.
During this kind of change, it’s important to focus on the things you can progress in. For example, if you’re trying to lose fat while training (because they go together perfectly), it’s important to look at how your lifts relate to your bodyweight.
As your body changes, you might not be able to hit old weights, or you might just be stalling. However, if your body changes are consistent, it’s totally possible you’re lifting the same weights while weighing significantly less.
Our Final Thoughts
There isn’t just one way to measure – or build – progress. We’ve outlined a few alternatives you can use to put your training in perspective or add new direction to your training.
When plateaus come, or you’re feeling stalled with training, these different metrics can provide direction. Take a little time to get your head out of the constant chase for more weight and look at other areas of your training.
There’s no such thing as too much perspective, so hopefully this brings something to your own training – and we’d love to hear about it!