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Only the Strong Shall Survive: Progressive-Resistive

Widen your foundation in order to improve your strength.

Understanding the concept known as progressive-resistive training can be most useful to anyone who’s designing a strength program. The principle is one of the keystones of weight training, and it’s been around for a long time. Milo used it when he lifted a growing calf every day. Mark Berry wrote about it in the mid-1930s. Charles Atlas incorporated it into his courses, and Peary Rader, Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider made it part of their training philosophies. The principle of progressive resistance holds that in order to stimulate growth and increase your strength, you must systematically add some form of resistance to your exercise. You can do it by adding more weight to the barbell on subsequent sets or by increasing the number of reps you perform with the same weight. If you do the following workout, you use the progressive-resistive method: Five sets of five reps with 135, 185, 225, 275 and 315 pounds. Likewise, if you do 135 pounds for five, 10, 15 and 20 reps, you also use the principle.

It’s necessary to increase resistance because if you don’t, your body will adapt to the work. When that happens, the body becomes complacent and doesn’t grow stronger. Now, for some people that’s fine. They’re perfectly happy with their physical condition and have no desire to improve size or strength.

Most people who train with weights, however, do want to enhance their size and strength’which means they must use progressive resistance. Progressive-resistive training is closely connected to the overload principle, but they’re not identical. It’s possible to overload without using progressive resistance; for example, by doing isometrics. Overloading is usually aimed at strengthening the attachments, the tendons and ligaments. The progressive-resistive system, in many cases, avoids involving the attachments and focuses on the muscle bellies. Why would anyone want to avoid strengthening his or her attachments?

My longtime friend Jack King of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a perfect example. After recovering from a near-death experience, he found he couldn’t do any free-weight exercises for his upper body: no flat benches, inclines, declines’nothing. So how in the world was he going to maintain and improve his chest, shoulders and arms? That was important to him because he’d switched his interest from Olympic weightlifting to competitive bodybuilding. Without arms, shoulders and a chest, he wasn’t going to have much of a chance.

He experimented, failed, experimented some more and, finally, came up with an exercise he could do without pain that brought him the desired results. It was a form of pushup, in which he placed his feet on a bench and did partial movements while he gripped blocks to take the pressure off his wrists. By adding reps, he slowly but steadily worked up to where he could do four sets of 150 reps. It worked wonderfully because he won a great many physique titles, including the Masters Mr. America.

I saw a great example of progressive resistance at work when I was in the Air Force, stationed in Iceland. A corporal had allowed himself to fall into a terrible physical state. Upon arriving at the island, he’d stopped all forms of exercise and started indulging himself to the maximum. Within six months he’d gained 50 pounds, all of it ugly weight. When he became eligible for a furlough back to the States, he altered his lifestyle. It seemed he’d only been married a week before he shipped out to Iceland, and he wanted to look his best when he went home. He stopped drinking alcohol, cut back on his eating and started doing one exercise’pushups. His reason for choosing them was different from Jack’s. We didn’t have a bench in our tiny gym, and he recalled how effective pushups had been for him in basic training. He was in such sad shape that all he could manage the first time was 15 reps, but he had a couple of things going for him. He was extremely motivated, and he was only 19. Slowly but consistently, he added more reps to each set, then started doing multiple sets. Every time I saw him on base’in the rec room, the mess hall, the barracks’he’d drop down and do a set. He got to where he could do 75 in a set, and over the course of a day he’d do more than 1,500.

He was using progressive-resistive training just by increasing his reps, and he altered his physique in a remarkable way. I’ve never seen anyone transform his body so radically, so rapidly. After less than a month on his pushup blitz, he had muscular arms, chest and shoulders. In the process of doing so many reps, he also tightened his midsection, and his upper back stood out in relief. He looked as though he’d been doing some serious advanced-level bodybuilding for some time. Few people can duplicate what he accomplished because most lack his intense motivation.

That sort of approach to progressive resistance is often very helpful to anyone who’s coming back from an injury, especially one that required surgery. It’s not always a good idea to involve the attachments in the early stages of rehab, but getting blood to the damaged area helps the healing process. Trying to use resistance, in any form, too soon can be counterproductive. It’s often better to use bodyweight and progressively add reps in order to increase your work volume.

The approach also fits the needs of someone who has a chronic joint problem, usually from a former injury or as the result of arthritis. I once trained with a 50-year-old man who was a victim of arthritis. He loved to bench-press and did just fine until he moved past 205. He’d spend the next few days gulping down aspirin and unable to sleep. He asked for my advice, stating that he really wanted to stay with the bench, if at all possible.

I suggested he use light weights and steadily increase his workload by performing more and more reps. At his first session he did 135 for five, 10, 15 and, finally, 20 reps. I had him work his way up with progressive resistance to make sure his muscles and joints were warmed up thoroughly before his last set, which was the most difficult. Even though he only used 135 pounds, his total workload was greater in that rather simple workout than it had been when he used heavier weights. Only the intensity was decreased, which was a deliberate strategy aimed at protecting his joints.

He stayed with those numbers for a month, as I wanted to make certain he established a firm base before moving up. Then he slowly added weight on his second, third and fourth sets’not much, only five pounds. When he could do 20 reps with the heaviest weights, he’d increase the poundage. After six months he was doing 185 for 20 and could have handled more, but he wisely stayed under his max. The results were impressive. Because he’d increased his workload, he was giving his chest, arms and shoulders more direct stimulation, and they responded accordingly.

Youngsters who are below par strengthwise also do better by increasing the reps. Most are better off doing exercises without any form of resistance until they have a decent base. Then they can more readily proceed with a strength routine.

Gymnasts have used that concept forever, and thanks to those countless repetitions, they’ve been rewarded with some of the most splendid upper bodies in all of sports. Runners have always used the principle but they don’t usually refer to it the way strength athletes do. For runners to be able to complete a marathon, they must steadily increase their mileage. The guidelines are rather tight. If they can put in X number of miles a week, they’re physically ready to complete the marathon. They don’t add resistance; they just increase the workload by running longer distances.

Starting any exercise with a relatively light weight and proceeding on to heavier poundages is useful for a number of reasons. Using lighter weights is less stressful to the muscles and attachments, which means there’s less chance of injuring them before you have an opportunity to become warmed up. Once blood and nutrients begin to flow into the working muscles, you can expect more of them. I refer to runners again. No runner, regardless of proficiency, breaks out into a full sprint before taking ample time to pump blood into his or her legs.

Another reason for starting out light is, you find your groove on the exercise more easily. For example, using 135 for an opener lets you pay closer attention to your technique. If, on the other hand, you start out with 205, much of your focus has to be on the number, and that adversely affects your form.

Finally, there’s the psychological aspect. It’s seldom smart to start out with a relatively heavy weight because once the weights feel heavy, a negative reaction in the brain brings on failure during the following set or the one after that. On the other hand, if you handle each set smoothly, your confidence soars, and your chances of success with the max weight for that workout increase considerably.

That’s the reason it’s so important to select weights for each progressive set. It also helps some people realize that they need to take more intermediate jumps than their training mates. In that regard, sometimes more is better.

Starting with light weights and moving on to heavier ones is a major part of the progressive-resistive principle, but it’s not the only way to use it in a strength-training program. You can also apply progressive resistance to weekly and monthly progress. You simply calculate the workload, or the volume of work done, and plan your workouts accordingly.

Most trainees never take the time to figure out exactly how much work they do in a given week or month, but without that information you can never know for sure if you’re progressing. Many assume they’re doing more than before, but when they put the numbers on paper, they find they’re doing less’often because they changed certain exercises and altered the set-and-rep sequence. That happens to competitive weightlifters when they get caught up in cycling. They start their routines with very high reps, eights and 10s, and as the contest gets closer, they lower the reps and try to increase the intensity. Unfortunately, what they invariably do is steadily lower their workload so that when they get to the meet, they’re carrying less volume than when they started out.

To me that’s just foolish. There’s no reason why you can’t improve volume and intensity at the same time. It would be akin to a runner pulling back on his mileage before a long race and doing only sprints. Runners, of course, don’t do that; instead, they do both.

In order to improve your strength, you have to widen your foundation, which means you have to do progressively more volume. I portrayed that idea on the cover of Defying Gravity. There’s a mathematical correlation between the height of a pyramid and the width of its base, and that rule cannot be ignored. The same holds true for strength. You will never move to a certain level of strength until you establish a wide enough foundation. That’s the reason it’s so helpful to figure out the total amount of work you do in a given week and month. With that information you can better program the following week and month to help you achieve your goal. Otherwise, you leave it to chance.

There are several ways to help widen the base. Performing more sets with your top-end weights is one. Doing more intermediate sets is another, as is adding extra back-off sets and more exercises per workout.

Eventually, almost everyone has to slip in an additional training session per week. It’s just too taxing to keep piling on work in three days. Very advanced lifters have to consider doing one or two double sessions per week in order to keep expanding their volume. The European Olympic weightlifters were the first athletes to do that, and it gave them a tremendous advantage. It was like a runner who was putting in 50 miles a week trying to compete with one who was logging 100 miles a week.

Some shudder at the thought of training twice a day, but keep in mind that one of those sessions may only involve one exercise and that one can be done with light weights. Over the course of several months, however, the extra work adds up significantly.

The most important point about the principle of progressive resistance is the word progressive. It’s the key part of the concept, and it’s also the part that’s most abused. Additions to overall volume have to come slowly. If you run up your workload too rapidly, you’ll become overtrained. Distance runners use a formula to gauge their increases. They don’t think it’s wise to increase mileage by more than 10 percent a month. I’ve used the same percentage in strength training, and it works nicely.

It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a relatively tame exercise such as chins or pushups or trying to make a 600-pound deadlift. You must make haste slowly. You cannot hurry the process.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM

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