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What is a strength progression, and why do you need one?

A weightlifter performs an Olympic snatch
A weightlifter performs an Olympic snatchJamie Jamieson

What is a strength progression?

A detailed plan used to reach a new strength max in one or multiple lifts, often with carry-over to other lifts or more general strength tasks.

The concept of the strength progression dates back to Milo of Croton, a famed wrestler and warrior in ancient Greece. Starting at the birth of his calf, Milo would hoist it to his shoulder and walk with it. As the legend goes, he performed this task every day, increasing his strength a tiny bit each time, until he was shouldering a full-grown bull.

Simply put, a strength progression is a plan to increase the amount of weight someone can lift. It can be as simple as the linear strength progression in Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength in which 5-10 lbs is added to the bar each workout, or as complex as the lifter or coach cares to make it. Gayle Hatch's squat program, currently in use by The Slaughterhouse Gym in Broomfield, has more of a stair-step approach, and progresses over a set course of 12 weeks.

Why is a strength progression beneficial?

Consistent, sustainable, predictable results

By having a “road map” in place, it is possible to use the success model of “starting with the end in mind”. An athlete who wants to lift a certain weight at a competition can plan out his or her progression and know what milestones to reach at what time. Beginners who don’t know yet what they are capable of can simply move up each week, and safely and effectively find out what they can do.

Injury prevention

A strength progression will always start too light. This allows the beginning lifter (or the lifter moving into a different area of strength or set/rep patterns) to develop their bone density, connective tissue strength, and technique along with their muscular strength and neuromuscular activation. Starting a new progression (or beginning a new macrocycle on the same progression) also allows the intermediate and advanced lifter a much-needed break from the max lifts they're coming off of, acting as an informal periodization de-load block.

Psychologically attainable for the trainee

A strength progression increases by a small increment each subsequent workout. This provides an attitude of success for the lifter, since they only need to add a few pounds, or a few reps, or 1-2 sets, to something they’ve already accomplished.

Customizable for any level

Progressions can be as simple as 3 sets of 5 reps, adding weight each subsequent workout if all reps are completed, or as complex as using a personalized workout based on Prilepin’s table for elite-level Olympic-bound weightlifters. Numerous intermediate progressions have been developed, so there is never a need for stagnation.

What are the characteristics of a strength progression?

Utilizes exercises with measurable points of performance, and which are suitable for max weights or repetitions

Good candidates for progressions are squats (all variations), deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press, pullups, pushups, snatch, clean-and-jerk, and the contested kettlebell lifts (snatch, jerk, and long-cycle clean-and-jerk). Each of these exercises has a clearly defined range-of-motion, and is generally recognized as safe for a gradual increase in weight or repetitions (depending on the exercise).

Examples of exercises that are not well-suited to defined progressions are goodmornings (the range of motion is very individual, and the risk of injury at max weights is too high), delt raises (difficult to judge range of motion and momentum used), and lying tricep extensions (elbow position has no set point of performance, and plays a tremendous factor in whether the lift is effective or not). Exercises such as these are much better utilized as assistance movements.

Starts easy

A progression should always start at a significantly lighter weight and/or lower reps than the trainee can perform successfully. As discussed above, this is important for both building confidence and preventing injury.

Builds slowly

Whether the progression is in weight, reps, sets, frequency, duration, or density (more work in less time, such as Charles Staley’s Escalating Density Training), each step should be very manageable, and the athlete should be able to go for a significant amount of time (Generally a minimum of 8 workouts per movement before having to back down, with 12-24 being common for beginner or intermediate athletes).

Grows predictably

While allowances for down-days (see below), vacations, slower progress, and ultimately backing down should be planned for, the trainee should be able to plug their numbers in a spreadsheet and have a good idea of what their workout will be 8 weeks ahead.

Has easy adaptations for "down-days"

If the trainee is actually sick or injured, they should skip the workout or even consult their medical professional for serious conditions. If, however, they are having a “down-day”, in which they’re not feeling 100%, but not so bad as to need a day off (for example, a headache or sore throat, NOT accompanied by a fever or chest/stomach pain), the progression should have a plan in place for dealing with a sub-par workout and getting the trainee back on track in subsequent workouts.

Has definitions and plans in place to determine and move forward when the athlete reaches a max

With any progression, the athlete will eventually reach a point where they cannot reach the required number of reps or sets at the prescribed weight. The progression should have plans in place to accommodate: 1) what to do when the prescribed workout is beyond the athlete’s current capacity (e.g. back down, reduce increments of increase, repeat the same workout until the required reps are completed, etc), and – if different – how the top-end of the progression is defined (e.g. can’t complete the prescribed sets and reps, can’t complete another defined number of sets and reps, reaches a new 1RM, etc). Additionally, the progression needs to define what the next steps are for the athlete when they reach their max.

One of the most important things any lifter can do is to incorporate a progression into one or more of their basic lifts. Rather than just going to the gym and lifting based on how you "feel" (what Joe Weider referred to as the "Instinctive Training Principle"), building strength can be more effectively built on a planned program. There are many available - along with the aforementioned Hatch Squat program and Rip's Starting Strength, some other great examples are Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 program, Pavel Tsatsouline's Power to the People and Enter the Kettlebell, and the Greyskull Linear Progression. The most important thing isn't to pick the best one - any progression that follows the above guidelines will work well. Most importantly is to follow it consistently and stick with it. The surest way to derail strength progress is to jump from one program to another, never giving one a chance to work.