What is the Principle of Progression in Weight Training & Conditioning?

The principle of progression is a powerful tool to advance your fitness.

7 min read

Health & Wellness

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If you’re trying to build strength, speed, or endurance, advancing your training over time is the key to achieving the results you’re after.

The principle of progression is a powerful tool to advance your fitness. When correctly applied to your fitness routine, progression can help you achieve your goals efficiently and effectively. I mean, who doesn’t want to achieve their fitness goals?

In this article, learn everything you need to know about the principle of progression, and how to use it to achieve your best fitness results yet!


What is the Principle of Progression?

The principle of progression says that as your body adapts to your fitness routine you have to challenge yourself to keep seeing progress. That challenge could be a variety of things, from increasing your time, intensity, weight, sets, reps, or more.

What these different elements have in common is that they’re all different ways to overload your body. Essentially, overload is a challenge. It’s doing something hard today so your body is stronger tomorrow.

Overload when properly applied means the intensity of your workout or exercise must be high enough above your norm for any desired physical adaptation to occur. When placed in a state of overload, your body responds to the challenge by adapting, rebuilding, and coming back stronger.


What is Progression in Fitness?

As mentioned before, there are many ways to progress in your fitness routine. The way you decide to implement overload in your exercises, workouts, and overall routine will depend on your fitness goals.

For example, if you’re working on building endurance for an upcoming 5K race, the changes you make to your workout routine over time may look different than the changes you make if your goal is to achieve a back squat personal record.

If you’re looking to run a 5K, you may choose to progress by adding time or distance to your runs over several weeks. Whereas if you’re looking to increase your back squat personal record, you may choose to increase your weight lifted over time to become stronger.

It’s important to note that there is both an optimal level of overload and optimal time frame for fitness progression to occur. Overload in any workout routine should be applied gradually. The principle of progression is about taking baby steps, overloading the body in small increments that add up to big results over time.


Why is Exercise Progression Important?

Exercise progression is important if your goal is to increase your strength, speed, or endurance. If you want to see progress, the principle of progression must be used to achieve the results you’re looking for.

However, it’s important to mention it’s okay to make the choice to not implement the principle of progression in your training routine. If you’re simply exercising for maintenance and you’re happy with where you’re at, you don’t need to progress.

It’s okay to stay running at the same speed, cycling at the same resistance, or doing bicep curls with the same amount of weight if you’re satisfied with maintaining your fitness at that level.

Your fitness journey is yours alone, and whether the principle of progression is right for you is up to you to decide. If you want to make a change and see progress, consider it. If you’d like to stay where you’re at, leave it. If you decide progression is for you, keep reading to learn how to incorporate it into your routine.


What is the Principle of Progression in Weight Training & Conditioning?

Now that you know the basics of progression. Let’s talk about using the principle of progression in weight training and conditioning specifically.

If you’re thinking about adding weight training and conditioning to your routine or have been putting in a valiant effort towards your workouts and wondering why you aren’t seeing results, you’re in the right place!

When it comes to strength training, it’s essential that you place a significant overload on your muscles to see physical adaptations such as an increase in muscle strength and size.

What happens when you lift a heavy load - enough to overload your muscles - is tiny tears in the muscle fibers occur. These micro-tears are essential. When your muscles break down and you give them proper rest and recovery, they not only rebuild but adapt to manage that heavy load in the future. This is where real strength and muscle building results come in.

So, how do you implement the principle of progression into your strength training workouts? Below, I’ve detailed just a few of my favorite ways!


How to Use the Principle of Progression in Your Strength Workouts

In general, you should always use the principle of progression from a granular to global scale in your training. What I mean by that is it’s important to consider how you can progress both the smaller elements of your routine like exercises and workouts, as well as the bigger picture like your entire workout routine.

Let’s start with the big picture, and then I’ll break down exactly how that might look as you implement it to each individual workout.


How to Use Progression in Your Workout Routine

Adding progression into your routine is all about incorporating workouts and exercises that get more challenging as you’re ready for them. Listening to your body is a huge part of the equation, so knowing both when to push and when to rest is important.

This may come as a surprise to you after reading all my praise for progression, but your goal should not be to progress every single workout and every single day. Yes, progression is important; but rest and recovery are equally important for a progressive routine to be safe and effective long term.

Keep in mind after a heavy strength-based workout, those muscle groups need 48 hours of rest. Rest doesn’t mean you can’t workout at all - you’re free to work other muscle groups, or complete other forms of exercise like cardio, stretching, or mobility work on your rest days.

It’s also important to think about how you're incorporating rest into the bigger picture too. Whether it’s every month, 6 weeks, or 8 weeks consider incorporating a down week to give your body time to come back for your next period of progression refreshed.

So, how can you add progression into our routine safely? Prioritize rest and recovery, so you can come back to your workouts and give them your all! It’s as simple as that.


How to Use Progression in Your Workouts

On days where you’re focused on bringing your best and making those gains, I’ve listed some of my favorite ways to progress your strength below.

1. Mix Up Your Workouts

Often people do the same workouts repeatedly. If your body becomes too familiar with a workout it can slow your progress. That’s where mixing it up can help you progress in a variety of ways to achieve your goal.

Progressing can be as simple as mixing up the exercises you’re doing. Whether that means doing an exercise progression, or simply trying out a different exercise that targets the same muscle groups.

2. Use Progression Exercises

All exercises exist on a continuum of easy to difficult. You can progress an exercise to make it more challenging, and you can also modify an exercise to make it easier.

An exercise progression is simply a way to make an exercise more challenging. Exercise progressions are extremely important in an exercise routine to continue providing stimulus to your muscles. Progressing to more challenging exercises will help you continue to see changes in your body and fitness level.

For example, push-ups are an example of an exercise that many people have a hard time completing. That’s why you might choose to do a modification like a knee push up or incline push up. Once you’ve mastered a push up, you may choose to move on to a more challenging progression like a decline push up or diamond push up.

Whether you’re working from a modification to a progression of an exercise, be proud of your starting place. We all start somewhere and starting where you feel comfortable is the only way to get stronger and to progress to where you want to be.

3. Increase Your Resistance

One of my favorite ways to increase overload in a traditional strength workout where you’re lifting weight, is to increase the resistance or weight you’re lifting over time. If you’ve been lifting the same for weeks or months, it may be time to switch it up.

When adding weight to an exercise I’m not talking about a lot, even 5 pounds can make a big difference. So, if you’ve been lifting 60LBs, and it’s starting to feel easy, give 65LBs a try next time!

You shouldn’t expect to increase weight every time you lift or even every week. Remember muscle building takes time. Listen to your body, you’ll know when it’s ready for a challenge.


In Closing

Progression in weight training takes time. When you first start a new workout, exercise, or strength goal, it can be hard to not move too fast or demand too much of your body from the jump, especially if you’re excited.

Be patient and remind yourself you can only progress as quickly as your body will let you. As you challenge your body in healthy and productive ways, remember to practice good form, listen to your body, and take rest days as needed.


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