Regress to Progress?
A major misnomer in the training world is that progress in training is mostly linear; that the path to whatever the goal may be is mostly a straight line to the big win. Of course, if that were the case, Nancy and I wouldn’t have jobs. When you’re newer to the game, these little movements backward in progress are short-lived. You might be consistently adding a little weight to the bar most workouts and have the occasional bad one. No big deal. But what happens when you have one that lasts for weeks or even months?
20+ years of battling the barbell has taught me that there’s actually a ton of value to these periods of halted progress. In fact, I’ve learned that not only are they necessary, but that this rhythm must be harnessed over the long haul to maximize progress. Not only do we expect our athletes to experience periods of decay, we intentionally program them.
No, your eyes don’t deceive you, so I’ll repeat it again: We purposely program periods of training where we intentionally try to “weaken” our athletes… Sort of. Read on to find out why!
When you’re newer to the game, let’s say anywhere from a week to a year of experience, your progress is routine. You’re almost always adding weight to the bar or doing more reps in a single set than you were before. Either way, progress happens rapidly enough that morale remains high, withstanding the occasional poor workout. However, eventually the “easy” progress evaporates.
One of the hallmarks of more advanced programming is the division of goals into specific periods of training. The more advanced you become, the more time and complexity required in the strategy used to obtain new One-Rep Maxes. Every coach is going to conceptualize these things differently, but for our purposes, I think we can agree that some of the primary qualities a coach must improve in their lifters are:
- Mobility: Can you actually attain the positions a movement requires?
- Exercise Technique: The more efficiently you move, the more weight you can lift.
- Raw Strength: Either in the competition lifts or closely related ones.
- Work Capacity: The more work you can handle, the greater the adaptive stimulus.
- Muscle Mass: Bigger muscles have a higher potential for expressing raw strength.
I’m leaving some out, but I think the list above ought to make sense if you’ve spent at least a few months lifting. Now, imagine that I gave you a program that expected you to improve all of these qualities at the same time, at roughly the same pace. For simplicity’s sake, let’s illustrate this concept with a single workout:
- Spend 20 minutes doing special exercises for your hip mobility. Then…
- Begin the workout with 4 sets of 3 reps of slow, Tempo Squats with moderate weight to dial in your technique. Afterwards…
- Add more weight, and then do more Squats at regular tempo for 4 sets of 4 reps, followed by…
- Lowering the weight and doing an additional 4 sets of 4 to build work capacity, finishing with…
- Front Squats for 3 sets of 12 reps with 50% of your One-Rep Max to slap some muscle on those legs. Then…
- Repeat steps 1-5 for the Bench Press.
You know as well as I do that this would be… well, stupid. You can’t do everything at once. You have to organize things in a logical sequence.
Think “Re-Balancing,” Not Regression
Maybe regression is too strong of a word. Perhaps “re-balancing” is a more accurate expression. A point we’ve made in the past is that there must always be a logical sequencing of “enablers”: training qualities that will enhance one another. That litany of exercises posted above? All of those are things we would do in the quest to improve someone’s max, but we wouldn’t do them at the same time. We would group them together based on assumed (and observed) synergies.
For instance, we know that having someone do sets of 10 in the Squat will add muscle to the legs. We also know that time under tension (the literal time you spend training in a movement) is a driver for muscle growth. So in this respect, it would make sense to combine the Slow Tempo Squats with the lighter, higher rep sets of Front Squats mentioned above. Ask yourself, though: how closely related are slow lifts and sets of 10 to a full speed, all-out, heavy lift for one rep? Not very.
So, even though we know that this kind of work is beneficial – because we know that bigger muscles and better control of the bar lead to better 1RM attempts – we also know that they’re not related enough to concurrently gain together. This last point is critical because the more advanced you become, the more work you have to do in each of these areas. And, the more work you have to do, the more we have to distance the development of these qualities simply because you can’t recover. As a result, you’re going to lose fitness in some areas.
In our most advanced athletes (who’re very familiar with this process), it isn’t uncommon to see as much as a 5-10% reduction in their ability to express 1RM strength in a given lift depending on what stage of training we’re at. What you have to get used to is the relative volatility of your ability to perform at different times throughout the training process.
Remember: the goal of training is to break through limits. That necessarily means you’ll have to accomplish tasks you’ve never done before. Let’s go back to that list of qualities we need to work on and re-phrase what it is we need to do:
- Mobility – You need to be more flexible than ever before.
- Exercise Technique – You must practice your technique so it’s even better than ever.
- Raw Strength – That old 5 rep max? Start moving it for multiple sets across.
- Work Capacity – Average 10,000kg a week? It needs to be 11,000 now.
- Muscle Mass – Gain 2-5kg and everything’ll be easier. Get eating. Get growing!
Those are a lot of limits to break. If you can get better at 2-3 of those in a given training period you’re doing exceptionally well. That’s why we always train according to an ordered sequence of priorities, either within a single program or over the course of multiple programs.
So, if you’re feeling weaker in your ability to lift a heavy weight, but your overall workload week-to-week has increased by 10%? That’s progress! Progress in your work capacity/tolerance that will form the foundation for what you do next. I know. Much easier said than done.
The challenge of adhering to “the process” is getting your mind to ignore the gap between what you’re immediately experiencing versus what the training data says. What you’re feeling in the thick of a training cycle matters, but often doesn’t tell the whole story of what’s actually going on. There’s only one way past this: experience and knowledge. The more you learn about how things work, the more confidence you’ll have in what you’re doing, even if it leaves you feeling weaker than you’d like.