Importance Of Progression in Strength Training

Posted on 16 Jun 2009 11:50

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By Ashiem Matthn

In my opinion, progression is the key to strength training. There is no point in hammering away at an exercise without progressing on it. But this is not new knowledge. This is simply an observation – an observation made by many strength specialists and this has recently gained a lot of momentum with online mention. But, I want to highlight how each exercise you have adopted into your training should be treated – or can be treated, differently in terms of progression.

So, this article is NOT about a one-size-fits-all progression chart. It is a reflection of how I have progressed on three lifts on unique and different levels. Are these three schemes the end all and be all of progression? No. There are probably a million other ways to progress. All I am doing here is reflecting my experiences on three different types of progression over three different exercises.

So lets get cracking.

The Deadlift

heavy deadlift

It’s been a year and a half since I have returned to Deadlifts after my lower back injury. Prior to that I was never a fan of Deadlifts and I only managed to do 315 for a double or so while I could squat 300 plus with good depth – I say “good” because I needed to work on hip mobility and stability which only came later.

I am not built do Deadlift. It’s hard for me. I am not one of those lucky guys who can walk into the gym and Deadlift 400 with no warm-up or anything. We’ve all seen these guys. Powerlifting is full of them – so is the football team. So are a lot of other people whom you would assume couldn’t do half as much by the looks of them.

But, as luck had it, 135 lbs for me was a struggle. I have gone from Deadlifting 135 lbs to 425 lbs over the last year and a half. This is how I did it.

I choose a range and I make sure I settle in it before progressing. So, for 4 weeks I settled in between 135 and 185 lbs and I got good at it – so good that I could do 185 (which was very difficult for me at the time) any day of the week. Then, I moved up to 225 to 255 lbs. I spent a good deal of time on that. Then, I moved up to 275-295 lbs. Then came 315-335 lbs. After that 365 to 385. And now I am at 405-425. What does it mean to “settle” in these ranges?

When I say that I am between 405 and 425, it means that my work sets during my workout involve weights between 405 and 425. My “max” may be a bit more but for right now, this is where I am working. My favorite exercises for improving my Deadlift are Banded Deadlifts (I use APT’s White, Red and Blue bands all double looped), Deficit Deadlifts and Deadlift Singles (you guys absolutely must check out The Singles Scene by Eric Troy and Joe Weir).

The take home message for this exercise is that I used ranges to get quality in before adding weight. The benefit of doing this is that you become more resistant to injuries and your body adapts to the weights making them “light” before you move on to the next range. Just to throw it out there: I Deadlift weekly. I would also like to point out that at a certain point, one would not be able to do their relative max on any day of the week. When you’re working with weights in the 300s and probably a bit in the 400s it is easy to be able to do them weekly, but once you hit 500 or so then it is hard to maintain that kind of intensity – particularly because if you want to work with weights close to your “max” you must distribute fatigue correctly.

Pistol Squats

pistol squat aka one legged squat

A Pistol Squat is a one legged or single legged squat done with your free foot extended outwards. It is one of the hardest exercises in the world to master - particularly because it requires knee and ankle mobility.
The purpose of doing this exercise is to work on hip stability.

When Eric told me that it was time I put my nose to the grindstone and get used to Pistol Squats, I had no idea it was going to be this hard.

I started doing Pistol Squats back in February this year (2009). When I got into it, I was advised to start with a box. But, I didn’t like this. It threw me off and doing Pistol Squats off a box is hard – it doesn’t allow you to move in your range of motion, which you would have once you do them without the box. So, after a frustrating month, I dumped the box. Something told me I’d be able to do them if I had enough ankle elevation. So I placed a 10 lbs thick plate below my ankle and through March I got good at doing Pistol Squats with a high ankle elevation. But this doesn’t make me good at doing a Pistol Squat. Truth by told, I was dependent on that ankle elevation. You take that out and can I do a Pistol Squat? No. So I had to get rid of the ankle elevation. So, in April I dumped the 10 lbs plate and replaced it with a thinner 5 lbs plate. It felt much more difficult. Because my left leg is weaker than my right, I always start with my left leg first. I don’t go to failure with these: I do singles and doubles till I get a total of however many reps which satisfies me – or rather which I am able to do before my legs collapse.
I am meandering now.

Back to topic: so in April I got good at doing Pistol Squats with a 5 lbs plate under my heel. But this wasn’t it. When I am doing this exercise, I am not able to lockout my other leg. So I practiced static holds with each leg, holding it out and trying to lock it out the best I could. It’s hard because while I have decent hip mobility, I don’t have good muscle flexibility. I am in fact, still working on this.

In May I made it my goal to be able to do a Pistol Squat with no heel elevation. And I have managed to do it.

One question, which I expect you guys to have, is how did I know when to lose the heel elevation? Truth is, I like to stick to a preset rep total. So, lets say it’s May.

Roughly, in my mind, I have decided that my weekly progression on Pistol Squats is going to be:
Week 1: 7 reps because the exercise is a new challenge for me
Week 2: 10 reps because I should be better used to the exercise now
Week 3: 12-15 reps because I should be sort of getting the hang of it now
Week 4: 15 reps with atleast one “set” in which I do 3 reps per leg

If I manage to get such good quality by the fourth week, then I know it is safe to move onto the next challenge. Why does this make any difference? Because I know by week 4 whether I am totally dependent on the heel elevation or am I just on crutches.

The take home message with Pistol Squats is that minor changes on the set-up in and of itself can be a way to progress. It is June now and my goal is to try and perfect my form. At the end of the day quality is always more important than quantity: I’d rather be able to knock out two or three textbook perfect Pistol Squats over ten to twelve reps with me all over the place.


weighted pullups

Pull-ups rank second in my list of favorite exercises in the world. Recently, I’ve gotten good at doing higher volume pull-ups. I can manage to do a total of 50-75 reps per session without taking anything to failure and doing a large majority of the work with weights added.

I tend to stick to a fixed number of reps on this exercise per session and this is sometimes not ideal because like I mentioned: quality over quantity. If I can do 15 reps total with a lot of weight added, why should I settle for 50 reps with lesser weight? The goal is to get stronger. Strength means intensity. Intensity is a percentage of my relative max. So the way to get stronger is to lift heavier weight.

So, lets say I choose to do an aggregate of 50 reps in Week 1. I’d distribute them like this:
BW x 5 reps x 2 sets
BW + 20 lbs x 3 reps x 10 sets
BW + 30 lbs x 2 reps x 5 sets

That’s it. Then, next week I might want to set a time limit. I make it my goal to do the 10 sets of 3 reps with 20 lbs added to me in 13 minutes. That means at the top of every minute I need to crank out 3 reps and this leaves me with some breathing room. I can do something similar with the third wave of 30 lbs added to me for 5 sets of 2 reps by setting a time limit of 6 minutes.

Or, the next week I could crank up the intensity even more:
BW x 5 reps
BW + 20 lbs x 2 reps x 5 sets
BW + 30 lbs x 3 reps x 5 sets
BW + 40 lbs x 1 rep x 5 sets
BW + 30 lbs x 2 reps x 5 sets
BW + 20 lbs x 5 reps

I have done 50 reps and used much more weight than before. Progression indeed.

One other trick I like to do is a ladder technique where I use very small increments and go all the way up, then down or I just leave it up. In the sense, I will start by doing 2 reps with just my BW. Then, I will acclimate by adding only 5 lbs at a time. So, set 2 will involve me doing 2 reps with 5 lbs added, set 3 will have me doing 2 reps with 10 lbs, set 4 with 15 lbs, set 5 with 20 lbs, etc. I will do this till I can no longer 2 reps. Then, I work back down to just my BW. Or I might just leave it at the highest weight. There aren’t really any specific rules. It just depends. I could do the ladder technique by going up in the first week and then I progress by going down the following week. Every once in a while I’ll try to max out for a heavy triple or double.

This type of training is not specific. It is you who makes up the rules as you go along. This means that your rules can either set you free or limit you. It is completely up to you. At the end, you must either get better at pull-ups in terms of quality of reps, you should be able to do more reps with a weight or you should be able to pull yourself up with more weight added to you. This is how you measure progress.


I hope these reflections help some of you the way this type of training has helped me get stronger. This is not about copy pasting a one size fits all progression chart and adding it into your training. This is about customizing ways of progression to the lifts you do. The possibilities of progression are endless. These are just three, which I have been using.

Good luck!


This page created 16 Jun 2009 11:50
Last updated 22 Jul 2016 16:12

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