Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Of the importance of "progression"

My attention got caught today by the following NYT article: For fitness push yourself. Apart from the traditional caveats (to what extent an experiment made in mice really tells us something about human physiology? even if it does, and protein CRTC2 is part of the mechanism that help make us bigger and stronger after a high intensity, "out of your comfort zone" workout, to what extent is that knowledge "useful"? does it provide us with any kind of guideline about what the optimal stressor should be, or about the number of sets or reps or weight increases that may optimally trigger the release of said protein? well, obviously it does not, but it may still be useful if -and that's a big if- it opened up new avenues of research and new studies to answer those same questions, studies that will never be conducted because they would be expensive and in nobody's -no particular corporation or institution with the money to conduct them- interest, we will probably have instead a slew of crappy publications in which the blood levels of CRTC2 of too few people, with shitty routines, are improperly compared with those of other too few people, with even shittier ones, and without controlling for any external factor, from which utterly unwarranted consequences will be extracted...) I find in it some vindication of a principle I have championed for a long time: how you "progress" your training is in the end more important that how exactly you train (the weights, sets, reps and exercises that form each workout), and the ultimate measure of your program validity should be how much it allows you to progress (how much more weight it allows you to lift in a certain interval of time in whatever exercises and whatever range of repetitions that your training is made of):
  • No progress = no validity at all. 
  • 50 kg in a year = you were a total noob, so that explains almmost all, and not so much the program, but at least it had some merit. 
  • 10 kg in a year for an experienced lifter = pretty solid program (in some lifts, as the bench press, that's progress I would almost kill for)
I think it is useful to take a look at how some popular programs out there plan for progress:
  • Starting Strength (Rippetoe for beginners): 2,5 kg per session for the upper body lifts and 5 kg per session for the lower body ones, doing three sessions per week, which translates into gains of about 30 kg in a month for upper body and a whooping 60 kg in a month for the lower body lifts (obviously we are talking big compound lifts here: press & bench press for upper and squat & deadlift for lower). The author recognizes that such a progress is only available to absolute beginners, and sustainable for 1-2 months, after which frequency becomes lower (to simplify, about 1/ week for upper body & DL, and still 2-3/week for squat), which translates into 10 kg/month for upper body, 20 kg/ month for DL and about 40 kg/week for SQ. When that rythm becomes unsustainable, Mr. Rippetoe leaves it to the lifter to decide on smaller increases (he suggest if necessary to mill 1/2 pound plates so increases as small as 1 pound can be done) to keep the session to session increase for as long as possible
  • Texas Method (Rippetoe for intermediates): now the increases happen on a weekly basis, still aiming at 5 kg week to week for the lower body lifts and 2,5 kg for the upper body lifts, which translates in gains of 10 kg/ month for BP and press, and of 20 kg/month for SQ and DL. As w previous, once that speed becomes unsustainable, he recommends slower increases (for the record, I'm currently running a TM only for the squat, and adding 2,5 kg -my smaller plates are 1,25 kg- per week, and if I can complete a couple months and show for them a gain of 20 kg I'll be beyond happy, extatic would be more like it), up to the individual lifter to decide
  • 5/3/1 (Wendler for everbody, but geared towards lifters w some experience already): the basic unit of time is the 5/3/1 cycle, which takes three weeks. After each cycle he prescribes adding to the TM (training max) the same 2,5 kg for upper body and 5 kg for upper body than Rippetoe, so once you factor the prescribed deload weeks that translates in gains of about 2,5 kg/ month for upper body and 5 kg/ month for lower body. Of course, how the gains in the TM translate into gains in the 1RM is not immediately assessable, but both tend to go up roughly in parallel and at roughly the same speed.
  • Soviet volume methods (Sheiko, Smolov, Smolov jr): they aim to increase about 5% a particular lift with a training cycle lasting between 8 and 12 weeks. Given they should be used at a level of proficiency when the lifts to be improved are around 200 kg, that 5% improvement should be around 10 kg, so they can generate a gain of about 5 kg/ month
Having tried all of the aforementioned, we can see a common thread here. For a moderately big, healthy young male (around 20 yo,6 feet high and above 80 kg weight -adjust accordingly for older, younger, lighter, or female individuals) progress should be:

  • Very fast at the very beginning (first 1-2 months): up to 20 kg/ month for upper body big compound lifts, and 40 kg for lower body
  • Fast at the beginning (months 2 to 4-6): 10 kg/ month for upper body and 20 kg/ month for lower body lifts
  • Consistent in the middle (between 4-6 months and 14-18 months): 2,5 kg/ month for upper and 5 kg/ month for lower (that still gives you at the end of this period 30 more kg than you started with in the upper body and 60 more kg in the lower body lifts)
  • Slow and discontinuous after that (once you've been lifting consistently for a couple of years): 5 kg/ year for upper body and 10 kg/ year for lower are not bad results, and demand quite some effort. With very focused training cycles (like the soviet examples mentioned before) that gain can be obtained much faster (in 2-3 months), but it is difficult to maintain, and even more difficult to replicate (people tend to run them 2, max 3 times per year, and w generous deload periods in between, so they have to regain much of the strength each time)
Of course these are orders of magnitude, and individual variation can be quite big. But given the realities of human physiology, these are reasonable gains to strive for, and good yardsticks to measure every year's end how the last twelve months have worked

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