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Tracking Your Strength Gains

If you have found your way to the ION Training blog, you’re probably familiar with how great lifting inanimate objects and then putting them back down is – after all strength training is our jam and is the focus of 4 days of our 6 day a week program.

My question to you is, what are you doing to get better at lifting these inanimate objects?

If you exercise just to tick a box, or complete the exact same workout week-in week-out, as long as you enjoy or are committed to doing so there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. After all movement is movement, and movement is so good for you.

However aren’t you a little curious to get that little bit better? Don’t you want to know if the training is “working”? Isn’t it within human nature for us to learn new skills and put in work to get the hang of these skills? And nothing worth knowing or learning comes without putting the work in.

So then how do you get better/stronger/faster/stable-er at lifting these objects?

Answer = progressive overload.

The principle of progressive overload is simple – in order to keep making gains from an exercise program, you must find a way to make it more difficult. The human body is an amazing machine and will always try to find the path of least resistance to conserve energy, meaning it adapts to movements and loads quickly. And if you don’t continue to adapt through progressive overload, you will eventually plateau within your program – where’s the fun in that?!

Progression can come in many forms.

Motor control – improving the way the movement looks and feels according to the movement pattern you are working on and the muscles being used. For example, do your knees cave inwards when squatting? Are your traps bunched up towards your ears when you bench press? If you take the time to perfect your form, you will be in a better position to progress your load with efficiency and less chance of injury.

RIR / RPE – Repetitions In Reserve or Rate of Perceived Exertion are two great scales that can be used to determine how difficult a set of an exercise is. Reps in Reserve is a measure of how many more repetitions you will be able to perform if you were to continue passed your target repetitions. For example, if you were doing a set of 50kg squats for 10 reps one week and it felt difficult enough that you could only do another 2 reps if you kept going, and the next week you felt stronger and could maybe pump out another 6 reps, this is a great indicator of adaptation. On the other hand Rate of Perceived Exertion is a scale from 1-10 which can also be used, 10 being your 100% maximal effort, and 1 being hardly any effort at all. So if we use the previous example, in the first week if your squats felt like an 8-9 out of 10 and the next week felt like a 7 out of 10, this is a great way to determine if you are ready for a load or repetition increase. Keep in mind using the RIR or RPE principle is highly personal and can vary depending on other lifestyle factors (e.g. if you are not getting enough sleep, nutrition out of whack or stressed at work). But as long as you are consistent it is another great tool to determine progression.

More repetitions – the RIR concept above can be used here if it makes sense for your program to keep pushing extra reps outside of what is prescribed. So if you hit your set of 10 with relative ease, keep going until technical failure if increasing your weight is not an option yet.

More sets – this one is entirely dependent on what you are trying to achieve and can be a contentious subject – there are so many factors that can argue for or against adding sets and my advice would be to speak to a coach. But nevertheless it is another form of progression to consider, especially if you are not jammed for time when at the gym.

More weight – this is the obvious one, especially if strength gains are your goal or if you don’t really want to be pushing out an extra 10 reps once the weight begins to feel easier. My personal favourite way to track progression is by applying the RPE scale to every weight increase and working towards making the load feel easier before increasing.

But when should you consider progressing? I like to ask myself the following questions to ensure I am progressing but also considering other options before putting more weight on the bar:

  • Does my movement look good? Consider recording yourself or asking for some advice from a skilled eye.
  • How many more reps do I think I could push out at the completion of this set (RIR)?
  • How difficult did that set feel (RPE)? My program is asking for an 8 out of 10 RPE – was that really an 8 out of 10?
  • I am feeling good today and will increase my weight – is there a spot available just in case?

And finally, how do you know you are progressing? TRACK YOUR PROGRESS!

How to Track Your Progress

You don’t have to be Einstein or a modern day data-nerd and analyse the correlation between how much carbs you ate in the 3 hours prior to getting your lifetime 6RM PB. Simple does it – life is complicated and progressing your training should not be an additional stressor. Track your main compound lifts (squat, bench, deadlift, pull variant) – track the load for each rep scheme. And if you want a little more insight, track the RPE for each. There are a million workout log spreadsheets you can Google, or iPhone notes. Find what works for you, and look back on your strength gains with pride.

Ellen Wong, ION Community Manager and Senior Performance Coach

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