My first instinct is to quickly define training vs exercise. As Mark Rippetoe says in his StartingStrength.com article:
Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during that workout or right after you’re through. “Training” is physical activity done with a longer term goal in mind… if a program of physical activity is not designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaption can occur, you don’t get to call it training, it’s just exercise.
This “desirable adaption” would be that you can see your abs now, or your arms get more toned, or you can lift more weight — it’s that ultimate goal you have for your current training season.
Looking great is awesome, but I’m always more interested in how I feel and perform because those feel like very positive goals to pursue. I like to look fit and muscular, but not at the expense of my happiness or peace in my life, which was once stolen as eating disorders ravaged my mind and body many years ago.
And the beautiful thing about chasing fitness to be fitter and healthier is that we usually get the side effect of looking fit and healthier too. It just shifts the focus from what we look like to what we can do, and this was a very healing and necessary shift I had to make 6 years ago when I began my training journey.
How do you know if you’re performing better athletically? You’ll only know this if you’re (#1) tracking your progress and more important (#2) training progressively.
What’s why I keep saying to train (quote un quote) progressively – because your plan should get harder as you go, and as you adapt to the degree of stress you’re currently training under. So as you get fitter, naturally the level at which you train needs to increase.
It’s also why you can’t lift the same weights or do the same workout every day and expect to get stronger.
Here’s 5 steps that you can apply to any type of working out you like to do to achieve this progressive overload and make serious gains.
#1 Extend your range of motion
This could look like going from doing russian kb swings to a full americna swing, or training mid shin deadlifts then moving to full ROM or even deficit DL.
#2 Increase your time under tension
Pause at intervals of the lift, or hold a movement for longer – just slowwww it down!
I love doing slow negatives to build strength for movements like pull ups. It allows you to train muscles in the slow reverse progression until you gain enough strength to do the full movement – or do more of the movement. Adding strategic negatives to your routine can help you increase strength at any level. Just an important note for beginners though – don’t do large sets of negatives because overtaxing a singular muscle group with high reps if you are not adequately adapted to that stress can really mess you up and be hard to recover from. You want to be able to come in the next day and still workout and not be deathly sore where you can’t even lift your arms.. Basically. 🙂
What I’m saying is that if you can’t do any pull ups – don’t start with 3 sets of 20 negatives or anything crazy like that, okay friends? A great place to start is 3-5 sets of 3-5 negative pull ups with a slow descent that lasts about 3-10 seconds – try your best to even out your descent over that entire time, don’t go super freaking slow at the top and then just drop into the bottom, all right?
#3 Increase your reps / sets
This is pretty obvious, right? We don’t want to get comfortable with the same weights forever. Track your longer term weight usage and try to eventually pick up more weight for the same reps, or simply start by increasing reps / sets at that original weight on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
#4 Overload your nervous system / fatigue
Push yourself harder and increase the intensity. I talk a lot about cross-training and how to get started with interval training as a beginner and see quick growth in several different areas – I’ve linked to a video about that in the end credits. I also love TABATA workouts which is where you pick a movement and do 8 rounds of :20s of work with only :10s rest. If you do this with even just 4 different movements you can accomplish a lot in just 16 minutes.
You can also repeat “test” workouts. To do this you would complete a workout (for example: 10 rounds of 10 air squats, 10 push ups and 10 sit-ups). Record your time for that workout on week 1 and then train to get better at squats by adding weight or increasing reps and sets; work on push ups by training different variations of the movement a couple days a week; and do different core exercises. You can wait for several weeks then re-test the workout to see if you’ve gotten stronger and faster. You can also simply try that same workout the next week on the same day and just try to beat your original time. That gives you a goal, and having a goal in a workout can really help you push past your comfort zone, which is a no-growth zone.
#5 Increase your tonnage (which is your overall reps x sets x weight).
This can be any manipulation of reps, sets and total weight lifted over the course of your workout. If you deadlift 100 pounds 5 times that essential means you’ve lifted 500 pounds, so you could progress your training by aiming to lift 1000 pounds, which means you would need to increase the amount of weight you lift each time, or do more sets or more reps during each set.
Another way to do this is to increase your training percentages.
If you’re lifting at 60% of your front squat max for 5 sets of 5 on week 1, then on week 2 you could either increase that percentage to 65% or 70% and keep the 5 by 5 model, or you could lift 60% for 5 sets of 8 reps… etc.