How and When to Progress Training

Written by: Kevin Cann

We all know that progressive overload is necessary to force adaptations.  However, this does not mean that every week we need to add something to training in order to drive progress.  I think in many cases that is nothing more than the coach becoming nervous about the lifter developing and rushing things a bit.

Arkady Vorobyov was a 3-time Olympic medalist and sport scientist from Russia.  He found that mixing training with high, medium, and low stress training days was much more effective than the traditional approaches of programming.

This was the influence for Boris Sheiko’s program.  Sheiko would identify the average number of lifts per day and that would be a medium stress day.  10-20% would make it high or low.  There were even very low and very high stress days thrown in as well.

High stress days drive adaptation, medium will maintain, and low allows the athlete to recover.  These programs were very specific to training volume as an average intensity and average number of lifts were major pieces.

The high stress days were all basically the same in terms of average intensity and number of lifts.  The loads would vary day to day, but if you plucked out and looked at the high stress days alone, they were all basically the same.

They would remain the same until you hit a new max.  Then the percentages would just be taken from that larger number increasing the load on the bar.  It did not change from week to week, but instead from cycle to cycle.

I have adopted this same approach in our programs except we add in max effort lifts.  One of the drawbacks of submaximal work is there is not consequences.  The athlete does not get afforded the opportunity to work on the mental tools that are necessary to lift heavy weights in competition.  

We do look to break a record in a variation on week 3 in our programs.  This is progressive overload built into it in one way.  This helps to teach the skill of competing to the lifter.  At the end of the day, that is what we are doing.  Week 1 is a conservative max effort that lets us see what is breaking down, week 2 are submaximal reps to allow us to work on that, week 3 we beat a record.  The rep work stays pretty consistent throughout an entire cycle in terms of intensity and number of lifts, much like Sheiko did.

Later in the training week we have a lot of submaximal volume.  This is where the patience with progressive overload comes into play.  The lifter will record a last set RPE for each exercise that they complete.  This tells me how hard that they feel the exercise is, but also gives me a glimpse into their recovery.

Each time we repeat a given set and rep scheme at a given load, it should become a bit easier.  However, this is not always the case, because not everything else remains the same.  Life is variable for one.  Also, the other training days can influence that fatigue.  Nothing like 3 days of hard max effort lifts to make a day 4 submaximal day feel heavy as fuck.  

This is actually one way that you can make the same load feel harder, have more fatigue going into it.  Place some higher stress days before it and you have a medium stress day that can be very tough.  That is what a Sheiko program is like.  The accumulation of all of the volume breaks you down and by repeating it over and over, it builds you back up to higher levels.

Recovery is not just a day-to-day thing.  There are acute and chronic markers for recovery.  Prescribing loads by RPE attempts to adjust based off of day-to-day changes in performance.  I prefer percentages here as the math doesn’t lie, but to use the RPE number as information that the lifter gives me to tell me how things are feeling.

I will look at these markers as well as trends on the max effort lifts.  There is a spectrum of recovery, suboptimal, neutral, and optimal.  It is not categorized as one or the other either as people tend to typically lie between those categories.

Neutral is when performance fluctuates from day to day.  Suboptimal can have the same fluctuations, but typically accompanied by some nagging things or some overtraining symptoms.  A loss of performance can be seen here as well.  Optimal is what we all strive for, hopefully before a meet.  This is when we catch a wave and just hit endless PRs.  This is rare and enjoy it if you get it.

When we look at progressive overload we need to understand where the lifter lies on this spectrum.  We do not want to add volume to a lifter that is neutral and push them into the suboptimal.  In fact, we never want to do anything that will push the lifter further to the suboptimal side of that spectrum.  Therefore, it is very rare for me to add volume if someone is not seeing the performance increases that we should.  

When I do add volume, I add it to the beginning of a new cycle where we get less max effort lifts, and it is an upper lower split for greater recovery.  This allows them to adapt to the volumes that we will run for the entire cycle.

If they are recovering really well through a training cycle, as seen by drops in last set RPE as well as PRs on max effort lifts.  I will slowly add weight to the submaximal days once it drops to a RPE 7 for a week or 2.  If we started at an 8, and PRs were coming in on max effort lifts, and now we are a 7, we have some wiggle room to add some weight.

If they are not hitting PRs, but the RPE is dropping on the submax work, I will typically repeat weights a little longer to be sure they are recovering.  When in a phase 3 in our programs, we get more max effort lifts, I will drop the weight back down.  This will be sure they are recovering and maintaining the conditioning and the number of reps we were doing in previous phases of training.  The overload now is coming from more max effort work as we gear up for a competition.

Over time there needs to be progressive overload to get stronger.  However, we cannot rush it.  Rushing it can lead to poor recovery, which leads to poor performance, and eventually can lead to injury.  Progression can coincide with performance.  As performance increases, the percentages can be taken from the new higher maxes and the same intensities and number of lifts can be used.

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