Not Making Progress in the Gym? Try this!

Spinning your wheels?

So you understand the concept of specificity and have chosen the various types of training methods for your goal. You have been busting your ass at the gym but are finding that your progress has started to stall and you are spinning your wheels?

We know from the previous post that training temporarily decreases our fitness. The goal is to recover from the training stress and rebuild the body into a bigger and stronger system.

So why have you stopped making progress despite putting in the work?

Understanding progress

Our bodies become stronger after training so that they can withstand the same type of stress in the future.

This has important implications.

As you become stronger, the same stimulus affects you less and less.

The same stimulus induces a smaller growth response until it eventually stops triggering a response.

This means you cannot use the same stimulus to stress the body and continually make progress. The stimulus needs to change over time – specifically, the stress to the body either needs to increase or change.

I have previously spun my wheels for 2 years+ until I understood this.

The concept of increasing the mechanical tension on the body is called progressive overload.

Progressive Overload in Practice

Progressive overload in laymans terms basically means making the training sessions harder over time. Or doing more work (volume) over time.

This can be done by increasing one or a combination of the following:

  • Increase weight on the bar
  • Increase number of repetitions
  • Increase number of sets
  • Increase frequency of training
  • Introduce variation of different exercise
  • Any combination of above

Note: Weight on the bar has the strongest correlation to strength and size. This means that if you were to increase weight on the bar alone, you would be getting bigger and stronger.

Let’s talk about babies

We all know intuitively that we cannot continue to grow at the same rate indefinitely. If we briefly review our growth rates from a baby to an adult we would get a better understanding of our training growth potential.

As a baby, we grow at an amazing speed – both physically and intellectually. Everything is new to us and we are learning things at great speeds. We learn how to move, to eat, to walk and talk etc. Our physical sizes double within a year or so.

This pattern continues as we grow older. However, we all know that it slows down over time. It used to take us a year to double our size, as a child it may take 5-6 years. As an adult, we almost stop growing completely (there might still be growth but it’s relatively small compared to our baby growth spurts).

The same goes from a learning perspective. As a baby, every single object you looked at was a new stimulus to you. Something new you had to learn. As an adult you start to form patterns and routines and everyday life is not as novel as it used to be.

Why am I talking about this?

It’s because the same thing happens to our training progress. The gains slow as you age!

Reaching your potential

Everyone has a “ceiling” or what is called a “genetic potential”. This is the biggest and strongest that you will ever get. The further away from it that you are, the faster you will move towards it. This will slow down as you get closer and closer to your genetic potential.

Note that you might never reach it (you might still make progress but it may just be painstakingly slow).

So as a beginner trainee or a “baby” you would improve really fast. Your strength and size will increase dramatically. However, this will slow down as you become an intermediate (“teenager”) and even slower once you become an advanced trainee (“adult”).

This is called “training age”. It’s not necessarily how old you are physically, but how long you have been training for. There is of course a lot of individuality just like human growth where some people are taller than others; some people have different limb length etc.

Where do you sit?

In terms of training, there are many ways to define the beginner/intermediate/advanced lifters.

The argument against using training age is that some trainees will inevitable stall their progress in one stage. This means even if you have been training for 10 years, if you don’t know what you are doing you might still be considered an intermediate lifter.

I personally like to use the rate of progress to categorise lifters. ie. How often you can increase the weight on the bar determines your broad lifter category:

Beginner – able to increase weights every training session

Intermediate – able to increase weights every week.

Advanced – able to increase weight every month or longer

However, I do think that you should not get hung up on the differences as there are a lot of grey areas in-between these categories. 

The beginner is far away from their genetic potential and should be able to put on weight on the bar every single session. This might slow down to weekly progress as they become an intermediate trainee.

As an advanced lifter, you are only making progress every month, this means that during the month you might be increasing other variables such as repetitions, sets etc. You are still increasing volume over time but it’s just that your weight isn’t moving each week.

Deloads

One thing to note is that although volume needs to increase over time, it cannot increase linearly indefinitely because our fatigue catches up.

Contrary to popular belief training makes you weaker, at least temporarily. It’s only when you recover from the training that you become stronger. However, there is always a little residual fatigue that comes with training.

You cannot wait until that residual fatigue dissipates completely because it will take a few weeks. If you wait this long you won’t make any meaningful progress in your training. 

This residual fatigue builds over time. Imagine a bucket called “Fatigue” that you fill up with water every time you train. Every session you pour a small glass into the bucket. If you train really hard you might fill the bucket with 2 glasses of water.

Once the bucket is full, you have to take some time to empty the bucket. We do this in a form of a deload. We reduce our training volume for a week or two to let the fatigue dissipate. We all know that emptying the bucket is often faster than filling it. The same is true for our fatigue bucket. It may have taken us 8 weeks to fill with small glasses of water, but it only takes us 1 week to empty most of the bucket. Now we can resume training!

A deload is simply a period during which our training volume decreases. Note that we don’t want to deload for too long as we may detrain too much. I.e. If you stop training for a year and call it a deload you probably won’t come back to the gym feeling stronger.

If you are a beginner, a deload can be as simple as reducing all your weights by about 10%. If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter a deload generally is a reduction of 50% in overall volume.

You can achieve this 50% reduction by simply cutting a few of your sets and/or reducing your load slightly for one week. Timing wise I would recommend a deload every 4 weeks.

Even though I am recommending that your training must become harder over time. There will be periods when total volume decreases temporarily. This is absolutely fine as long as you are decreasing volume with a purpose.

The overall long term picture should be an increasing trend over time!

Minimum and Maximum Threshold for Training

If we think about it, we are always under load. We are under the earth’s gravitational pull. If the only requirement to growth was being under load then we should be getting bigger and stronger as we are under load at all times!

This is of course not the case and the reason for that is what we’ve discussed above. The same load cannot continue to stress the body the same way as it takes more to disrupt the body’s natural state.

This is why walking does not make your legs bigger no matter how much of it you do. (Well it might increase it to some extent if you are an inactive person but it will quickly stop growing).

It might also not be a surprise to you that your biceps won’t grow if you just curl the 1kg pink dumbbells at the gym.

There is a minimum threshold for stress under which you won’t make any progress.

On the other end, you have the maximum amount of stress that you CANNOT recover from. The type of stress that makes you overtrain.

Overtraining is essentially detraining yourself in a dysfunctional way. This is just a fancy way of saying: you are unnecessarily beating yourself to the ground and that your body cannot recover from it in time. See the illustration of overtraining below:

normal versus overtraining

As you can see above, a decrease in fitness from training is what we want. However, if you train too much and your fitness goes below the “Over Trained Fitness Level” line you will take much longer to recover.

You will eventually recover from overtraining. But can you see how it takes much longer?  If you didn’t overtrain you could have fit in another training session and reached a higher fitness level in the same amount of time.

There is a maximum threshold for stress over which you won’t make progress.

This maximum level of training that you are able to undergo is called MRV or Maximum Recoverable Volume.

Our training stimulus should lie in between the minimum threshold and the MRV.

Somewhere in the middle

If you don’t go hard enough you won’t make progress. If you go too hard you won’t make progress. How annoying is that?!

So how do you know if your training is in between the minimum and the maximum?

Unfortunately, it’s not an exact science. You cannot plug your numbers into a calculator and it will tell you what to aim for. You have to listen to your body.

This is where in my opinion, having a coach is invaluable. It’s much easier for an experienced individual to point out whether the training is right for you.

For those who cannot afford a coach, I’d recommend the following framework which I have used on myself prior to hiring a coach. I first came across this in the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid by Eric Helms, Andrew Valdez and Andy Morgan which I highly recommend:

increasing decreasing volume based on progress

In other words, if you stopped progressing, you need to do more work. If you feel beaten/worn out, take a short break (deload) and then either increase or decrease your volume accordingly.

Wrapping up

So if you are not making progress at the gym. Review the total volume that you have been lifting in the past few weeks. Chances are, you either need to do more or are due for a break. I always like to include additional information to give you context. This is in the spirit of teaching you how to fish.

I hope this has been useful in helping you make decisions in your own training.

If you have any questions on your own training or have other topics you wish me to cover make sure to let me know in the comments!

 

Toni

Toni is management consultant by day and an amateur powerlifter also by day.. he sleeps at night. He loves to strive for personal development and he achieves this through training, reading and maybe even writing.

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Catherine - December 28, 2016

Toni, this is a wonderful article. Detailed and insightful for lifters of all levels. I’ve learned that I should be incorporating deloads into my training more than I currently do – and I love having a percentage to shoot for. Thanks for writing it!

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    Toni - December 31, 2016

    Thank you Catherine! Deloads should definitely be incorporated into your training schedule to continue making progress. Let me know if you need help with anything!

    Reply
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