How to progress at your workouts

You’re a regular at the gym, or you’re a religious working out guy/girl at home. You almost never miss a workout and training is a very serious thing for you. But you seem to be stalling.

Progress hasn’t come in weeks, or months or even years. you start wondering what’s the problem.

That’s easy (I am gonna repeat that phrase like 3-4 times during this article).

You’re missing the whole picture!

The common solution when you stop progressing at the gym is, eat better. What the hell does that have to do with being at the gym?

So a better question is, I used to see results first, but nowadays I don’t see that many, is there a way to make progress at my performance at the gym?

Please repeat after me.

Anything that can be tracked, can be improved.

I will give you recommendations and guidelines, both if you’re working out at home by using bodyweight exercises, or if you’re a regular at the gym.

So what are the things that can be tracked?

There are 3 things, frequency, intensity, and volume. The order is not by chance, they are ordered in terms of difficulty to measure.

These 3 are interconnected and each one has to follow the other in a way.

Frequency

The easiest concept of the three, frequency is how many times per week, you are hitting a muscle. Common bodybuilding patterns call for training each muscle group once per week and some total body workouts, call for hitting each muscle group on every workout.

So do we have any frequency recommendations?

The most common pattern nowadays is 2-3 times per muscle group per week. That was easy.

It is backed up by research that this is the least frequent you can be at hitting muscle while having the best results. You are getting some diminishing returns, for each workout that you add per week when training a specific muscle.

Now this applies to all cases. If you’re an athlete, it is better to have that frequency for training specific movements for your sport.

If you are a “professional/serial” bodybuilder, still 2-3 times per week is favoring hypertrophy. Lastly, if you’re just someone trying to better his body by going to the gym regularly, 2-3 times per week, per

Lastly, if you’re just someone trying to better his body by going to the gym regularly, 2-3 times per week per body part, is the most efficient way to get proficient at any lift, thus progress at the weight you’re using for this exercise.

My main recommendation even for people just starting to exercise, strength training is the best bang for your buck.

Intensity

Intensity is how hard you are hitting the muscle. The greater the stress you put a muscle through, the more it is going to grow. In terms of strength and hypertrophy.

There are two ways to measure intensity:

  • 1RM
  • RPE Scale

1RM

1Rm stands for 1 rep maximum. How much weight you can lift for one rep.

1RM can be measured as a theoretical number based on your maximum repetitions on a specific weight, via a mathematical formula developed by Matt Brzycki, in 1993. There are other formulas for calculating the weight for specific reps but the Brzycki one is the most popular. The only caveat is that it’s problematic for reps above 10.

If you want to know more about 1RM, please read this short article about formulas that calculate your 1RM. It’s very informative.

So how do you use that?

Technically, you find your current level of 1RM. Then you do the opposite, you calculate what is the weight you should lift for 4 reps, 6 reps, 8reps or whatever rep scheme you need, and try to hit that weight, for those reps in your next workout.

Let’s take squat as an example.

Let’s say, on my last workout, I used 100kg for 8 reps. This is my 8RM weight (100kg).

So this means my 1RM is 124kg, my 4RM is 115kg and my 10RM is 95kg. So if I want to maintain my strength levels, I need to lift 115kg for 4 reps or 95kg for 10 reps.

Now this can be tricky as less weight might seem easier, but when you factor in the amount of reps, it isn’t that easy.

Also some people feel more comfortable in one rep range than another. For example I feel much better working out in the 12-15 rep range. It makes me feel more safe and I seem to produce more output (more reps for decent weight). As opposed to low reps, like 2-4, where I really need to watch out for any possible injuries.

My recommendation, if you’re just an amateur athlete or a person involved into fitness, stick with the 8-12 rep range and occasionally have a try at 2 or 4 reps. I wouldn’t recommend going for 1RMs, unless you’re a powerlifting athlete.

It’s just an ego boosting lift, that can put you in danger.

If you are an experienced lifter, using proper form, you can try out any rep range you want. Just remember to track those lifts, in order to ensure your upward progress.

When we hit a maximum weight, we might call it a PR, personal record.

RPE

The other way to measure intensity is by the RPE scale (rating of perceived exertion).

This is very simple, you just measure on a scale of 1 to 10, how close to failure were you, when you finished that set.

Table of RPE scale

RPE Scale Based On Repetitions In Reserve
10Could not do more reps or load
9.5Could not do more reps, could do slightly more load
9Could do 1 more repetition
8.5Could definitely do 1 more repetition, chance at 2
8Could do 2 more repetitions
7.5 Could definitely do 2 more repetitions, chance at 3
7 Could do 3 more repetitions
5-6 Could do 4 to 6 more repetitions
1-4Very light to light effort

Taken from “Muscle and Strength Pyramid – Training” by Eric Helms, Andy Morgan and Andrea Valdez

Now, how to choose how to measure your intensity?

This should come naturally. Anyone who has taken exercise to a serious level, should measure his progress according to 1RM values. This is the most convenient way to make sure that you are progressing. You can’t really expect to alter your body by lifting the same weights year after year. There has to be some increment.

Trust me, unless you have been tracking your weight vs reps, you haven’t been progressing. I will go out on a limb here, and tell you that without tracking, you’re almost at 60% of your total work output capacity. At least I was, until 2 years ago.

On the other side, if you’re coming back from an injury or you just want to take it easy for various reasons (sensitive bones, other medical problems, ain’t got much time, etc.), the RPE scale is perfect for you.

Imagine someone really obese, with ups and downs on his performance and his attitude, due to the newly adopted diet regimen. There will be times, even in the gym, that he will feel miserable as hell and he won’t be able to perform as good as last time.

It sounds like a perfect to time to use the RPE scale and just try to hit his last RPE level for as many, or a couple of more, sets as he did last time.

Volume

Volume is the total amount of work you’re putting into an exercise. The total workload.

So how do we measure volume?

No of exercises? Time of workout? Sets per muscle group?

No, no and no.

We are measuring volume on a per-exercise basis. We need to have a predefined set of exercises, a workout, but for the purposes of explaining volume, we have to assume there is a defined workout already.

So how do we measure volume per-exercise? There are 2 ways:

  • Total Reps
  • Total Tonnage

“Total reps” is very easy, you add up all the reps for all sets, you did for an exercise.

Example. 1set x 10, 1set x 8, 3sets x 6. This translates to 10+8+18 = 36 reps.

Now a guideline for this type of measurement would be to have a specific volume in mind (50reps) and try to top that on every workout, but that’s not practical. You’d end up doing 200reps after some months, spending 4 hours at the gym.

So we need to factor in the weight we used for these reps.

Here comes tonnage.

Tonnage

It is very simple, it is the total weight lifted, reps x weight.

Example from before, 1set x 10 x 60kg, 1set x 8 x 80kg, 3sets x 6 x 100kg, translates to 10×60 + 8×80 + 3x6x100 = 3040kg

Now how does this big number help us?

We can have it as a reference for our next workouts.

If we want to increase the volume of a workout in tonnage terms, we either have to increase the weight lifted, the reps per set, or the sets. You can even do weird combinations of all these 3 options where you have a stable warm-up routine of specific weights and sets and then adjust your tonnage (for the working sets) according to the rep range you want to train.

So if for one workout you want to train the 12 rep range, you might do 2 sets but if you train for 8 reps, you might do 3. By the way, this is equivalent in terms of total reps (2×12 = 3×8), but it won’t be equivalent in terms of total tonnage. you will have increased tonnage in the 8 rep range because you will have increased the weight.

So technically you might do fewer reps on the last set or even do just 2 sets instead of 3. There will still be an increase in the volume of the exercise.

So with all that information in mind what should I do?

That’s easy as well!

Start with frequency. Try to train each muscle group at least 3 times per week. Priority should be given to compound movements, that target a lot of muscles at the same time. Go for fewer total exercises but try to train each movement 3 times a week. This will improve your form the fastest.

After you have the frequency part in place, try to increase your intensity. Personal preference would be to aim, to beat your last 1RM. If you’re not that into working out yet, go with the RPE scale.

After some time, you may hit a plateau or progress might be going down a bit. It’s time to deal with the volume.

Start targeting to maintain your strength levels but with more sets. Even if you feel so fatigued from the workout, you can always add 1-2 sets with 80% the intensity of your last set. In the long run, this will help a lot.

So that’s a wrap for today.

Do you have any ideas or questions about how to progress while working out?

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  • kimptoc

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    What do you mean by the muscle groups?

    I found this http://www.menshealth.co.uk/building-muscle/get-big/which-muscle-groups-should-I-work-out-on-the-same-day – but not sure if its what you mean.

    • Hey, thank. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Actually the article you mentioned, does a good job at providing you with muscle groups.

      Chest, shoulders, and triceps.
      Back, biceps and abs.
      Hamstrings, quads and calves.

      The way to combine these muscle groups depends on the individual. My personal point is to pick the “split” that will let you achieve your goals in terms of volume (tonnage). For example, I am too tired to train really heavy, the biceps after some heavy back exercises.

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