It was the summer before Sophomore year at high school. I figured if I started with 20 pushups each and every day, and added one pushup per day, by the end of Summer I’d be significantly stronger.
So I started on my plan. It was easy in the beginning.
Then it started to get tough.
…Then it failed. One day, despite giving 110% I failed to increase my rep count.
I tried to make up the work the next day, getting two reps more to keep me on schedule. Nope, didn’t happen.
Went for the same thing the third day. Another failure.
I scratched my head. Sadly, I gave up at that point, not really understanding what was happening.
Today, I understand. And I know virtually everyone that gets involved in strength training inevitably has a similar story.
For other people, the story isn’t a rep at a time, but adding 5 lbs. to the bar each workout. It’s the same idea.
This is the story of linear progression. In theory, it is flawless. In practice, flawed.
That doesn’t mean it’s not useful. It absolutely does work in the beginning. Essentially, linear progression works…until it doesn’t work.
And for that reason, it’s actually a great starting point with any exercise. Do it until it stops working and then you need to get a bit more complicated (but not overly so) to continue the progress.
Enter a double system of progression. The above examples are of single variable progression. A double system takes two different variables and uses them both.
Typically, this is volume and intensity.
(Make sure to read the first article in this series about what intensity, volume, density, etc. mean if you don’t already grasp it.)
You see, in the pushup story above I was simply trying to increase one variable, what I could do in a set, the amount of volume, each workout.
The other example of adding 5 lbs. to the bar is of increasing the single variable of intensity.
The classic double system of progression is to combine these two variables. More intensity and more volume, but one at a time. Specifically, when you hit a benchmark with a certain volume, then you increase intensity and do so at a lower volume. Then, from workout to workout you increase the volume again. Rinse and repeat.
It can look like this. You’re pressing 135 lbs. in a military press, able to do so for 3 sets of 4 reps. In the next few workouts, you aim to hit 5 reps in that first set and finish off with two more sets of 4. The following workout your aim is 5,5,4. The next workout 3 sets of 5. That’s your benchmark.
Then you increase the weight to 140 or 145 lbs. Now you may start at 3 sets of 3 or 4 reps and your build up in the same manner once again.
Slower progress then the linear method…but it works better long term.
Yet again, this method works…until it doesn’t.
So you can introduce a third variable. But when you do so your progress takes on a somewhat different form. That will be covered next time.
Want more of the basics of training like this? The Master Keys to Strength and Fitness will give you the foundation you need.