What follows are the exact initial guidelines on training progression that I give to clients. They are an abbreviated version of the guidelines in The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book that I co-authored with Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez.
They are exceptionally logical and structured, the antithesis to the approach of just hitting the gym, smashing some weights and hoping for progress. They will stop you from wrecking your joints when starting out by increasing the weight you lift too quickly, and they will help prevent you from stalling for months on end, often without you realizing it. If you put the effort to read, understand and implement these instructions they are going to pay off for you big time. I will be waiting in Tokyo for you to buy me an overpriced craft beer as a thank you. 😉
The following progression rules work well for exercises you are able to make incremental progressions in weight session to session with. This is what defines the “novice progression” category. This is not about how long you have been lifting, or how much you can lift. My friend Greg Nuckols took his deadlift and squat to over 500 lbs before he needed to use some form of non-linear progression (periodization) as you will when you get to the “intermediate progression” rules, and yet no-one would look at those lifting stats and call him a novice. Admittedly, he is a genetic freak and was born to lift, but the point is that I want you to separate your ego from the name of each of the progression rules. Do not skip this section just because it is titled novice progression.
Novice progression is faster than intermediate progression, so use these rules while you can.
You will progress more quickly with some exercises than others. You may have more experience with some exercises already than others. You may have taken some time off from performing an exercise which means you would benefit from changing your progression style from “intermediate” to the novice style temporarily. Therefore, for some exercises in your program you may use novice progression rules, but for others, you may need to use intermediate progression rules.
If you are new to a lift or returning to a lift after some time off, on the first workout just choose a weight where you feel comfortable performing all the sets and reps listed, with that same weight. You don’t want to be pushing to a maximum here because you will be learning (or relearning) the movement.
If you see, Squat 2×8, listed in your program for example, then choose a weight you feel comfortable performing 8 reps for, for two sets.
Sometimes you may see exercise listed like this, Squat 2×8 (~70% 1RM). This means perform 2 sets of 8 reps, using a weight that is approximately equivalent to 70% of your one rep maximum (1RM) for the first workout. Now, it’s important to note that this is just a guideline to help you choose a weight. If you are new to an exercise you will just have to guess at the initial weight you use because you won’t know your 1RM, and it doesn’t make any sense to test for it at this stage because you will get better quickly with practice.
For those that have experience with a lift but don’t know their 1RM, it’s possible to use a 1RM calculator. Just plug in the number of reps and the weight you can lift it for and it will tell you your estimated 1RM. You can then take a percentage of that number to set the weight you will lift with.
For example, if you know the maximum you can squat for a single set of 5 reps is 200 (5RM), and your program lists, Squat 2×8 (~70% 1RM) on the one day, and Squat 3×4 (~85% 1RM), on the other, you have two options for choosing a starting weight:
Either option is fine, the calculation method is just an estimation anyway and you are only doing this for the first workout.
After the first session just add weight in steady increments each time. For the heavy full and lower body compound movements (e.g., squats and deadlifts) I’d suggest you increase 10 lbs each session initially, assuming you can do so with good form. For other exercises that work less overall musculature, (e.g., the bench press, overhead presses, rows and any isolation exercises) you’ll want to progress in 5 lb or 2.5 lb increments.
There will be a point where your progress slows down and it is not possible to make increases session to session. If you have micro plates (1 lb, 0.5 lb) you can use those to keep increasing the weight each session. If you don’t have access to these (as with most gyms) just increase the weight every other session, focusing on the feeling of it being easier in that second session. Meaning, use the same weight, sets, and reps, but there will be a lower rating of perceived exertion (RPE). More on RPE later.
Here is an example of how someone would progress with this system. I’ve chosen 5×5 just to keep the numbers simple.
This is just an example, and obviously, you will want to adjust according to how you progress, but pay attention to the following points:
If your progress starts to stall after implementing the deload as described above without a return to progress afterwards (assuming sleep, nutrition etc. are in check), it will be time to consider changing your progression pattern to that of an intermediate trainee which I’ve covered below.
You’ll see that I have numbers and “RPE” noted next to the exercises in your training plan.
RPE is a useful method of measuring intensity when lifting called Reps In Reserve (RIR) based on Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This was popularized and developed by powerlifting coach Michael Tuchscherer and has been researched by Dr. Mike Zourdos and my co-author on The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid, Eric Helms.
RPE when using this scale is based on how close to failure you get at the conclusion of each set. You simply do your sets and choose how close to failure you wish to get. A 10 RPE would be at failure (or rather, no additional load or reps could have been performed), a 9 RPE would be one rep left, an 8RPE would be two. Have a look at the table:
Sometimes we may use an RPE target to prescribe load on its own (e.g. Seated Cable Rows 3×5 @8-9 RPE), or used in combination with a %1RM (e.g. Squat 3×8 @6-7 RPE, 67.5-72.5% 1RM). This is useful because sometimes when you are in a fatigued state, you may under perform, and by doing this I am able to tell you how much stress you should be experiencing, versus what is being prescribed.
For example, let’s say your performance was slightly suppressed due to residual fatigue, but you had 5 reps at 85% of 1RM programmed. Feeling great, you might finish this set with 1 RIR (a 9 RPE). However, in a fatigued state, this might end up being to failure or you might even miss the final rep. To avoid this, I’ll prescribe not only a percentage of 1RM target but also an RPE rating so that you can adjust the load as needed to match the intended stress.
So, if one day you have Squat 3×8 @6-7 RPE (67.5-72.5% 1RM) programmed for example, but the weight feels heavier than usual today, and though you can get your target of 8 reps, you feel that you could only have performed one more rep (which would be an RPE of 9, not 6-7), then you’ll reduce the weight you lift for the next set to around the level where you will hit your RPE target. You’ll then finish any subsequent sets using that weight.
Note: Subsequent sets will be more difficult as you fatigue so use the lower end of the RPE rating for the first set. Also, bear in mind that on some days the latter sets can be disproportionately hard, and for that reason, we don’t want to go more than 2 RPE points higher than the starting setting. So, if your initial RPE setting is 7, then don’t perform any sets over an RPE of 9. If you do then stop your set, and if you have another set to perform, choose a lower weight so that you can hit the target number of reps.
This system works best when you have training experience with a lift. So for any exercises in your plan that are new to you, just bear in mind that you will get better at using this system over time with them.
[For a fuller explanation of RPE and how to implement it in your training programs check out this free email course Eric Helms and I put together.]
As it is related to RPE, I’ll include some notes here on training to failure.
Training to failure is something I was a fan of for years, but have moved further and further away from as I’ve gained more experience as a coach.
“Failure” has two common meanings:
In general, we don’t want to perform the big, multi-joint compound lifts to mechanical failure (squat variations, deadlift, overhead press, etc.) as the risk of injury when form breaks down is too high. Even performing these lifts to form failure on a regular basis is a bad idea for the same reasons and because the systemic fatigue generated is also very high (which can limit your ability to perform for the rest of the session). That said, it is much safer to train to failure with isolation exercises that don’t require full body efforts such as bicep curls, leg extensions, or even some machine compound movements like rows, pulldowns or perhaps the leg press.
You may be thinking at this point, “Why would I ever not want to go to failure? Doesn’t failure increase the amount of muscle activation I get and ensure that I have trained the fiber completely?” Those things are true for the most part, however, that’s looking at each exercise in isolation, rather than the big picture.
If you were to do 3 sets of bench with your 5 RM load, and on your first set you maxed out and went to failure, you would probably drop down to 3 and then possibly 2 reps on your next two sets depending on your rest interval. This will be 10 reps total. However, if you were to stop and just do 4 reps on the first set, you may be able to maintain 4 reps for all 3 sets. This will be 12 reps total.
In this way, it’s easy to see that we can hurt the amount of volume that we can do by going to failure too frequently. Thinking even bigger picture, going past just the single exercise, and thinking about subsequent training sessions, there are further negative implications of training to failure all the time.
As volume is a key driver of training progress, and training to failure can hurt the amount of volume we can perform, I do not want you to go to failure with any sets unless instructed.
We have two different sets of progression rules which I’ve split into the categories, “compound movements” and “isolation movements.” We will now have a deload every 4th week for both.
With novice progression, a simple 10% reduction in weight was all that was necessary to deload, and you did this whenever additional weight could not be added. Managing fatigue is a little more complex however for the intermediate trainee (which is probably best defined as someone who needs to use intermediate progression techniques for the majority of their lifts).
You will have lift-specific, periodical deloads built into the progression pattern every four weeks. This allows residual fatigue dissipate before it can build to a point where it hampers performance and prevents you from progressing with the workout plan as intended. It will also reduce the risk of injury by allowing your connective tissues to recover. You must resist the temptation to not deload.
Occasionally, we will have a full deload week where I will instruct you to reduce volume (and sometimes intensity) for all exercises. I will typically do this at times where life or work stresses are high and I feel you could use a break. I may also suggest one when progress just seem a little off with expectation and I think you could benefit from one. For exercises with 2-3 sets, I want you to reduce the set number by one. For exercises with 4+ sets, reduce the set number by two. If I want you to reduce the intensity also I will give a percentage I wish you to reduce the loads lifted by, typically, 10%.
Let’s say that you have Bench Press 3×6-8, 70-75% 1RM listed in your training program.
Here is how that looks in a table:
You can see that load, reps and volume will fluctuate workout to workout, but the load being used will increase every four weeks. This is called “linear periodization,” meaning that intensity goes up as volume goes down. It is a wave loading intermediate progression because the volume increases every fourth week.
For the 3-5, 4-6, 5-7, and 6-8 rep ranges, drop the rep target by 1 rep each week with only a 5-10 lb (2.5-5 kg) increase in load week to week.
For the higher rep ranges of 8-12, reduce the rep target by 2 rather than 1 each week. So for example, if you see Incline Press 3×8-12 listed you would do a week of 12’s, then 10’s, and then 8’s, while increasing the load 5-10 lbs each week. (In most cases I’d recommend 5 lbs.)
For isolation exercises, it is not realistic to increase load as quickly. Imagine trying to add 5 lbs to your dumbbell bicep curl every fifth week – it is simply an unrealistic amount of progress. That would be an increase 10 times every year, requiring an addition of 50 lbs (~22 kg) to your bicep curl each year when most people can’t even dumbbell curl 50 lbs for one rep strict. Think about it in relative terms. If your max squat is 355 lbs (~160 kg), a 5 lb increase is an increase of about 1.5%. if your max dumbbell curl is 50 lbs a 5 lb increase is an increase of 10%. So that same 5 lb increase is over six times more of an increase for a curl than a squat. Therefore, we need another approach for isolation exercises.
The approach that I’d suggest we use is to add reps week by week, instead of increasing load. This is almost a reverse linear approach, where we are adding volume before increasing intensity, rather than adding intensity while decreasing volume. This is called double progression – we don’t progress the second variable until we progress the first; we don’t progress load before we progress repetitions.
Let’s say that you have Bicep Curl 3×12-15 @7-8 RPE listed in your training program.
This is an example of how you as an intermediate trainee can still make pretty visible linear progress on a more or less week to week basis. (As a side note, if adding reps is too difficult in a narrow rep range such as 8-12 or 12-15, you can widen the rep range to allow slower progression, i.e., 8-15.)
Which progression system should I choose for exercise [X]?
The line between “compound movement” and “isolation movement” can be a little blurry. Furthermore, for some exercises that are technically compound movements, the isolation movement progression rules can be better suited as they will allow you to progress between the jumps in weight.
The dumbbell overhead press is one such exercise that immediately comes to mind for example. You may be able to progress using the compound movement progression rules for only a short while before the jump to the next set of dumbbells (which is usually in 5lb increments) becomes too great. At this point, you want to move to using the isolation progression rules.
In terms of progression speed: Linear progression > linear periodization > double progression > advanced periodization techniques.
For all exercises, choose the one furthest to the left of the continuum that you can actually progress with. This is the way you’ll progress fastest. When you can’t do the one, you move onto the next.
Are you suggesting I do the novice progression or some lifts and the intermediate progression for other lifts?
Yes. Whatever lift you can do novice progression for, do so, as you’ll progress fastest.
What about advanced progression?
This is for people who have gained 80–90% of their genetic potential in terms strength and/or hypertrophy and are seeking to get the remaining 10–20%. This can get complicated and beyond the scope of this article. If you enjoyed this though, I think you’ll get a lot out of the book.
If you have found this helpful, you might be pleased to know it is just a small section taken from our Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book. The second edition, along with the Nutrition companion book, was released this January 3rd, 2019.
Join 16,000+ other readers, get your copies here.
Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.