Anyone who trains should be searching for something: progression. Training is useless if it’s not for progression. At the limit, you can train for maintenance, but not indefinitely, and if you train just to “stay fit”, like by running on a treadmill in a gym for an hour everyday, I hope you like it, because there’s more interesting activities you could do that would have the same effects. But this article isn’t about other activities. It’s about getting better physical abilities, like strength. And let’s use my specialty as an example: bodyweight movements.
There is always lots of different means of progression. Usually, you can notice an improvement when you can do more repetitions, even one, execute the movement better, or with a bigger range of motion, or with a greater leverage, do the same thing with heavier weight, or when the exercise simply feels easier. If you get any of those signs, then you are progressing. I am not talking about muscle gains here, but only about raw, effective physical ability gain.
You should be aiming to get those signs, and little by little you will increase your level. It takes time, commitment, constant efforts, and you need to avoid injuries. A very good way to get improvements is to practice a skill that is just under your maximum for several repetitions, or that is your maximum or very close to it for a couple of sets. Depending of the graduation of the improvement (you need to decompose your progression into graduated steps), you will have to get to a certain point before doing something harder.
Here is an example: you’re in a flat and empty field, and you want to achieve full push-ups. All you can do for now is push-ups on your knees. Between push-ups on your knees and normal push-ups, there is no intermediary exercise you can do. Then, there is two things you can do: knee push-ups for repetitions, until you increase the number of repetitions enough to get the necessary strength to do a push-up, or you can do negatives, starting in a high push-up position, then slowing it all the way down, in a motion that takes a couple of seconds. If that fail, you could probably make push-ups on your knees in a harder way, per example if you do them on one hand, or doing negative one arm push-ups on your knees. But you would definitely not fail learning to do push-ups, and you should use repetitions rather than negatives. Depending the number of repetitions you’re doing, you’ll probably recover faster than if you do negatives, and you’ll be able to train more often. If there is no intermediate exercise, switching from one exercise to the other can take lots of repetitions of the first one. Per example, for succeeding to do full push-ups starting from knee push-ups, you’d probably need to be able to do 15-20 knee push-ups.
But here’s an other example. Instead of being in an empty room, you’re in a gym, you got a squat rack with pinholes at every 2 inches, and a bar. Suddenly, you get much more options to progress. You don’t have to do as many repetitions anymore, because you can adjust the level of difficulty in a more refined way. Instead of passing from exercise A to exercise B in one step, you can do it more gradually. Instead of increasing very highly the number of repetitions, you can do push-ups with your hands on the bar, and the bar at a high that allows you to do no more than 8 repetitions. As soon as you would be able to do more than 8 (it’s just an example, you could do the same thing with 1 RMs – one repetition maximum -, with 3 repetitions, or with 50, all depending how you like to work), you’d place the bar lower, until it’s at its lowest, then you’d probably be able to do push-ups on the ground. The biggest amount of repetitions you gain, the biggest step you are able to do (up to a certain limit). The more steps you do, the less repetitions you need to get to the same place. But the way you work also plays a lot on the abilities you develop and on how fast you get there.
The principle is the same with weights. It is simply a matter of time (and intelligent training) before you achieve your goals. Weights have the advantage of being very precise, and therefore, they can be very gradual. Because of that, you can stick with low repetition sets pretty much all the time (but it’s a good idea to do more reps once in a while, and to variate a bit). Here is a progression that I like to do, because it makes me work a lot of different qualities. It is almost the opposite of specialization: it’s generalization. Some people specializes in the maximum amount of weight they can lift. Some other specialize in their appearance. Some of them specialize in endurance challenges, or in their sport. This progression can make you pretty good at all of them. But this progression is better for more experienced trainees, because it requires to start by using a very hard exercise. For beginners, I’d rather advice the opposite. I’ll explain it later.
What you’ll do isn’t complicated at all: take something you do for strength, and train it until it becomes endurance. Simply find a weight, or an exercise, that you can only do for few repetitions. Even if it’s only one repetition, it works. So, let’s start from a 1RM. At the first training, do your 1RM 2-3 times. You should do some warm-up sets before, and do other exercises as well. The next training, do one more set of your maximum. Do that until you can easily do 6 sets of 1RM of this exercise in your training. Just a remark, this works really good for bodyweight movements but for heavy weights, you should start further in the progression, with a load that you can lift 3 times. Keep doing 6 sets of 1RM for a couple of trainings, until it gets easier, until the motion gets faster and more fluid. It is important to get it to a point where your repetition is pretty fast (but controlled). Once you get that, you should switch to the next one. Here is an example of progression:
3×1, 4×1, 5×1, 6×1
3×2, 4×2, 5×2
3×3, 4×3, 5×3
3×4, 4×4, 5×4
3×5, 4×5, 5×5
2×8+ until you get as many repetitions as you want, or until your strength has increased enough to go to the next step on your progression.
Note that more sets are dedicated to low repetitions than there are dedicated to high repetitions. The reason is simple: higher reps causes more hypertrophy, and I prefer to avoid that to keep a better strength/weight ratio. The goal should therefore be to pass through “hypertrophic range of repetitions” as fast as possible. If you are able to skip one step of the progression or spent more time on one, it’s okay to do it. You are the one feeling your own body. But know that if you spend more time doing the same thing, you will see more “strength adaptations” than hypertrophy. Said an other way, the exercise will get easy. That’s what gymnasts do, and what bodybuilders avoid. Strongmen, powerlifters and company are somewhere in between, and it also depends the bodybuilder’s priorities, ranging from targeting mostly strength and efficiency (like most of the first bodybuilders), to targeting only aesthetic gains. Regarding that progression, I think someone should go up to 15-20 repetitions, or more if needed or desired. It always depends what you are trying to achieve, and you should always be spending more time working on your objectives. Also note that the less repetitions you start with, the longer you'll keep working in the strength range.
For the beginners, I would recommend to do exactly the opposite. Starting from sets of 20, and working down to sets of strength. There is no real need to go up to working your 1RMs, and in fact it is not even advised in most cases. But I think that a beginner should start with two sets of twenty, then slowly increase the weight or the difficulty of the exercise. Here is an example of progression for beginners:
In the advanced progression showed higher, each step can be done in one or two trainings most of the time. I think a beginner should spend more time on each of these steps. Per example, two or three weeks on each. It is important to condition the body, and to drill the lifts or movements with a good execution, a good form. Like that, the trainee risk less injuries.
To come back to bodyweight exercises, the main goal should be to work towards the next exercise, the harder one, all depending on someone’s situation. To use myself as an example, I believe I will be back on the road in a matter of months. Now, I have the chance of living in a gym, so I use the equipment to increase what is easier to increase with weights (legs are a very good example). But I also keep in mind that when I’ll leave, I won’t have equipment anymore, and therefore, I should focus to get a good one arm pull-up before I leave, so like that I can start a progression from a 1RM with this exercise. For that, the best would be to do weighted pull-ups, and to work my one arm pull-up technique on the side. I should also take advantage of the weights to do weighted full range of motion handstand push-ups, because it’ll help me to progress faster towards one arm handstand push-up. Same with weighted dips to one arm dips on a bar.
You gotta have to think about where you are going, and how you will be getting there. That’s how you progress.