Progress is “the process of developing or moving towards a more advanced state”.

It seems obvious right? But if you read that again and apply it to your own development in the last few years, not only in training but also in life, has it happened? Some of you reading this maybe, for most probably not.

Rather than thinking I’m Tony Robbins right now and instilling some motivational, entrepreneurial speech on you about how to change your life, I’ll keep it relevant to your training. Why aren’t you getting what you want from your training? Let me answer that question with a few of my own:

  1. Do you keep a training diary?
  2. Do you write your programs in advance?
  3. Do you give each overall training program long enough to see progression?
  4. Are you conscious of constantly moving forward in your training?
  5. Do you assess and adjust based on the data you track?

If your answer to most of the above questions is “no”, then I politely put it to you that you’re a workout whore. Bouncing from workout to workout blindly or making it up as you go along without ever sticking with anything long enough to see it blossom into something wonderful.

Progression is the most obvious, yet most overlooked, variable in your average training regime.

Of the many coaches or exercisers I meet daily, when they come to me complaining about how they can’t get results for themselves or their clients, I see the missing link is a lack of planned, programmed and tracked progression. Simply aiming for the smallest increase in weight session by session can be the difference between success and failure when undertaking a great program. Don’t underestimate how effective this one little aspect can be. It’s probably the most common thing you DON’T do on the gym floor despite it being so easy and so important.

Here’s what you need to do

An ancient Chinese proverb says that to know where one is going, one must know where one has been.

This means that in order to know how much you need to lift this week, you must know what you lifted last week. Write your programs clearly and track the weights used for each exercise in each workout. At first it may seem tedious but eventually it will be second nature and you’ll thank me for it. Studies suggest and experience supports the fact that only a 2-5% increase is necessary for your body to sense a progression and adapt accordingly. This means that adding only 2kg extra to your 100kg bench is enough to move forward adequately. Get a training journal, prepare your workouts in 3-6 week cycles and track every weight lifted. Your goal should be to beat that weight each time you train.

Give it time!

In order to allow for progression you’ll need to stick with one training program for a minimum of 3 weeks in my opinion. Most training cycles I write range between 3-6 weeks depending on the client. I’ll program within that slight variances of grip position or rep progressions. For a lot of you this will likely be a challenge because someone wrote a piece in your favourite fitness magazine in 1997 and said that it’s important to switch it up every day in order to keep the body guessing. This level of variation should only be reserved for the most advanced trainees, assisted bodybuilders, athletes or people whose level of adaptation is beyond the norm. Even then progression will still be planned within such extreme workout-to-workout variation. Write a program, stick to it and give it a chance to work before assessing its success and moving on accordingly.

Progress only as much as you need to, not as much as you can!

Too many of you advance at a rate that’s way above what’s necessary, moving from simple sets, to supersets, to drop sets, to giants set superset drop sets within a month of starting in the gym because you’ve creamed over too many bodybuilding.com articles. Slow yourself down a little and think for a second. Anyone who follows me knows that I’m about keeping things as simple as possible across the board. In the case of progression a small and minimal improvement is enough to get the effect you’re looking for. The faster you try to progress, the sooner you’ll plateau and hit a brick wall with your training. Quickly followed by a lack of motivation, missed sessions, injury and probably a generous helping of pizza and Ben & Jerry’s to drown your sorrows. If you feel like you can lift another 20kg then great, but if you only need to lift another 2kg, then don’t shoot yourself in the foot by getting ahead of yourself.

What happens when you can no longer progress?

Obviously there’s going to come a time when you hit a wall, where even the smallest progression becomes a problem. What do you do at this stage? Simply, change the exercise to a similar variation and continue trying to progress on that movement until the same happens before switching it up again. The key to all of your training and dieting is to assess and adjust. Track your lifts, change things up only when you need to and only as much as necessary for maximum progression with minimal effort. Eventually if you’ve tracked right you’ll get to know how to stay a few days ahead of the curve and pound forward day by day and get the fire back in your training.

Good luck.