When To Progress an Exercise: Muscle Confusion is Wack

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“How do you know when to progress an exercise whether it be increasing load or implementing a different exercise altogether?”

Photo Credit: EliteFTS

This is a question I receive a lot from other trainers and coaches, as well as many of the athletes and clients I work with on a daily basis.

And to be honest there’s no one clear-cut answer. As is the case with any question asked the appropriate response is…it depends.

What do you want for dinner tonight? It depends.

Who are you going to vote for in 2016? It depends.

Where should we go on vacation? It depends.

What do you want to watch tonight on tv? It depends. But if it’s Downton Abbey I’d rather swallow live bees.

The above examples aside, when it comes to anything related to fitness, and especially with regards to exercise and weight selection, the default answer is always…it depends.

There’s a cacophony of factors that need to be considered, including but not limited to one’s training history, experience, injury history, training schedule, equipment availability, work ethic, not to mention any number of specific goals and needs that need to be taken into consideration.

All factor in and play an important role in designing a training program.

Speaking from a generic vantage point I do feel there’s an easy answer to the question.

1. How To Progress Load

Lets use an example I think everyone reading can relate to. Have you ever been working with a certain weight on any exercise and crushed it, only to increase the load 5, 10, maybe 15 lbs. and it seems as if gravity increased tenfold? The weight doesn’t budge. Or if it does it’s infinitely more challenging?

What gives?

Simple.

You haven’t “earned” the right to increase load yet. You haven’t performed enough repetitions at “x” to increase to “y”.

I get it: Progressive overload is KING.  It behooves all of us to make a concerted effort to try to increase load (increase sets or reps or both, or decrease rest intervals) – to do more work – each and every week. I think this is a fantastic approach and something many trainees often overlook in lieu of the more sexy or unconventional answer.

It’s not the lack of chains, or bands, or some lost Eastern Bloc Undulated Block Periodization set/rep scheme written in Elvish that’s the reason you’re not getting stronger or making progress.

For whatever reason many people resort to long division or Common Core for the answer when all they needed to do was add 2+2.

Or, in this case…add more weight to the bar.

But even that simple approach will only go so far. And this is what occurs when we add 5-10 lbs. to the bar and it’s as if a giant magnet is underneath the floor.

Stick with the lower weight. Stay there. Own it.

You’re not any less of a human being or the spawn of Satan if you perform an exercise with the same weight for multiple weeks in a row. Life will go on.

For further reading on progressive overload check out my article on BodyBuilding.com on the topic HERE.

2. When to Progress An Exercise?

The answer to this is a little trickier and a bit more murky. Without getting too far into the weeds I find that most trainees (and even worse trainers/coaches) suffer from exercise ADD.

The market is saturated. Walk into any commercial gym and you’re likely to see anywhere from 10-20 head shots of personal trainers near the front desk all highlighting their certifications, education, and how long they’ve been eating Paleo.

Who to choose?

Far be it from me to tell you. While I attempt to answer that question HERE, it’s hard to say with any certainty what you’re getting when you hire a personal trainer. There are plenty who look amazing on paper who end up making people do shit like this:

 

And this is what I mean when I refer to exercise ADD. Because the market is so saturated many trainers resort to gimmicks and smoke & mirrors (and use buzz words like “functional training” and “core” and “balance”) to separate themselves from the masses.

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

The more “gimmicky” and against the grain a trainer appears, sadly, the more attention they get. Goblet squats just aren’t as sexy as whateverthef*ck is being demonstrated above is.

Personal training has become more about entertainment and one-upmanship than getting people results and helping them become more autonomous.

READ: the goal of any trainer should be to educate and make it so their client DOESN’T need their services.

I mean, look at a program like High Performance Handbook (which is representative of many of the programs we write at Cressey Sports Performance). There’s not a ton of variety involved. Yet, people get results.

Of course there are outliers and trainers/coaches who don’t fit into this mold. But those are few and far between. In this day in age “success” is defined by Facebook likes and Twitter followers than it is by experience and being able to actually coach someone through a deadlift.

To that end, to answer the question:

1. Read THIS article by CSP coach, Tony Bonvechio, which gives some insight on how to choose the best accessory exercises.

2. I’d argue most people don’t need as much variety as they think they do. The whole notion of muscle confusion and that you have to switch up exercises every few weeks irritates me. For most people this makes no sense because rarely do they allow themselves enough time to learn and “own” the exercise to be able to perform it efficiently.

Alas, they make very little progress.

I’ve used this analogy before, but with program design (especially when the goal is to get stronger) I think of things as a diamond.

At the bottom are your beginners, and at the top are your advanced and high-level competitive clients/athletes. Neither need a ton of variety in their training.

Beginners need to learn and master the basics – squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, carry, skip, swing, side-shuffle, etc.

Advanced trainees/athletes need to be concerned with their competitive lifts and/or because they’re so strong, don’t require a ton of variety (or stimulus) to maintain that strength.

In the middle, however, are the intermediates. Not coincidentally this is where most of us (even myself) reside.

It’s here where we can be a little more Willy Wonka(ish) and immerse ourselves in the crazy, zany world of variety.

So in many ways how you “progress” an exercise will be dictated by where someone resides in the diamond.

NOTE: I’ll be covering this very topic in more detail at the Elite Training Workshop here in Boston on Saturday, August 1st.

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Comments for This Entry

  • cgfcpa

    I struggle with this topic as a home gym guy with limited equipment. I always had lots of trouble increasing the bench press. Squats and dead lifts are much easier to move up. I'm starting to use speed failure as my signal of when to increase the weight. In other words, its not enough to struggle and barely get the bar up, I am staying with it until I "own it" as you say above.

    July 21, 2015 at 3:59 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Rachel

    Just tonight, I actually saw a trainer guide her client through deficit deadlifts with a kettlebell while she was standing on 2 bosus. Coincidence that a baseball guy uses a diamond as an analogy? :) I like it though. I wish I had the time and resources to attend your workshop. I had so much fun at the conference, I can't wait til another learning experience like that. Damn logistics of attending events! Great to meet you there!

    July 21, 2015 at 9:19 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Deficit deadlifts off two BOSU's. Huh. Well that's a new one! It was a pleasure to meet you last weekend in Providence Rachel. I'm sure we'll cross paths again down the road. Hope your little cameo appearance in Boston was enjoyable!

      July 22, 2015 at 7:40 am | Reply to this comment

  • Paul Bruce

    Tony, I really appreciate your discussion of training-ADD. I'm a new trainer - I actually got my first client only a month ago. But I've been reading your material, and that of those you've suggested, for well over a year, just soaking in as much as I could for my OWN training. Now that I'm training my client, I feel fairly confident in what I can do for her. She's a (semi-professional?) soccer player, who has a partially torn MCL (and tight adductors, makes sense), two bulging lumbar discs, and poor hip external rotation and thoracic extension. So for the past few weeks, I've warmed her up with some basic dynamic flexibility and static core stability, and work on goblet squats w/ heartbeat, face pulls, judo push-ups, and hip thrusts/RDLs. I've been experimenting on different ways to do the exercise (e.g., cable face pulls vs. TRX face pulls), but they're the same exercises I'm sticking with. And she's remarked on how much she feels she's improved. She feels her groin loosening up, her upper back posture has improved, and her lower back feels better and more stable. I think the problem of trainer-ADD comes from the overabundance of exercises. There are so many variations off of each basic movement pattern, and some trainers think "OOOOOH! I SHOULD TRY THAT! LOOKS COOL!" I can't tell you how many times I see trainers in my gym changing up the exercises they teach their clients, or selecting useless exercises (if your client is a beginner, why the heck do you have them do lateral raises?!). When it comes to exercise selection, and changing up the exercises, the trainer needs to consider what their client needs RIGHT NOW. A trainer should always be looking at their client, where they are in their training experience, what issues need to be addressed, or what goals need to be achieved, and program exercises as such. Unfortunately, many trainers just want to show their clients whatever new and exciting exercise they learned on YouTube...

    July 22, 2015 at 9:47 am | Reply to this comment

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  • Guzzy

    Stick with the lower weight, stay there own it. Such a great reminder Tony. Thanks as usual. I know wedding pictures take forever to get back from photographers but please throw in one more!!!!!

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