Progressions in Strength Training: New Methods from Old Wisdom
If you’re familiar with gymnastic strength training, you’ll see serious differences from regular weight training for strength and size.
The way that these two compare is interesting by itself – especially when combined – but you can learn a lot from bodyweight training for better strength training and weight lifting.
Today we’re going to talk about how progressions are under-used in weight training and how they can make for a far better beginner’s approach to training and develop better training for advanced lifters.
Progressions in GST: the example
The model of progression in strength training has been pretty simple for the past half-century when it comes to bodybuilding and powerlifting. You start with the movement and add weight/reps as you can to progressively overload and get stronger.
This is the essence of getting stronger – we’re not trying to stop you doing this. However, it’s only one method of getting better and it’s not the best solution to every problem – only one of them.
In bodyweight training, we find a greater focus on progressing from easier to harder exercises to develop specific skills and positions that are going to be important later. This long-term approach is seen (in a limited way) in Olympic weightlifting, where positional training makes up a significant portion of training.
For powerlifting and bodybuilding, there’s not been enough discussion.
Today, we’re going to change that and explain why progressions could be key and how you can apply them to improve your training and results!
Why progressions matter
We don’t just like progressions for the things they can add to programming or their ability to expand your toolkit – there are situations where they provide a better solution than adding reps or weight. Here are a few key ways you can improve your training experience with progressions from simple to complex (or light to heavy) exercise!
Training through progressions offers a way of varying training just enough to keep adaptations at maximal levels. This is key to balance up with specificity, as too little of either will cripple your progress.
Progressions through different exercises at a regular rate offer a way of including variety in a specific way. This makes the best of both worlds – especially for early weeks of a program or in novice lifters who need practice and general physical prep.
Progressions bring balance in the literal and balanced-training sense. We’ll focus on the latter.
Powerlifting and bodybuilding are biased towards specific types of training and specific muscle groups. Powerlifting is more set into these patterns where the squat, bench, and deadlift dictate the vast majority of training.
However, elite athletes in either sport are likely to tell you that development in a balanced way is key to their performance. This is true in bodybuilding, too, where lagging body parts provide serious competitive or aesthetic problems.
Increased progressions from simple to complex movements can help develop balance in movements and muscle groups, providing systematic benefits to strength, size, and movement-efficiency. Whatever your goals, these add up to a better end-result in training and injury-risk.
Balancing joints and the demand your muscles put on them also means producing a resilient body with reduced joint-stress or acute injury risk. All good things.
Developing balanced strength involves doing a lot of stuff that isn’t glamorous or effective for showing off. This makes it a great way to prepare yourself for future loading.
The long-term perspective we see in gymnastics and callisthenics is important to ensure that you can continue to load yourself and make gains into the future.
You can easily exhaust your growth during a program if you spend too long training the same things. Accommodation is a real risk, while increased variety and foundational movements potentiate better performance in the future and help you zone in on specific movements and components that are often under-trained and ignored.
Taking a step back every so often to focus on progressions and elements of each movement can ensure longer, more sustainable gains when it comes to more-linear loading patterns.
Making it work: Progressions for Better Strength Training
Progressions are applicable in pretty much every area of training and there are too many options for us to cover them all in this piece. However, we can provide some great examples that show off the benefits and principles that come with better progressions.
Core: neutral spine to limb isolation
Training for the core is often overlooked or treated as “I’ll do some sit-ups and that’ll do”. This is an easy way of sabotaging your own performance since almost every sort involves transferring force through the core – where stability and strength are crucial for performance.
This progression is actually just a few very simple steps:
- Find a neutral spine position and get familiar with it through training
This involves performing core exercises that work through the flexion and extension of the spine. These include
Once you’ve found neutral spine position, you can perform exercises that require you to hold it, but the crucial point is spending more time in neutral and trying to integrate it into all your other weight-training exercises.
- Strengthen your neutral spine position through isometric and leverage-based loading
This is a pretty simple step. Once you’ve become familiar with neutral spine position, you need to strengthen it so that it’s ready to work with the movements and loads you use in your training.
- Train the neutral spine position in increasingly complex and demanding movements
Think you’ve got your core on lock? Time to start using the neutral core position in ways that integrate it to your actual training.
This means isolating the limbs and using them while keeping the core exactly the same position throughout. This means exercises like:
The point is to learn to use the neutral spine position while performing other exercises. This is what you need to do with a squat, bench press, deadlift, or row. These add up to a significant change to your movement quality, strength, and ability to target specific muscles when you train.
Hip hinges: GM to RDL to Deadlifts
The hip hinge is key in every exercise that involves the lower body. If you can’t do it, your squat and deadlift will never be perfect.
It’s about getting a neutral spine position then moving the hips and core as one unit, rather than compensating with the spine.
This is a very simple progression that provides a great introduction to the hip hinge and can be practised repeatedly, used as a beginner’s approach to deadlifting, or a good introductory aspect of a training program while focusing on other loadings.
Knee bends: uni to bi to complexity
Knee bending isn’t simple or accidental. It’s a process that always requires a neutral spine and effective hip hinge, as well as good mechanics at the knee and control in 3 dimensions.
It sounds complicated, but this progression makes it far easier to learn and practice:
The use of progressions is an underrated and incredibly effective way of producing better results in both general and specific changes. These are a significant benefit to your overall training, whatever your intended goals.
Being better at training is always a key to better performance whether you’re competitive in strength sports, physique, or just want to be fitter and stronger. Doing it right is never a bad thing and significantly reduces the risk of injury – which we all want!
Implement some of these progressions into your training, or apply the principles in other areas, and let us know what happens with your training!
About the Auther: Liam Rodgers:
Good coaching and good writing rely on attention to detail, forward planning, and deep knowledge of the technical aspects. As an Olympic weightlifting coach and the director of Apex sport and fitness content, Liam lives these out: he has huge enthusiasm for sports performance, nutrition, narrative and immersive, engaging writing.