Progressions. How much? How Fast? And why it is probably the most important contribution a coach can make.

Overload/Adaptation.  We all know what it means, but I do not think that there is enough attention paid to both.  Today I am going to talk about the overload part of the relationship and how to manage progressions to optimize time and performance improvements. 

The myth of Milo was that as a small child he would go out every day and, at first, lift a calf and then as the calf grew Milo was lifting a larger and larger animal until as a grown man he was lifting a bull.  This is the lesson of small incremental overloads over a long periods of time that can lead to great strength gains. 

My experience has shown me that properly timed progressions are the quickest way to make gains for my athletes.  I believe that all the fancy exercises and technology in the world cannot compete with a great understanding of how to progress an athlete. 

I believe that a great coach’s real value is in the gift of time to their athletes.  Most think it is injury prevention, athletic performance, sport specific performance etc.  However all of these things provide the athlete with more TIME.  It is a gift of more productive years of the highest level of performance.    If an athlete is injured they cannot train, poor program design wastes an athletes productive years (even if there are gains made).  Could the gains have been greater?  I see my role as a coach to realize the greatest amount of sustainable genetic potential of the athletes I am charged with training without injury.  My understanding of the science and the athlete’s body allow me to give the athlete much greater performance in their most productive years of play.  Athletes are dynamic, that is why the monitoring of how you are progressing is so important.  I have a hard time understanding a coach that does not write things down.  I am always writing notes to myself and even though there are a ton of spreadsheets available to use, I still rely on my notes to help me understand the dynamic nature of training.  These notes allow me to learn better ways to make progressions. 

I am looking for incremental changes in my design to produce greater and faster marginal gains that when added together create what I call “tipping point” fitness. 

Years ago when the Raiders were in the Superbowl I was lucky and got to train Regan Upshaw that off season.  He was one of my first high profile elite football players.  When I trained him he had been 11 years in the NFL.  I had never worked with a defensive end at the time so in my evaluation of him the first thing I did was look at what was my primary objective if I was to improve him as a player in the gym.  If I could create an athlete that when the ball was snapped was immediately in the quarterback’s face I would be a tremendous coach.  Now that is an impossible task, however I have to look at what percentage of that objective I could achieve and work backwards.   With that mandate in mind I began to tear apart everything he did once the ball was snapped.  What did he require physically to perform at his best based on the needs of the position?  I would use the tools of exercise science and training to reduce the time it took him to get to the ball.    It started with looking at his stance to determine how I could reduce the time of his first movements in any direction.  We found that he had a very long rear foot stance.  This was comfortable, but slow.  His time off the ball was about 30% faster if we brought his rear foot up closer.   I then looked at what I needed to do from an exercise physiology standpoint to better accommodate this new foot position as it was initially awkward.  Adding more hip flexor mobility made this new stance more comfortable for him.   This was my first incremental gain and it was a tipping point for him.  The time immediately after the snap has much greater value to a lineman.  During the Superbowl, as I watched the game I saw him line up on the ball and then move his back leg forward and it put me on the field.   I was elated.   Of course we then moved forward to evaluate all the other physical needs of his position.  With great athletes marginal gains add up to big performance gains. 

With that in mind what have I seen as one of the greatest influencers to really fast results without injury?   Is it a better understanding of technology, pre-hab, program design, exercise science, mobility, stability, exercise selection, Olympic lifting skill, coaching capabilities etc?  The list goes on and on.   I am not discounting the importance of having a basic understanding of all these tools.  However, with a decent understanding of these tools the greatest impact I have found is determining when and where to progress athletes.   The great thing about this skill is it relies more on your ability to pay attention, listen and observe than all the science in the world.  Without regular incremental overloads you will dramatically slow progress!!  I will say that again.  Without incremental overloads on a regular basis you will see little change!! Milo would have been puny if the calf did not grow. 

After High School, athletes today have short off seasons when you may get blocks of training time that are big enough to have an impact.  Let’s say an athlete is 19 when he starts college.  According to the NFL Players Association the average career length is about 3.3 years. The NFL claims that the average career is about 6 years (for players who make a club's opening day roster in their rookie season).  If this is the case, and each player has about 8 weeks (I am being generous) when they can train consistently in the off season the time disappears fast.   That is a total of 4 years in college and about 6 years in the pros.  So about 80 weeks of total off season training time when gains can really be made.  So if you believe that adding 2.5 lbs to a lift is insignificant you are really missing the boat.  I tell my athletes that proper progressions are like compounding interest for retirement.  At first it does not seem like it is doing much.  Then all of a sudden you look at the account and there is significant money in the account.  Building an athlete is similar.  Sensible regular progressions compound and appreciate in value over time.

If there is unproductive time it is costly.  One week a year of lost gains in fitness is 12.5% of the total time the average player has in a NFL career after high school to make gains.  2 weeks lost is 25 percent of potential that is lost to the athlete.  This is devastating when you know that the difference between franchise player and getting cut can be very small percentages in performance at that level. 

The problems that arise in progressions are because the human body is a dynamic mechanism. 

This attention on progression needs to be devoted to strength, but even more so to power and any metabolic conditioning you may be performing with your athletes because there is a bigger risk of overtraining these metabolically taxing exercises.  Progressions are even more important as the athlete becomes better and better.  This is because overloads need to be bigger or more intense to get a change in performance as the athlete gets fitter and fitter. 

What are the factors that need to be considered when progressing an athlete? 

Time:  How much time do I have to train the athlete?

Maturity:  How long has the athlete been training at this level?

Chronological Age: This will have an impact on recovery time.  It does not mean an older athlete cannot recover quickly, but age needs to be taken into account.

Recovery and adaptation time: This is more of an individualized evaluation. 

Fatigue:  CNS(central nervous system )/Peripheral (muscle specific)

Current level of relative fitness:  What level of fitness are you starting with?  The fitter the athlete the more important the progression.  An unfit athlete will make gains quickly with most types of stimulus.  However, the fitter athlete has to have a more focused design.  

Biomechanical issues and impediments: This may limit your ability to make big progressions until this is remedied.  However, I have found that from injury I become a much better coach at figuring out ways to improve the athlete in areas that have been neglected for long periods of time. 

Past or recent injuries: Athletes have injuries.  How far away from the injury is your training and always remember it can impact your progressions.  It is equivalent to driving a high performance car fast on bald tires. 

Baselines to establish overloads:  Poor baseline analysis wastes a great amount of time as you do not get to an overload level fast enough.

Mental toughness:  Some athletes hate to train at things they are not good at.  No one does.  However, it is like getting a kid to eat their veggies.  Sometimes you have to figure out how to make them think it is dessert. 

Winning a workout:  Athletes want to win.  If you are not creating little victories in each workout, morale diminishes and progressions are more difficult as you will see breaks in training. 


Type of progressions: Periodization

So what is the most effective method of progressing an athlete?  When how much, how often is the science of periodization.  The Eastern Bloc in the 1960s were employing 10 year periodization.  They would identify a candidate in their early youth and then start the process.  They would look at progressions over a very long period of time.  Tudor Bompa is considered a pioneer in the study of periodization and brought much of the eastern bloc training methods to the West. 

Overload/progression: A simple definition of a progressive overload is anything over the normal that creates a stress large enough for the body to make an adaptation. 

Examples of Overloads:

Load/Intensity:  More weight. More power output. Higher Velocity, Higher percentages of maximum output. 

Volume:  Time of output.  More reps.  More total sets. 

Rest/Density: Rest between the sets, Rest between the reps.  Most do not think about rest between reps.  I utilize this method very effectively in training for efficiency of producing power. 

Tempo: Speed of a movement

Metabolic load:  Anaerobic, glycolytic, and aerobic.  What are the fuels needed and rest to recover ratios?

Periodization is just the design of the overloads and rest to elicit a desired outcome. This design will impact progressions in your training.   Typically it is organized in blocks.  The blocks cover different energy system needs or physiological objectives. .  Strength, Hypertrophy, Strength Endurance, Power, Power Endurance, etc.  You typically have a micro cycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle.  The micorcycle is the individual objective of a workout, mesocycles may be 3 weeks and the macrocycle is the overarching longer term strategy.  I have studied Vershonsky and Siff’s and Bompa’s work on the subject.  The problem with most of the original periodization models is that they are develop for weightlifters or competitive Olympic lifters who sport is their training. As a strength coach, and a competitive cyclist I have learned much about how periodization impacts aerobic performance on the bike.   How do you take the lessons of these progressive overloads  and apply it to a particular sport for power and strength?  You are not trying to build weightlifters most of the time, but you are trying to improve movement and power by way of the weight room. 

Endurance athletes are much better at periodization than most team sports.  The endurance athlete’s seasons are long and there is often times a need to peak for particular events and this lends itself to an effective periodization.  With a field athlete or team sport there is more of an overall need for fitness and then some peaks throughout the season that are dictated more by the coaches of the sport itself, not the Strength Coach. Once the season starts it is more play and rest with lots of maintenance to minimize de-training.    However, the principle behind periodization is really just a physiological management tool for overloads and adaptation so that the athlete is at their peak when it of most valuable. 

I think the take away from all of these periodization programs is that you need to build a solid foundation of fitness that addresses the need for the sport.  This allows the athlete to progress from this foundation with higher and higher intensities and overloads that have a low risk for injury or overtraining, and then build on this fitness throughout the season through maintenance workouts and competition.   

There are a number of different types of periodization and I will not go into detail on all of them in this post.  The two most common I see in use are a linear periodization and an undulating periodization.  Linear, would break out blocks of time with objectives in each block.  Hypertrophy, strength, strength endurance etc.  Each block would have a focus and you would progress through the blocks.  Undulating periodization has multiple objectives and peaks and troughs more often within each of the objectives.    Personally I like Louie Simmons Conjugated system for my strength and power training (much more undulating in nature) the best as the principals can be applied much easier to different sports and level of athletes and fit well into a commercial center.  Collegiate athletes have mandatory practice which makes some aspects easier.  The undulating system more easily allows me to better address the unpredictability of an athletes time and more rapidly progress athletes that progress at a greater rate of speed and may have faster recovery times.

My personal system I label Training with Windows:  I am a visual guy so I like to visualize my overall training design for an athlete as if I was looking at a wall of windows.  Each window represents a particular physiological requirement for that particular sport.  Remember, most athletes we train are not competitive weightlifters, so the ability to have multiple physical qualities is very important.    The windows reflect the needs of the sport at the highest level of performance.  During the year some of the windows are wide open and some just slightly open.  The only time they are all wide open is during competition.  I spend a lot of time identifying the needs of the sport and what skills the athlete comes to me with and then determine the gaps for gains. 

So let’s look at a couple of examples.  Let’s say I have a competitive high jumper.  Some of the primary physiological windows for the sport would be the following:  Lower body strength, lower body power, mobility in hips, mobility in back and shoulders, dynamic core, stability and power, t spine mobility, drive leg power and strength, high rate of force development, hamstring strength and eccentric loading capabilities, strength endurance, speed strength, knee stability.  These are some of the primary windows I would be evaluating.  Most of these are pretty obvious, but what is the current physiological infrastructure of the athlete that I need to improve to address these needs and how do I progress the athlete?  We need the athlete to have the ability to perform a large number of strength exercises with large amounts of weight.  In addition we will also need to make sure there is enough mobility to handle the upcoming training for power.  I am looking for correlation coefficients to the act of jumping.  A correlation coefficient is the amount of influence one variable has on another variable.   Your best squatters are typically not be your best vertical jumpers, but squats will help improve a vertical jump.  So therefore squats are part of the program that will help support the power training to improve vertical jumps.  An extreme example of this concept would be forearm strength and high jumping.  I would say there is a very low or nonexistent relationship (correlation coefficient) to high jumping.  In fact if your forearms got to big they would add unnecessary body weight which would negatively impact the athlete’s jumping height.    However without good wrist mobility and forearm strength power cleans are difficult to execute.  So there has to be a window opened to this skill of wrist mobility and shoulder integrity even though it is not a primary window. 

So the size of the window I utilize is determined by the relationship it has directly or indirectly in supporting the final requirements of the athlete for the sport. 

So with the idea of these windows how do we design and monitor progressions?

As is said when it comes to strength and power I like the Conjugated training system, because it is regularly addressing all the needs of the particular lifts, but with emphasis on particular areas at different points in time.  This also supports my idea of little victories and keeping the athlete engaged.  Remember, athletes do not like doing things poorly.   So you need to balance these skills.  My high school athletes want their biceps to look good when on the field.  The need for biceps may be very low in their respective position, but I have no problem killing their arms and sending them out of the gym with a big pump from time to time to give them a win.  

So following through with my windows metaphor, I never completely close the window on any required skill, however I may just crack the window open at one time and have another window wide open.  All the while changing the focus so that I am marrying the individual’s progressions to the needs and weaknesses in their performance skill set that may already exist.   If an athlete is monster strong on deadlifts and squats what is the added value of adding more squats if the position or sport they play does not require greater lower body strength than they already possess.  Therefore, the window may be cracked to maintain the lower body strength but allows me to shift my focus and time elsewhere.   I may skip ahead and go to maintenance on these exercises and jump right to improving the athlete’s power.  This saves me valuable training time that I can gift to the athlete.   This is also why I am not as fond of systems of training with elite athletes.

I believe in sport that all roads lead to power.  Now in some cases it is a high output of power for a few efforts. (High Jump, Shot Put etc.)  However, most sports require multiple efforts of power in different planes of movement.  It is not the highest output of power that wins, but the ability to hold the highest percentage of that power the longest in a competition.

So once you have established the Windows (needs of a particular sport and position) and established what baseline skill set you athlete possesses (How big are their current windows?), the next step is designing the program that will best address these needs and gaps that the athlete may have and also which are most important to change.   This is your overarching program design to address the improvement necessary to bring your athlete to their highest level of output in the time you have.  I call this inter-workout design. 

Now, within the workouts we have intra-workout design.  This is where I most often see time being wasted with poor progressions.

My goal is to progress the athlete to the greatest overload the fastest without any risk of injury.  So, I do not want to waste sets, reps, or a workout, because I did not get the overload I wanted.  Time is where the value exists.  Every coach will say if I had more time with the athlete I could make bigger gains.  This type of analysis can give you more time. 

The first thing I do is set a primary objective of my workout.  Ex:  I am going to get a max in the deadlift or bench, or bump absolute power.  The primary objective can also be to reign in the athlete so that later in the week I get the big lift.   This primary objective is the win of the workout.  Then if you have a hiccup, which you always get, you can still see if you can accomplish your primary objective.  Sometimes you just can’t get an overload, but by going in with the objective you know what direction you want to be heading.  You also know that maybe today is best suited for active recovery, because if you try to force the overload at a subpar output you just dig the athlete into a hole and risk overtraining. 

Intra-workout progressions can be set up a number of different ways.  They can be arbitrary from week to week.  You just set an increase in weight that is fixed from week to week or a percentage increase week to week.  I think this may work better for individuals that are new to lifting or have not been in the weight room for a number of months.  The progressions will usually be bigger jumps as the athlete gets back into the lifts and the body makes a more rapid adaptation back to the previous normal.  The athlete has been here before, and you are just working on technique and seeing if there are any biomechanical issues that need to be addressed so this transition time is not real improvement over where they were at the start of last season.    

You can also progress week to week and make changes based on the performance the week before.  I like this with more mature athletes and it may work well in a bigger groups.  This can be on a fixed percentage or perceived exertion by the athlete.  If you use perceived exertion you have to educate your athletes on what this means or you will not get the output you desire. 

My goal is to reduce what I call wasted reps and sets and workouts.  I want training not exercise.  Exercise is a component of training but may not contribute to moving the needle forward. 

I use a rep scheme that allows for the dynamic nature of how an athlete feels.   It is based on past lifts, but not wedded completely to the past lifts.  The past lifts act as a guide.    I overlay this with trying to have max lifts in one or two exercises in each workout.  I monitor the type of lifts so that I do not do a squat max and deadlift max in the same workout or back to back on days.  I am careful about designing the workouts so that recovery time is adequate.    These could be an upperbody and lowerbody, pulling or pushing maxes on the same days of the week.  It is also dictated by how many days in the week I get to train the athlete.  If you get the athlete more often you can be more creative with the maxes.    This would be similar to the conjugated system.     I or one of my coaches will observe the lift and try to progress the athlete based on a previous weeks lift, but at the same time take into account the possibility of a fitness bump during that workout.  As we know as athletes get fitter jumps in fitness come slower and less often and I want to take advantage of a bump as soon as it takes place. Not a week later!! This is really important and why I like notes.  I can immediately go back and see what the last max lift was and the date executed.  You will also start to see patterns in the time between max lifts for different athletes. 

The Workout:

So I start with a check in set.  It is typically 10-12 reps.  I want to see how the athlete feels.  It also is a way to reduce injuries.  The more days of the week the athlete is training the lower the rep count can be on this set as the athlete is more in tune with how they feel.  If you have bigger gaps between workouts 

I may do 2 of these sets.    You could look at this as a warm up to the bigger lift to follow.   If I see any issues with form or if the athlete just feels weak, we progress accordingly.  If my objective is to get an overload with a heavy lift then I want to get there as soon as possible so I do not hinder my ability to overload by too many prior sets and volume.  Some athletes are more comfortable with bigger jumps in weight.   The next set will typically be 6 to 8 reps.  I like the range of two reps as it allows me and my coaches and the athlete to have some flexibility and still feel success.  I always tell my athletes I want to target the lower rep range if possible.  What this means is that the 6th rep should be about all that can be accomplished.  If you see that it is to light do not do more reps.  Just make a bigger jump on the next set so as not to add unnecessary fatigue that may compromise you getting an overload.    My next set is typically 3-5 reps and the last set is 2-3 reps.  Each set will have a bump in weight with the target in mind.  The range of the reps allow us some flexibility in targeting.  If I can get a 2.5lb increase in weight I am going to get it.  Do not discount the smaller increases as having little value. On endurance days the smaller increase are also of great importance and are sometimes overlooked.  You want the increase in total volume on these days.   You must allow the body to get the weight on the bar.  This method requires the coach to be more observant of the athlete in the lift or educate the athlete on the goal of the rep scheme and progression if the coach is not there to add value and monitor. 

I also am very cognizant of taking into account the level of athletic maturity in the athlete and typically I will look at “max” lifts for a novice differently than a seasoned lifter.   A less mature lifter I may have 6 to 8 reps “max” as the top end and an elite lifter 1 to 3 reps. 

I have seen great technical coaches get poor performance results from their athletes because of poor progressions.  Less Instagram moments and more focus on what really adds value and cannot be seen in a photo.  My belief is that with a few solid exercises and great progressions you will make much greater improvement faster than any other form of training.  It is a dynamic process that requires a coach to pay attention and figure out ways to lead the athlete to obtain the greatest overloads without injury or overtraining. 

Truth in Fitness,

Jacques DeVore, CSCS