Progress for strength training must depend on adding weight over time. Any program that fails in this goal defeats the only reasonable purpose to lifting weights. Although progress depends on countless factors, only two major systems work well to pursue it:
Systems based on factors other than adding weight fail to focus on increasing tension, the main stimulus for more size and strength.
Basing a system on range of motion, with partial reps proceeding toward fuller range reps, will fail to create as much tension according to the length-tension relationship.
Basing it on speed, whether performing faster or slower reps, ignores that a balance between fast and slow works most safely and best for performance.
Basing it on volume, with the same weight used but with more reps, sets, exercises, and sessions instead promotes too much work, generating by-products of fatigue that prevent as much tension.
Remember that our muscles can perform a near infinite amount of low intensity work. The best way to develop strength, and fitness in general, requires you to develop a higher power output. This means more work in the same amount of time, or close to it.
The double-progression method involves an increase in weight after achieving the highest number of reps within a range. This option tends to support larger increments of weight added each time, with typical minimums of 5 lb.
You set an upper range limit, such as 12, and a lower range limit, such as 8. Through trial and error, you choose a weight that challenges you to reach at least 8 reps, but no more than 12.
Once you meet or exceed 12 reps during a set of an exercise with a given weight, you increase the weight by 5 lb., 5%, or a similar amount for the next workout. This reduces you back toward the lower reps within the range. You then repeat this process over and over again, growing stronger and more muscular.
Be wary of adding weight before you achieve your upper rep limit, a common mistake when your gains halt. Instead, take a look at your program and non-training factors to make sure you are primed to succeed.
The single-progressive system typically involves using very small weight increases, equal to or less than 5 lb., with a constant number of reps performed each workout. This method tends to support smaller increments of weight added each time, usually between 0.25-5 lb.
A trainee following this method may go for 5 reps and no more or no less. They increase the resistance by ½ lb. each workout they achieve this goal. If they stagnate by only getting 4 or less, they reduce the weight enough to allow the rep goal to be reached again and perhaps choose smaller increments in the future.
Which System Works Best?
Both methods can work though I favor the double-progressive system. Whichever method you choose depends on personal preference. Working hard but not too long or too often, staying consistent, and eating and sleeping well and long enough to recover rank much more highly in importance.
The double-progressive method suits any amount of weight available. Most gyms only can support minimum increases of 5 lb. for the weight plates added to barbell exercises. Adding 5 lb. will almost always cause you to get fewer reps the next workout, so this system automatically goes into effect. Watch out for the trap of continuously adding weight when not achieving more reps to create only an illusion of progress, and which can threaten your safety if the reps fall too low.
Most importantly, this system suits training to failure, since you may want to exceed your rep goal. Make sure you restrict the total reps though. A rep range much more than 30 is less conducive to gaining strength and size.
Some trainees find they can only progress consistently by keeping a specific number of reps and choose the single-progression method. This also can benefit from auto-suggestion, or repeating a single number time after time again to build confidence. It also allows small increases that may suit advanced trainees that have settled on an ideal rep count that works for them. Some also believe that holding back effort when doing well, when you can exceed your rep range, prevents overtraining.
Avoid any sort of pre-programmed progression such as through periodization, which assumes you can predict progress, and may detrain you.
Progression should ideally occur under the same and best conditions. This gives you measurability to analyze your training variables. For example, alerting the rest lengths between exercises drastically may create the illusion of progress.
Once you pick a system, stick to it for long enough to see gains.
Lifting Progress Made Simple
Talent is a long patience.
– Gustave Flaubert
Choose either of the two major systems, then spend time concerning yourself with more important matters. Work hard while eating enough, sleeping well and long enough, and resting enough. This will allow you to make progress while lifting.