I see programs like the ones I am going to describe quite often while stuck in the rabbit hole which is Instagram fitness or the “ads” that pop up on my feed. These are programs that involve only body-weight exercises, or 2.5# dumbbells, etc. Conceptually there is nothing wrong with these programs as they are surely appropriate for some people out there, and for certain goals (like exercising for the first time ever). However, what is wrong, is the claims of efficacy that some of these programs purport. Probably the most common one is “booty building” programs. A quick peruse through the top hits on Google revealed one program that claimed to “build a booty” in 14 days. My initial thought was wow, this must be high intensity (heavy weight/high rep), and high volume (lots of work in a week) to get noticeable results in 14 days. But no. The workout on one day was 25 air squats. Seriously that was it. I am all for low barriers of entry into the world of fitness, but we also have to be realistic about what it would take to “build a booty”, and it certainly involves a lot more than 25 squats and a lot longer than 14 days.
A lot of people have a serious aversion towards weightlifting. I think that is largely due to misinformation and improperly correlating the results that you get from lifting weights with the results you get from taking $10,000 cycles of steroids. I have alluded to it in blog posts before, but I believe the gross bodies of today’s body-builders have unfortunately turned a lot of people away from the training that is most in line with most people’s goals. That training is weightlifting. If you want to “build a booty” for example, or a nice set of pecs, air squats and pushups are only going to get you so far. If you want to seriously build muscle, you need to lift weights. And also, a lot of people don’t realize that lifting weights is a better way to train if you want to lose body-fat as well.
The reason people need to lift weights is because it provides a shock to the system, in a good way. The only time that a body-weight only exercise program is going to work is if your body-weight is sufficient enough to elicit a response in your body that tells it it needs to repair and grow back bigger and stronger. In other words, for beginners such a program may be appropriate to build a teeny bit of muscle and lose some weight, but no serious strength or hypertrophy gains will be made in this manner. You need to do something that is hard enough it makes your body think, “Oh bother, I need to be stronger, or I may die, let’s build some muscle.” (British accent)
The body is the king of adapters. If you have ever heard of the term “nose-blind” which was in commercials for awhile, it is the notion that if your room stinks, you won’t even notice it because you’ve adapted to your own stench over time. If you struggle eating spicy foods, through systematic exposure to spicy foods, you will eventually be able to handle spicy foods. Exercise is no different, but we actually don’t want to completely adapt, because then we won’t change. This is the reason for the "constantly varied" part of Crossfit.
If you spend 30 minutes on an elliptical machine 3x/week, this might be enough to lose some weight if you have never trained before. But, it will not take long for your body to adapt to this stimulus, and the shock to the system it used to provide will be diminished. You may even burn less calories doing the exact same routine after a month or two because it is no longer as demanding as it was when you started. Similarly if you always back-squat 135#, this might work for a couple months to help your grow a booty, but once you adapt to that weight, your body isn’t going to bat an eye and you won’t change or grow.
This is why it is important to realize that progression is essential for continued results. Progression can be thought of as any change in your training which elicits a new or renewed response by your body. Here are a couple of ways to make sure you are progressing.
This can be thought of in a couple different ways. Using the back-squat as an example if we want to continue progressing and want to add intensity we can do this in one or two basic ways. The first way we can increase intensity is by increasing the load. So, if for the past month we have been hitting 5 sets of 5 reps @ 135#, increasing intensity will mean that we do the 5 sets of 5 reps, but @ 145# for at-least 3 of the sets. Another, less utilized, way we can increase the intensity is by decreasing the rest in between sets. If for the past month we have taken a 3:00 break between each of our 5 sets of Back Squats, to increase our intensity we could stay at the same weight, but reduce our reset time to 2:00 in between sets. We are progressing, because the work we are now doing is more difficult than it was before, and we are once again forcing the body to adapt. This is how gains are made. You cannot do the same thing over and over (in terms of stimulus) and expect to continue getting results.
Another way that we can ensure that we are progressing in our training is by adding volume. If someone has been doing 3 sets of 12 reps on the Back Squat and wants to progress without adding weight, a way they can progress is by adding another set. So, now they are doing 4 sets of 12 instead of 3, so they have increased the stimulus of their training once again forcing their body to adapt.
*I do not want Crossfitters to interpret this as meaning add in another “Hero-workout” each week, or to do “Heavy DT” instead always. I am speaking about traditional strength training. If you add volume that is high intensity to the level of a hero-wod or heavy DT you are adding volume which I can guarantee you will not be able to recover from and you will be starting to dig the grave that your CNS will die in.
Time Under Tension
There is a way in which you can increase the intensity but keep the weight and the volume the same. So if we are hitting 3 sets of 10 Back Squats at 135, and want to do the same next week but make sure we are progressing, we can simply slow down the squats, which means that the muscles would be under tension for a longer period of time, and therefore eliciting a renewed response in the body. Going from a tempo of (3111) to (4211), in which we have added 1 second to the eccentric phase of the movement and 1 second to the iso-metric phase of the movement is going to be a lot more difficult, even at the same weight. If you don’t believe me, try some tempo work and see how humbling it can be.
What I strongly suggest you do is record every single thing you do in the gym. This makes it a lot easier to gauge whether or not you are progressing in your training. Each time you back-squat you should be trying to progress in some way. This could mean by adding 2.5# to the bar, going a bit slower in your eccentric, or adding in an extra working set. Each time an exercise comes up, you can check back to the last time that you did it, and then decide how you are going to progress this week. Also, it is like having a time capsule of all the hard work you have put in over the years and over time if you are a hoarder like me, you’ll have a box of old training diaries you can look through. A year ago I found one of my first training diaries and found a workout that I did A LOT as a teenager called “M-Hovs Chest Blast”. It involved virtually every chest exercise you could think of for 5 sets of 5 reps. Those were the days :)
What If I Can't Progress!!
This is where things get a little muddy and the “it depends” answer comes out. You might reach a point where the new week arrives and you try to progress, but you can’t. You try to shrug it off, and come back next week and not only can you not progress you find that you are actually weaker. For those of you who have been in the game awhile you may have experienced this. When you reach this point it means you’ve tapped out your ability to progress within your current program or you are not recovering from the training you are doing. So, you need to change things up. This can mean a week off, upping your calories, sleeping more, or changing to a new program/rep-range. The longer you stay in the game the better you will get at recognizing when it is time to change things up. This isn’t a negative thing, its just how the body works.
If we want to change we have to provide the body with a stimulus that is going to make it panic a bit and want to change. There is a fine line here. Get it just right and you have great results, not enough you get no change, and too much you get over-training which results in no change or worse, decline. Weightlifting is particularly good at making the body think it needs to change because external loads can provide a good shock to the body more so than an air-squat or unweighted leg-raise. There are numerous ways you can make sure that you are progressing in your training, such as increasing intensity, volume, reducing rest periods, or increasing time under tension. A sure-fire way to help make sure that you are progressing is by recording everything you do, so that you can always check back and make sure your doing just a little bit more each week. If you find that you have hit a wall and are struggling to progress, it means that you are either not recovering from your workouts, or you are too well adapted to them.
We’d all like to have a great body by doing as little as 25 air squats a day, but that just isn’t how the body works. The truth is our bodies are highly resilient and amazing at adapting to the things we put them through, so make sure you are continuing to challenge yourself if you want to keep on growing and progressing.
If you or someone you know has an above average interest in health and fitness and needs a guide to help them find their way, feel free to pass on my info or fill in the contact page on my website.
Grit Human Performance