Dismissing Progression: It’s More Than Just Adding Weight to the Bar

Lee Boyce
Written By: Lee Boyce
February 10th, 2016
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
29.6K Reads
Dismissing Progression: It’s More Than Just Adding Weight to the Bar
The weight on the bar is just one tool in your toolbox. Use it wisely but realize there are also other options which might be more advisable.

Despite all the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronnie Coleman quoteables that you hear circulating around many hardcore gyms, the actual byproduct of such a mentality is usually “jacked and broken” – and if you think about it, it’s pretty true.

Most of the swollen gym bros who’ve got some mileage on them are also nursing some chronic pain they’ve developed from not listening to their bodies and addressing an issue that began to surface over time – whether it’s immobility, damaged muscle tissue, or joint pain.

However, this could also be due to the vehement refusal to change gears and look at weight training through a different lens. I’m a believer that “progression” doesn’t need to be measured only by putting more plates on the bar or by moving the pin further down the stack. Having this mentality can stymie your gains and hinder your progress.

In truth, when training for size, it’s less about the training and more about its effects on your muscles. Use these techniques to get the gist of what I mean.

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1. Increase Your ROM

How long does it take you to perform one rep?

There’s going to be a standard amount of time it takes if you’re an average guy, given you’re lifting properly. It’s helpful, however, to remember that in part, your training effect is a by-product of physics. The amount of work you complete is the quotient of force x distance.

In English, the further you travel creating the same force against the same weight, the more work you’ll have done. Let’s put this to example. 

Imagine putting 2 guys head to head. Each person is well conditioned for his specific body weight, except the first guy is 5’7” and the second is 6’5”. We load them with their body weight equivalent and make them each do a set of 6 back squats with full ROM.

Related: Warming Up For Dummies: A Lifter’s Guide to Injury Prevention

The 5’7” guy only has to travel downward 24 inches at the hip in order to reach full depth. Conversely, the 6’5” guy has to travel down 32 inches on each rep.

After all 6 squats, the “distance” the short guy has travelled would be a grand total of 288 inches, whereas the tall guy would have travelled 384 inches.  That’s a big difference, and the taller guy would have likely been more physically taxed from performing such a task, due to the amount of work he’s just done.

With this in mind, let’s use it to our advantage and leverage an added range of motion for our training benefit. Where it’s possible, perform reps with added range of motion to make muscles work harder. Here are a few examples of great movements:

  • Deficit Deadlifts:  Stand on a plate or step platform and pull using your standard deadlift or sumo deadlift technique. This will lower the bar compared to its initial starting poisition and cause a greater ROM pull. You’ll be surprised at how difficult these are.
  • Deficit Reverse Lunges: Perform typical dumbbell-loaded reverse lunges, but start with your lead foot on a step. That leg will have more work to do to get your body back to the finish position which create an even greater training effect than traditional reverse lunges.  Check out the video below for a visual.

  • Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat with Added ROM: instead of setting up your typical way (by finding a bench and elevating your rear leg with its help), add one more small elevation to your front foot by – you guessed it – standing on a low step. The added 4 or 5 inches of elevation means a deeper depth for the trailing knee to achieve when lowering to the floor.
  • Atomic Pull Ups: This one is simple: Don’t just pull your chin up over the bar on each rep. Pull the neck, shoulders, and even the chest over the bar too. It’s difficult, to say the least.

2. Increase Your Rep Ranges

If you’re training for size, who decided that you can only get big off of lower rep ranges and heavier loads? 

The most elementary textsbooks on the principles of training will state this as a general guideline, but I think it’s safe to say that if you’re reading this, you know that the standard 8-10 reps with 2-3 minutes of rest is a very introductory directive for muscle hypertrophy.  Given you’re not a complete beginner, it’s useful to think outside the box.

You'll hit fast twitch muscle fibers through low rep training but for some realize this has a created a rather dichotomous viewpoint towards hypertrophy. Fast and slow twitch hypertophy are both important when it comes to your physique development.

Moreover, if you consider muscle groups that are generally geared towards sustained efforts and endurance (think of the postural muscles of the mid and upper back, the quads, the calves, and even the biceps), they generally respond quite well to high-rep training. It’s part of the reason Olympic cyclists and skiers have very well developed quads and gymnasts have well developed biceps. 

Dismissing Progression: It’s More Than Just Adding Weight to the Bar

Instead of going heavy enough for your 8 rep max on every set, lower the weight a touch and crack out sets of 12, 15, or even 20 reps. As an aside, this will also do well to improve your conditioning.

Who wouldn’t want that?

3. Change Your Tempo

Like I mentioned above, making gains doesn’t only come from adding weight – it can also come from making lighter weights feel heavier. Time under tension is the name of the game:

  • 4 Second Negatives - Simply put: Explode up like you normally do, but on the down phase, take 4 seconds to lower the weight and immediately explode into your next rep.
  • Paused Reps - Get used to more time under tension by hanging out at the bottom of your big lifts. This won’t only be tougher to do, it’ll also help train your absolute strength, since the stretch reflex will be inhibited thanks to the dead stop.

This is especially effective with pushing exercises.

In both of the above examples, the lifting style will likely force you to lower the weight by around 20% in order to perform them with good, strict technique while adhering to the set guidelines. Don’t underestimate them.

4. Decreased Rest Intervals

For body part split, the goal is often to zero in on specific muscles and ensure they’re completely exhausted by the end of the workout. Taking 2 to 3 minutes of sweet rest may give you the strength to crank out subsequent work sets with the same weight but it’s worthwhile to revisit your training priorities from time to time.

Related: 5 Best 20 Minute HIIT Cardio Workouts For Rapid Fat Loss

We want size, so weight lifted occasionally has to take a backseat to your training effect and perceived exertion in this particular instance.  Letting the ATP and creatine kinase only partially rejuvenate before the next set is the key to exhausting muscle, and just one of the many reasons why systems like German Volume Training are so effective.

The lesson here: shorten up your rest interval – even if it’s by 15 or 30 seconds. It’ll kick your cardio in the pants, but it’ll lead to a greater pump and increased training density.

The Great Plate Debate

The framework of a good workout really should have no frame – or at least a very flexible one. There are several hacks you can make that transcend the addition of more weight if you’re just trying to get as big as a house.

If you really want to bust through a size plateau, take a phase that zeroes in on one of the 4 points above, and enjoy the ride – and the results.

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