23 May How To Continually Progress In Your Workouts, Avoid Plateaus and Stay Injury-Free
This detailed guide was written after many discussions with training partners, coaches, online and 1-1 clients about the best ways to progress, avoid training plateaus and staying healthy in the gym.
It’s a long piece but one I’m extremely passionate about, and something I think everyone who’s serious about training will benefit a great deal from reading and implementing.
The driving principle behind all my training programmes is simple: progressive overload with perfect technique.
Progressive overload means you do more work over time. At its simplest, it is whether you increase the load (weight) used, or perform more repetitions at a given weight.
Without this it is rare you’ll see any tangible progress in your physique.
The simplest way to do this is to either add weight or reps to the bar.
The problem is, once you’ve milked the initial beginner gains you receive with a new exercise or a new programme, adding weight or reps in a haphazard manner will only lead to ego-lifting, injuries and dreaded plateaus.
I’ve been there so many times in the past that it is only in the last few years I’ve finally begun to learn my body, and know when it’s time to push and when it is time to back off.
Arguably the most frequent discussion I have with online clients is in regards to the question of progression.
How do I progress week to week, month to month?
How do I prevent plateaus?
How do I avoid achy joints and injuries
For the intermediate to early advanced lifter, these are probably the three greatest concerns I have as a coach.
I want to keep you progressing through your lifts for extended periods of time whilst keeping you healthy.
What I’ve found in the years of coaching is that the clients who can master this the best are the ones who achieve the most progress.
This guide will outline my thoughts on training progression and how best to utilise it in different circumstances.
By this I’m not referring to how long you’ve been lifting, or how much you can lift. Instead, the following progression rules will work well for exercises you are able to make progress on each session
This will work well when starting a new programme, or using either a new exercise or one that you haven’t trained with in a long time.
When one of the above applies, you should be able to add weight to the bar each session with the same sets x reps for quite a few weeks before requiring a more strategic progression.
In the first week of a new programme, it is critically important you pick the right weight.
I know the feeling of enthusiastically reading a new programme and wanting to tear it up in the gym immediately.
The problem with this is you will end up plateauing and overreaching before the end of the cycle, and cutting short any longer-term progress you may otherwise experience.
Let’s use an example.
On your first day of your new programme, you have to perform 3 sets of 6-8 on the squat.
If you’ve not done this before, or it’s been a while, you want to err on the lighter side of things.
You should be able to complete the 3 sets of 8 in a comfortable manner, with each set being 2-3 reps shy of failure. Remember you’re learning (or relearning) the movement so there is no need to push the envelope.
After this initial session you will want to ramp up the weight in steady increments. For exercises involving more overall musculature, e.g., squats and deadlifts, you can make jumps of 5kg at the beginning. For those that work less overall musculature, e.g., rows and presses, you’ll want to make 2.5kg progressions.
If you start with the right weight, you should be able to milk these before reaching a point where you can’t make jumps every week.
As each week progresses, you’ll find you are coming closer to failure and will also start seeing drop offs in reps in the 2nd and 3rd sets so that you are not longer reaching 3 sets of 8.
In all my programmes, I will almost always prescribe a rep range, rather than a specific rep target.
The reason for doing so is that people vary in how well they can handle weights across multiple sets.
It also takes the pressure of reaching a particular number. If I write 8 reps, I’ll sometimes see clients fight tooth and nail with no regards to form to reach 8 reps, when they should’ve stopped at 6 reps.
If you can get all your work sets at the same weight, by all means, do it.
For example, if your workout calls for 4 sets of 6 to 8 on the squat, it may look like this:
Others, like myself, find that their reps always drop off in subsequent sets regardless of weight. If you’re in this boat, you’ll never get 4 sets of 8 in the above example, and always get stuck at 8,8,7,6 for example. In this situation, when you get to the top end of the rep range on your first set with a rep or two spare, add weight.
Here’s an example straight out of my logbook with the Close Grip Floor Press, trained for 3 sets of 3-5
|4||102.5kg||4,3,3 (felt heavy)|
|8||105kg||4,4,5 (freak last set!)|
As you can see, patience is key. I stuck with weights for a few weeks, worked on improving reps and technique, and then when the first set hit the required rep range (and felt good), I bumped it. You can also see that the first two weeks were below my capacity as a way to ‘break in’ to the new programme and ensure I don’t plateau quickly.
For those who do not handle weights across sets well, another great option is to warm up to your heaviest set, and then pyramid down on the next sets.
An example workout could be 105×8, 100×8, 7, 95×8.
In this example you’ll remain in the required rep range and will work on improving total workload week by week as well as the top set.
Where this method is particularly useful is with dumbbells, where the jumps between dumbbells can often be too large to warrant doing multiple sets with.
For example, let’s say your workout calls for 4 sets of 10-12 reps on the dumbbell bench press.
Last week you got 15kg for 4 sets of 12. The problem is, 17.5kg is too big a jump to do all 4 sets with at the upper rep range.
Instead, you may do something like this over the next few weeks:
As you can see, this is a strategic way you can transition between the weights to ensure long-term progress.
One of my favourite progression methods is the ‘zig zag approach’ that utilises short bursts of linear periodisation.
In this model, instead of sticking with a weight till you hit the upper end of a rep range, you cycle the intensity and volume up and down.
Let’s say your workout calls for 3 sets of 6-8 on the bench press.
In workout one, you want to choose a weight that you can complete for 3 sets of 8, with each set being 1-2 reps shy of failure ( the last set may be only 1).
For the next two workouts, you’ll increase the weight by 2.5kg while reducing the reps per set by one.
On the 4th workout, you’ll cycle back up to 8 reps using a slightly heavier weight than last time.
This may look as follows in a 9-week cycle, providing you started with the right weight in week 1.
Of course, as the previous section explained, you won’t always complete all the reps. In this case, focus on reaching the rep target for the first two sets at least and making sure the others stay in the rep range.
For 3-5, 4-6, 5-7, and 6-8 rep ranges, drop the rep target by 1 while increasing loads by 2.5-5kg.
For higher rep ranges of 8-12, reduce the rep target each week by 2 instead while increasing loads by 2.5kg.
The problem with the ‘zig-zag’ progression model is that it’s not very applicable to isolation exercises.
One of the most common questions I get from clients pertains to progressing isolation moves like biceps curls, lateral raises and leg curls.
For these exercises, what I’ve found to work best is to focus on improvements in form and adding reps rather than load.
For example, 3 sets of 12-15 on a lateral raise may look something like this:
What I find with these movements is it’s often best to focus on getting as big a pump as possible rather than chasing the numbers too much. It’s good to keep an eye on your progression but over a much longer time frame. The above example provides an example of how progression may look but I often find it can be a lot slower than that for these isolation moves.
RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion and can be a useful way for you to gauge your intensity and weight selection in a reasonably objective manner. When I use these in programmes I’m referring to the following:
|10||0||Maximal effort – no further reps with perfect technique could be performed|
|9||1||Close to all you can give, will feel near failure|
|8||2||When you start straining/shaking.|
|7||3||When bar speed starts to slow down significantly.|
For the most part generally, you want to be operating at RPE 8-9.
RPE 7 should be saved only for the introductory phases, and starting a new programme, or when resetting weights (to be discussed later).
RPE 10 should be used in the last week or two of phases when you want to push hard for new personal bests.
Here is a simple progression you can use that builds intensity over the course of 6 weeks. The RPE will guide your weight selection.
|Workout||RPE||Reps Shy of Failure|
Even if I don’t write RPE, using this build up scheme is a good way to approach any programme.
One thing to remember in all the progression models I’ve explained so far is that it’s not always clear-cut.
While you should always have a progression system in place, the pace at which you move through it depends on the person.
What I’ve found with many clients is their eagerness to increase weights and reps as per the progression plan means technique and their mind-muscle connection often disappear which can lead to injuries and plateaus.
One strategy that I’ve used with all levels of clients is repeating the same workout but executing the sets and reps with better form.
Staying at a weight, and milking it for what it is worth can be an excellent way to ensure long-term progress.
With some clients, especially those prone to joint problems, I won’t let them increase the weight unless they can completely dominate it.
What this does is ensures the tendons and ligaments adapt at the same rate as the rest of the body and doesn’t become a future limiting factor.
By doing so, you’ll be able to extend progress beyond the typical 6 to 8 weeks that most cycles usually allow progress to occur within.
Remember, progressive overload isn’t just about increasing weight or reps. Any way you can place more stress on the muscle and make things harder will adhere to this principle.
When we talk about training to failure, there are two types.
We’ve got mechanical failure, which is when you physically can’t move the weight any longer, form goes out the window, and it starts falling back on you. You never want to do this.
The other is technical failure, which is the point at which another rep with perfect technique would be impossible. This has its place but again is often abused a little too much for my liking.
Instead I always like people to stop the majority of their sets with 1-2 perfect reps in the tank.
When your form starts breaking down and each rep becomes a full on grind you’ve gone too far. You want to stop before this and keep your reps crisp and clean. Knowing you can do one more solid rep is always a good feeling. A good rule of thumb is that the last rep of every set should look like the first, albeit a little slower.
|Exercises I advise against going to failure on:|
|– Anything in the 1-5 rep range|
|– Big barbell lifts you’re still learning|
|– Anything that heavily involves the lower back, like a bent over row or deadlift|
|Exercises that you can go close to failure on:|
|– Dumbbell and bodyweight exercises you’re doing for 8 reps or more|
|– Single joint exercises like leg extensions, leg curls, bicep curls|
|– Barbell presses of which you’ve mastered technique on and done for 8 reps or more.|
But isn’t training to failure necessary for size and strength?
Yes, studies have shown that it can lead to better gains in some cases, but I think it’s looking at training through a straw.
Let’s say you’re doing 3 sets of 8 on the bench press. If you perform the first set to failure, your subsequent sets are going to take a hit. It’ll probably be 8, followed by 6 then maybe 4 or 5.
However, if you picked a slightly lighter weight that allowed you to reach 8 reps with 1-2 reps shy, you’d be able to accumulate more total work into the session and may only reach failure on the last set.
|Workout Type||Load||Reps Achieved||Total Load Lifted|
|All sets to failure||100kg||8,6,5||1900kg|
|Only last set to failure||95kg||8,8,7||2185kg|
Remember, every set doesn’t need to be balls to the walls. Working at 80-90% of your best, and accumulating a little more total work will be more beneficial for longer-term strength and size gains.
Another implication of failure training is the ‘hangover’ it can create. Anyone who’s done multiple sets to failure in the squat or deadlift will know of the high level of systemic fatigue in the body that comes with it. When you wake up the next day and you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, you’ve probably pushed it too hard.
The real reality is: everyone’s tolerance to failure training is different.
For the majority of clients I’ve trained, the answer is somewhere in the middle. If you want to train to failure, I would save it for the last set of that exercise, on no more than 3-5 total sets per workout. This is probably the best way to approach failure training.
If you find your recovery is sub-par, and your progression on exercises isn’t where it should be, I would skip failure sets altogether, and use it sparingly.
I’m a huge fan of low volume, high-intensity programmes. I love the focus one or two sets per body parts to all out failure bring to a workout. In the past, I’ve used it a lot with myself but found that I kept burning out, and kept getting injured. Looking back, I was probably pushing too hard, too often.
As a result, I’ve come away from these ultra low volume programmes, and prefer a more moderate volume approach, where intensity is a little lower.
I think for longer-term progress, and for staying safer for the average person, this is a better approach.
That being said, what I’ve done with my own training to give myself the best of both worlds is work it in strategically.
Generally speaking, I like to work in 6 to 8-week blocks of training. When I start a new programme, I stay well away from failure and work with submaximal loads with a focus on getting more work in.
As the weeks go by, I’ll begin pushing the sets so that the majority will be one rep shy of failure, possibly pushing last sets of exercises to failure. In the last week before a deload (which we’ll cover later), I’ll make it a failure week.
To be clear, this is technical failure, not mechanical. In this week, I’ll go for an all-time personal best for a specific weight.
For example: Squat – 4 sets of 6-8
|Max Reps, Rest 5 mins
This strategy is something I’ve taken from powerlifting, where in the pursuit of strength, their motto is ‘build, build, build, test’.
In this final week before a deload / change in the programme, I like to push the limit and test out where I stand on some of my key core lifts as well as tickle the high intensity, low volume itch I will always have!
The way you execute a set will have a large impact on how you recover, progress and feel.
For the most part, it comes down to picking the right weight. All too often when reviewing client training logs, I see a set of ten being written as ‘5,3,2 rest paused’. Nothing could be worse for training progress.
If you’re rest pausing your way through every set, your progress will be cut short, and you’ll have a hard time recovering.
I remember doing a programme a few years ago and it got to the point where every single set became a death set where the last 5 reps would take 10 seconds each to complete.
It’s safe to say I plateaued very quick, got completely burnt out, and could never stop sleeping from a lack of recovery!
Some basic rules that I’ve found to work well are:
|Execution of Set Recommendations|
|– If you’re doing anything less than a set of 6, you should knock the 6 reps out without having to pause too much at the top.|
|– If you’re doing 6 to 12 reps, pausing once for a few breaths is fine (mainly for compound lifts, not isolation – these should always be constant).|
|– If you’re doing 12 to 20 reps, allow yourself 2 to 3 pauses if needs be.|
The advantage of laying down these rules for yourself is you’ll be able to standardise your training.
If one week you’re doing a set of 10 on the squat with 100kg with no pauses, is it really progress if three weeks later you’re doing 110kg but need three big pauses to get there?
These rules will also mean you’ll be working the muscle much harder, as you won’t be giving them a break.
From a recovery perspective, it’s more beneficial as you won’t get the systemic fatigue that rest-paused sets can create.
You may have heard before that ‘fatigue masks fitness’.
What deloads allow your body to do in very simple terms is dissipate residual fatigue that builds up over time in the body.
For novices, it probably isn’t necessary. For intermediates, they become a necessity in allowing the body to continue progressing, as well as providing a chance for the connective tissues to recover.
After a deload, you should feel great, and be stronger going into your next cycle.
This is very dependent on you, but what I’ve found from experience is that a deload every 6 to 12 weeks seems to be best practice.
For the majority of my clients, it makes sense to let a deload fall naturally around their holidays, bank holiday weekends or busy times with work.
There are times however where I may suggest a deload sooner. If you’re feeling particularly run down, or have been pushing to failure too often recently, a deload may be in order.
I’m not a huge fan of planned deloads, but what I’ve found is that when clients become in tune with their bodies, they’ll know when a deload may be a good idea and can feedback to me.
On a personal note, I know I need some form of deload when my hips and lower back become cranky no matter what I do. It’s usually my body’s way of saying it needs 3 to 5 days off completely, or with a reduced volume and/or intensity.
One of the most important elements to training success is the ability to think for yourself in the gym. If you can follow my programme to the letter, that’s great, but what I really want is for you to learn the ability to auto-regulate your lifting on a day-to-day basis.
If you know what to look for, you’ll be able to really dial in your training so that you can work with your body on any given day, not against it.
You’ll begin to understand:
- The impact of rep speed and style
- When to push
- When to back off
- How to progress from set to set
Let’s say you’re due to do 3 sets of 6 on the deadlift today. Last week you did 140kg for 3 sets of 7, and you’re due to go up in weight to 145kg for 3 sets of 6.
As you’re ramping up in weight to your work set, the weight is feeling heavy and your technique isn’t where it normally is. However, your plan says 145kg for 3 sets of 6.
You’ve got two options:
1/ Grind through the sets somehow, and risk hitting failure multiple times and even possible injury.
2/ Back off the intensity and train in a different rep range for today.
Number one should be out the question. Instead, a better option here would be to choose a weight 10-20% lighter, and perform 2 sets of 8 reps instead, 1-2 reps shy of failure.
This is what auto-regulation is.
These bad days may, and will come once in a while. Not every session is going be amazing, and it’s knowing what to do on these days that will help improve your results.
What about those days where you’re feeling invincible?
Take advantage of it!
Let’s use the same deadlift example of 145kg for 3 sets of 6.
If you’re warming up and the weight is flying up, I would still perform the first set of 145kg for 6 reps. If you feel like you had another 2-3 reps in the tank, you can either:
1/ Go up in weight and maybe go for a personal best. This may look like 145kgx6, 150kgx6, 145kgx6
2/ Make the last set a failure set and go for as many reps as possible. This will ensure that you get your normal volume in, and anything additional will be a bonus. It could turn out something like 145kgx 6,6,8.
Both have merit, and it really depends on what you’re feeling that day.
For auto-regulation to work effectively, you have to be really honest with yourself. It’s certainly not for beginners, and is something which becomes easier as you advance through the years.
RPE guidelines, as discussed earlier, can be useful here as it can quantify a very physiological feeling and help you make decisions throughout your workout.
If you know you’re due to stay 2 reps shy of failure, and your first set is balls out, you know your weight selection was poor and the next set needs to be lighter.
We’ve all had those days where we walk into the gym and aren’t motivated to train, yet 15 minutes into it, we feel great.
The problem there is that the exercise in the first 15 minutes may not have received the right attention it deserved.
A couple of ideas you could try:
1/ Do more warm up sets. This will get you into the groove and excite your nervous system before lifting.
2/ Do some pump work on a small or weak muscle group. If you’re due to train legs but feel terrible, doing some light pump work on the calves, abs and glutes can help wake the body up.
3/ Maybe the best solution is to do some explosive work. Before legs, some bodyweight jump squats for a couple of sets of 3 reps will work. Prior to upper body, some clap push-ups can help.
Success in training is really about stacking together as many decent sessions together as possible. By learning to auto-regulate, you can salvage otherwise bad sessions into something productive.
Even if you follow all the progression templates outlined above, plateaus are inevitable. If they weren’t, we’d all be able to squat and bench 400 kilos.
Let’s assume you’re picking the right weights, stopping sets at the right time, auto-regulating, etc., and you’ve hit a plateau on the bench press at 80kg for 7 reps.
Instead of ditching the bench press and learning a new exercise (which will only provide an illusion of progress), the best method I’ve found to work is just resetting the exercise by reducing the load 10-20% and then work your way back up.
Let’s put this into an example of the bench press, 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps.
In this situation, backing off as follows would work best:
By taking this 2 steps back, 3 steps forward approach, you’ll be able to milk more long term gains out of an exercise.
When you reset the weight to 70kg, you’re allowing fatigue from previous training to go away, but still stimulating strength gains (as the weight is above 80% of the 6-8RM).
While it may not trigger growth as significantly as continuously grinding out 80kg, this method will allow you to come stronger in the future, whereas the grinding would probably lead to strength regression and a frustrated trainee.
When you build back up to 80kg, you’ll be stronger and will beat your previous maximum. Over time, this patient approach to lifting can up to a lot of poundage.
After resetting, you may find that you get up to 85kg before fatigue masks fitness again. At this point, you’ll back cycle your weights and start again.
I think you’ll be surprised how long you can milk this method out as an intermediate lifter.
Another common plateau buster I use with clients is to change the rep range the exercise is being performed in.
If you’ve been bench pressing in the 6-8 rep range for 8-12 weeks, it might be time to now go a little lower into the 4-6 rep range, or higher into the 8-12 rep range (depending on how your programme is laid out).
I’d like to finish this guide on something that I think is critical for intermediate lifters.
Specifically, those who are in extended muscle building phases.
Unlike fat loss phases where results are more tangible and easier to come by on a weekly basis, muscle building is much more of a slow burner.
The reality is, muscle building takes time and patience. And that’s the basis behind much of what has gone into this guide, and why the progression plans I’ve discussed are written with a long-term view, as opposed to selling the possibility of ‘adding 40lbs in 4 weeks’.
With fat loss, you’ll typically see the scale moving at a rate of 1-2 pounds a week, and you know that for the most part, it will be fat that’s lost (provided you’re doing the right thing).
For muscle building, a jump in the scale could mean anything: fat, water, glycogen and maybe a little bit of muscle.
It can be tough to measure, which is why you’ve got to focus on performance.
The best thing you can do to keep yourself focused is to create what I like to call ‘indicator lifts’ for your own body:
- One upper body push
- One upper body pull
- One lower body push
- One lower body pull
These indicators should be the exercises you feel in the right muscles, suit your mechanics, and cause you no pain.
It’s important your indicators reflect your weaknesses. The best way to improve any weak body part is to set a performance goal for an exercise that trains that area.
Over time, it’s critical that these lifts improve, as they should be the benchmark for your progress, and whether you’re recovering from your training optimally.
Once you’ve found your indicators, it’s time to set some goals with them.
Here’s how you can do it (taken from my own log book):
|Indicator||Current Best||12 Week Aim|
|Close Grip Paused Floor Press||100kg x 8||100kg x 12|
|Bent Over Row||90kg x 6||90kg x 10|
|Safety Bar Paused Squat||125kg x 6||140kg x 6|
|Romanian Deadlift||130kg x 10||140kg x 10|
Once you’ve set your goals, it’s time to use the rest of this manual to progress towards it optimally!