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June 1, 2001 by Bill Starr
Understanding the concept known as progressive-resistive training can be most useful to anyone who’s designing a strength program. The principle is one of the keystones of weight training, and it’s been around for a long time. Milo used it when he lifted a growing calf every day. Mark Berry wrote about it in the mid-1930s. Charles Atlas incorporated it into his courses, and Peary Rader, Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider made it part of their training philosophies. The principle of progressive resistance holds that in order to stimulate growth and increase your strength, you must systematically add some form of resistance to your exercise. You can do it by adding more weight to the barbell on subsequent sets or by increasing the number of reps you perform with the same weight. If you do the following workout, you use the progressive-resistive method: Five sets of five reps with 135, 185, 225, 275 and 315 pounds. Likewise, if you do 135 pounds for five, 10, 15 and 20 reps, you also use the principle. It’s necessary to increase resistance because if you don’t, your body will adapt to the work. When that happens, the body becomes complacent and doesn’t grow stronger. Now, for some people that’s fine. They’re perfectly happy with their physical condition and have no desire to improve size or strength. Most people who train with weights, however, do want to enhance their size and strength’which means they must use progressive resistance. Progressive-resistive training is closely connected to the overload principle, but they’re not identical. It’s possible to overload without using progressive resistance; for example, by doing isometrics. Overloading is usually aimed at strengthening the attachments, the tendons and ligaments. The progressive-resistive system, in many cases, avoids involving the attachments and focuses on the muscle bellies. Why would anyone want to avoid strengthening his or her attachments? My longtime friend Jack King of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a perfect example. After recovering from a near-death experience, he found he couldn’t do any free-weight exercises for his upper body: no flat benches, inclines, declines’nothing. So how in the world was he going to maintain and improve his chest, shoulders and arms? That was important to him because he’d switched his interest from Olympic weightlifting to competitive bodybuilding. Without arms, shoulders and a chest, he wasn’t going to have much of a chance. He experimented, failed, experimented some more and, finally, came up with an exercise he could do without pain that brought him the desired results. It was a form of pushup, in which he placed his feet on a bench and did partial movements while he gripped blocks to take the pressure off his wrists. By adding reps, he slowly but steadily worked up to where he could do four sets of 150 reps. It worked wonderfully because he won a great many physique titles, including the Masters Mr. America. I saw a great example of progressive resistance at work when I was in the Air Force, stationed in Iceland. A corporal had allowed himself to fall into a terrible physical state. Upon arriving at the island, he’d stopped all forms of exercise and started indulging himself to the maximum. Within six months he’d gained 50 pounds, all of it ugly weight. When he became eligible for a furlough back to the States, he altered his lifestyle. It seemed he’d only been
He was in such sad shape that all he could manage the first time was 15 reps. That sort of approach to progressive resistance is often very helpful to anyone who’s coming back from an injury. and they responded accordingly. and over the course of a day he’d do more than 1. he had muscular arms. Because he’d increased his workload. arms and shoulders more direct stimulation. cut back on his eating and started doing one exercise’pushups. The results were impressive. He stayed with those numbers for a month. and his upper back stood out in relief. After six months he was doing 185 for 20 and could have handled more. Even though he only used 135 pounds. and he wanted to look his best when he went home. but he wisely stayed under his max. He got to where he could do 75 in a set. he’d increase the poundage. I’ve never seen anyone transform his body so radically. then started doing multiple sets. the mess hall. The approach also fits the needs of someone who has a chronic joint problem. At his first session he did 135 for five. Only the intensity was decreased. and he was only 19. He looked as though he’d been doing some serious advancedlevel bodybuilding for some time. Then he slowly added weight on his second. his total workload was greater in that rather simple workout than it had been when he used heavier weights. 20 reps. but he had a couple of things going for him. He asked for my advice. he was giving his chest. usually from a former injury or as the result of arthritis. the barracks’he’d drop down and do a set. but getting blood to the damaged area helps the healing process. He was using progressive-resistive training just by increasing his reps. It’s not always a good idea to involve the attachments in the early stages of rehab. He was extremely motivated. finally. After less than a month on his pushup blitz. he added more reps to each set. chest and shoulders. When he could do 20 reps with the heaviest weights. I suggested he use light weights and steadily increase his workload by performing more and more reps. His reason for choosing them was different from Jack’s. He loved to bench-press and did just fine until he moved past 205. We didn’t have a bench in our tiny gym. he also tightened his midsection. too soon can be counterproductive. so rapidly. especially one that required surgery. Few people can duplicate what he accomplished because most lack his intense motivation. In the process of doing so many reps. if at all possible. third and fourth sets’not much.500. only five pounds. I once trained with a 50-year-old man who was a victim of arthritis.married a week before he shipped out to Iceland. stating that he really wanted to stay with the bench. . which was a deliberate strategy aimed at protecting his joints. Every time I saw him on base’in the rec room. I had him work his way up with progressive resistance to make sure his muscles and joints were warmed up thoroughly before his last set. which was the most difficult. as I wanted to make certain he established a firm base before moving up. and he recalled how effective pushups had been for him in basic training. It’s often better to use bodyweight and progressively add reps in order to increase your work volume. 15 and. Trying to use resistance. Slowly but consistently. He’d spend the next few days gulping down aspirin and unable to sleep. 10. and he altered his physique in a remarkable way. in any form. He stopped drinking alcohol.
but it’s not the only way to use it in a strength-training program. It also helps some people realize that they need to take more intermediate jumps than their training mates. eights and 10s. If. they’re physically ready to complete the marathon. You can also apply progressive resistance to weekly and monthly progress. they find they’re doing less’often because they changed certain exercises and altered the set-and-rep sequence. which means there’s less chance of injuring them before you have an opportunity to become warmed up. For example. No runner. . Most trainees never take the time to figure out exactly how much work they do in a given week or month. In that regard. That happens to competitive weightlifters when they get caught up in cycling. They don’t add resistance. they’ve been rewarded with some of the most splendid upper bodies in all of sports. your confidence soars. Finally. on the other hand. Starting any exercise with a relatively light weight and proceeding on to heavier poundages is useful for a number of reasons. Most are better off doing exercises without any form of resistance until they have a decent base. You simply calculate the workload. Then they can more readily proceed with a strength routine. using 135 for an opener lets you pay closer attention to your technique. what they invariably do is steadily lower their workload so that when they get to the meet. sometimes more is better. they lower the reps and try to increase the intensity. It’s seldom smart to start out with a relatively heavy weight because once the weights feel heavy. Another reason for starting out light is. If they can put in X number of miles a week. They start their routines with very high reps. a negative reaction in the brain brings on failure during the following set or the one after that. but without that information you can never know for sure if you’re progressing. there’s the psychological aspect. Gymnasts have used that concept forever. much of your focus has to be on the number. Unfortunately. Runners have always used the principle but they don’t usually refer to it the way strength athletes do. or the volume of work done. For runners to be able to complete a marathon. you can expect more of them. Using lighter weights is less stressful to the muscles and attachments. they just increase the workload by running longer distances. That’s the reason it’s so important to select weights for each progressive set. On the other hand. I refer to runners again. and thanks to those countless repetitions. they must steadily increase their mileage. you find your groove on the exercise more easily. and as the contest gets closer. you start out with 205. Many assume they’re doing more than before. Once blood and nutrients begin to flow into the working muscles. breaks out into a full sprint before taking ample time to pump blood into his or her legs. but when they put the numbers on paper.Youngsters who are below par strengthwise also do better by increasing the reps. if you handle each set smoothly. Starting with light weights and moving on to heavier ones is a major part of the progressiveresistive principle. they’re carrying less volume than when they started out. regardless of proficiency. and your chances of success with the max weight for that workout increase considerably. The guidelines are rather tight. and that adversely affects your form. and plan your workouts accordingly.
Doing more intermediate sets is another. Over the course of several months. and it works nicely. With that information you can better program the following week and month to help you achieve your goal. It’s the key part of the concept. however. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a relatively tame exercise such as chins or pushups or trying to make a 600-pound deadlift. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. The European Olympic weightlifters were the first athletes to do that. the extra work adds up significantly. of course. They don’t think it’s wise to increase mileage by more than 10 percent a month. There’s no reason why you can’t improve volume and intensity at the same time. almost everyone has to slip in an additional training session per week. Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. In order to improve your strength. they do both. Distance runners use a formula to gauge their increases. If you run up your workload too rapidly.To me that’s just foolish. You cannot hurry the process. and it’s also the part that’s most abused. and it gave them a tremendous advantage. I portrayed that idea on the cover of Defying Gravity. Very advanced lifters have to consider doing one or two double sessions per week in order to keep expanding their volume. Otherwise. The most important point about the principle of progressive resistance is the word progressive. Performing more sets with your top-end weights is one. Runners. you leave it to chance. You must make haste slowly. I’ve used the same percentage in strength training. There are several ways to help widen the base. but keep in mind that one of those sessions may only involve one exercise and that one can be done with light weights. IM . instead. Some shudder at the thought of training twice a day. You will never move to a certain level of strength until you establish a wide enough foundation. There’s a mathematical correlation between the height of a pyramid and the width of its base. It would be akin to a runner pulling back on his mileage before a long race and doing only sprints. don’t do that. you’ll become overtrained. Eventually. That’s the reason it’s so helpful to figure out the total amount of work you do in a given week and month. you have to widen your foundation. and that rule cannot be ignored. Additions to overall volume have to come slowly. The same holds true for strength. which means you have to do progressively more volume. It’s just too taxing to keep piling on work in three days. It was like a runner who was putting in 50 miles a week trying to compete with one who was logging 100 miles a week. as is adding extra back-off sets and more exercises per workout.