How to Progress Your Workouts Over a Training Cycle

Just like thinking there are magic foods that help you get lean or muscular, many people think there are magic programs or exercises that get you the physique you want. 

There are programs and exercises that can help you get the physique you want, but ultimately it comes down to a few principles and then you adhering and staying consistent to those principles that will get you the physique you want. 

When people say they want to improve their physique what they mean is increasing their muscle mass and decreasing their body fat. In order to decrease their body fat, that is going to come mostly through your diet (a calorie deficit) and increasing your physical activity. 

But in order to build muscle you need to lift weights. 

Just like there are diet principles to follow to lose body fat there are training principles that will help you build muscle. 

There are three important training principles that need to be at the base of everyone’s training to build muscle, they are:

  • Specificity
  • Progressive overload
  • Fatigue management

If you want to read more about these 3 principles in more detail read this.

Most people follow a program they find on the internet and it usually has the principle of specificity down. 

However most programs don’t tell you how to progress them and this is where they fail. 

And you get the eventually program hopper. 

In today’s blog we are going to dive into more detail about how to use progressive overload and how to progress a training phase to build muscle. 

Progressive overload

Just as a refresher here is the definition of progressive overload from the RP hypertrophy book. They describe progressive overload as: “in order to produce improvements in performance, training must be challenging enough to the targeted systems or tissues to stimulate adaptation.”

Simply put, if you want to get results and make progress, you must progress your training over time. If you don’t give your body a reason to adapt, then it will just stay the same.

Training Cycles

For online clients and myself we break their training up into different cycles. 

They usually last 4-6 weeks. Each cycle has an emphasis, for example, one cycle may have more exercises in the 5-10 rep range, and then down the line as their volumes increase we may focus more on the 15-20 rep range. 

We do try to keep all of the rep ranges in, but some cycles just have a greater emphasis on certain rep ranges. 

Also some exercises may lend themselves better to certain rep ranges. For example, a back squat probably isn’t great in the 15-20 rep range and something like a dumbbells lateral raise isn’t great in the 5-10 rep range. 

Before Week 1

Usually before week 1 we have the clients current goal in mind, for example, one client may be in a fat loss phase and another client may be in a building phase. 

Training for both of these will be the same, but their diet is what is different. Someone building will be in a calorie surplus (or maybe maintenance) and someone in a fat loss phase will be in a calorie deficit and they will probably have higher step goal to hit. 

We also take into consideration:

  • The equipment the client has access to.
  • What exercises they like and want to keep in.
  • What they want to take out.
  • What muscle group they want to focus on (some may just be focusing on everything).
  • How many days per week they want to train.

We try to not make too many changes at once with their exercises. There is usually about 1-5 exercises we change out from one training cycle to another. 

Once all of this is done then the client is ready to start their new training cycle. 

WEEK 1

Before we start It’s essential that you understand a concept called Reps In Reserve (RIR) – Reps in reserve gauges how many reps you have in the tank at the end of a set. This is the tool we use to make sure the clinet is using the appropriate amount of effort (neither too much or too little). Since I’m not there with them in the gym to judge the appropriate intensity for them to train at, this helps us autoregulate their training and optimize their results.

To Gauge Reps In Reserve  – We have the client ask themselves at the end of a set: “How many more reps could I have squeezed out if I absolutely had to?” Their answer is their “Reps In Reserve” (RIR), or how many reps they  feel they had left before failure.

You can overthink this, so just focus on putting in the work/being consistent with training and over time you will fine-tune this.

Since its week 1 and the client is coming off a deload week most likely AND there are new exercises and probably some new rep ranges in this cycle, we start out at around 3 RIR in week 1. 

Week 1 is essentially the baseline. We tell the client to push themselves but we also don’t want to over do it in week 1 because then progressing will be tough later in this training cycle.

3 RIR is usually when the bar starts to slow down. You are cruising through the set and then you get that one rep where things slow down, that’s your 3 RIR and that’s your baseline for this phase. 

There should be minimal soreness after week 1. 

Week 1 is complete and now you have your baseline to progress for the rest of this training cycle. 

WEEKS 2-6

This paragraph will go into how to progress the rest of the training cycle. 

Once you have your baseline for each exercise now you can start to progress base on how your body reacted to everything after the first week. 

There are 3 ways we progress each week:

  • Increasing weight
  • Increasing reps
  • Increasing sets

You can choose one, a combo of two, or all three. 

This is going to be based on your recovery. Which we will go over in a minute. 

We also lower RIR each week so you have a better idea of how intense your training should be. For example, week 1 is 3RIR, and then in the final week it’s 0-1 RIR. 

Each week we ask the client questions about their training so we can progress off of that as well. 

Example client check in:

We ask clients what muscles got sore and what their overall soreness is like. 

Here are some examples and how we would base our programming off that:

4 out of 5 soreness. In this example, this client is probably at the end of their training cycle or they over did it early in their training cycle. We most likely would NOT add any sets to this clients next training week. We would potentially suggest to make some weight or rep increases. 

In this example, we would add some sets to either muscle groups that they want to improve or where I feel its necessary, but biceps would stay the same. We would probably add some sets to their legs and maybe chest/shoulders. We also would encourage some rep and weight increases. 

 

Not much soreness with these two check ins so we would probably add more sets for their next week. We could probably add a set to most muscle groups. We also would encourage some rep and weight increases.

Here are is an example progression for a few exercises:

As you can see in the JM press this was a new exercise so we started with 2 sets, saw how sore we got and then added sets based on that. There were also weight and rep increases.

 

In the second example, since it is more of a compound lift we focused just on small weight increases week over week. 

It doesn’t matter how you increase. The main thing is that over time you are progressing. This doesn’t have to be week to week, but if you look back a year from now and you are still doing the same weight for the same rep range, chances are you aren’t growing muscle, unless there is a dramatic technique improvement.

Deload/Primer Phases

Eventually, your body will need a rest. You cant increase forever. So we must take a week to back off.

If you have done 3-4 phases where you progress and then deload it might be time for a primer phase. Listen here for what a primer phase is. 

This is the fatigue management principle in play. 

If you are following the progressions above you will eventually need to take a lighter week in the gym, if you dont, then your body will take one for you. 

With clients, we usually take one after 4-6 weeks in a training cycle. 

Watch this video from RP on how to take a deload.

If you can progress like this during each training cycle and then take deload weeks/primer phases from time to time and stay consistent you will make susbstnaitial progress. 

Follow this for a year and watch your physique change. 

If you need more guidance and structure with your training and nutrition fill out the application form here and lets get to work!

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