The Programming Holy Grail: Progression Part (1) – Strength

By Rob Shaul

My first direct experience with the concept of “Progression” happened when I was a sophomore in High School – I was attending school in Rock Springs, Wyoming -a “big” school by Wyoming Standards, – big enough in 1984 or so to have a before-school strength and conditioning program.

I was way too small to play football, but liked to train, so I jumped in with the football team. The lifts I remember were the bench press and box squat – and we did a simple 5-3-1 percentage-based progression based on a 1RM.

My guess is the cycle length was 4-6 weeks, but I do remember my initial bench press 1RM was 95 pounds …. so light that there were two females who trained with us, and though I lifted more than them, I was placed with them as lifting partners for the next 6 weeks!

No matter, at the end of the cycle, my 1RM had increased to a respectable 135#! Other than the programming, now much coaching occurred during those sessions that I remember. It was the simple progression in the programming that made me stronger.

This idea of progression in programming is so simple and straight forward, you’d think every strength and conditioning coach, or even personal trainer, would deploy it – but that’s not the case. Now, when I look at other coaches’ programming I don’t pay any attention to the exercises – I only look for how the loading, work capacity, or endurance training is progressed. Most often, it isn’t – or, worse, the progression doesn’t make any sense.

I’ve tortured assistant coaches and interns with progression detail questions over the years, and today, as part of any coach or intern hiring process, I have the applicants design a programming cycle, and the first thing I look for his how he or she progressed the training.

None of MTI’s programming is “random” and if you’ve completed at least three weeks of any of our cycles, you’ve experienced some type of progression – either in the strength work, work capacity, endurance, or chassis integrity, and more likely, more than one.

It’s so key to our work now, that when I make a progression mistake, athletes call me on it. Multiple times I’ve made a typo, or simply made a mistake and received an email from an athlete completing the programming remotely, asking me if what they were reading was wrong.

Strength Progression and MTI

When I opened Mountain Athlete in 2007 (to later evolve into MTI), I began my strength programming using the Bigger Faster Stronger progression I’d seen in high school. Years and experience passed, and today, MTI has 8 separate strength progression methodologies in our programming tool box that I rotate through when designing training cycles.

The most effective of these deploy some type of initial repetition maximum – either a 1RM or a 3RM – and base the follow-on progressions on these loads.

Our “Rat 6” Strength Progression is one that deploys an initial 1RM effort, followed by a simple progression based on this loading. Each progression below is completed two times. For this example, let’s say the exercise we used was the Back Squat:

Progression 1:
5 Rounds
3x Back Squat @ 80% 1RM

Progression 2:
5 Rounds
3x Back Squat @ 85% 1RM

Progression 3:
5 Rounds
3x Back Squat @ 90% 1RM

Re-Test 1RM, and re-set the progression.

Notice above how in designing this progression we had two components to chose from to progress – (1)  the number of reps per round, and, (2) the loading. What I’ve learned the hard way over the years, is it’s generally best to progress just one element. So here, instead of progressing both the rep per round count, and the loading, I just progressed the loading.

An example from MTI’s programming where the reps, rather than loading, are progressed comes from most of our bodyweight strength programming – including all of our military and LE PFT training plans. Again, for most of these cycles I deploy an initial assessment, and then base the progression on that assessment.

For an example using push ups, let’s use an an initial assessment of max push ups in 2 minutes. Each of the  following progressions would be completed twice, before moving to the next progression:

Progression 1:
6 Rounds, every 75 seconds …
30% Max Rep Push Ups

Progression 2:
6 Rounds, every 75 seconds …
35% Max Rep Push Ups

Progression 3:
6 Rounds, every 75 seconds …
40% Max Rep Push Ups

Then re-test max rep push ups in 2 minutes and re-set the progression.

Perhaps the most brutal, and most effective, strength progression methodology we’ve developed over the years is our Big 24 progression. Like Rat 6, our Big 24 progression keeps the reps the same, and progresses loading, but instead of using a percentage-based progression, uses simple math.

Big 24’s progression is build upon a modified 3RM (3x Repetition Max – or the most weight you can lift for 3 reps). Each progression below is completed two-three times. Again for this example, let’s say the exercise we used was the Back Squat:

Progression 1:
5 Rounds
3x Back Squat @ 3RM Load minus 10 pounds

Progression 2:
5 Rounds
3x Back Squat @ 3RM Load minus 5 pounds

Progression 3:
5 Rounds
3x Back Squat @ 3RM Load

Re-Test 3RM, and re-set the progression.

So let’s say the athlete’s 3RM Back Squat was 225#. Below would be his loading for each progression:

Progression 1:
5 Rounds
3x Back Squat @ 215#

Progression 2:
5 Rounds
3x Back Squat @ 220#

Progression 3:
5 Rounds
3x Back Squat @ 225#

Max Effort Strength vs. Strength Endurance vs. Working Strength

The Rat 6 and Big 24 progressions from above are designed to build an athlete’s Max Effort strength – or the most he or she can lift for 1 repetition. In contrast, the push up example from above is designed to improve Strength Endurance.

Importantly, Max Effort strength is different than strength endurance, and programming specifically for one rarely improves performance in the other. For example, doing a Rat 6 progression for bench press likely won’t significantly improve your max push up in two minutes effort. Likewise, completing the push up progression above won’t significantly improve your bench press 1RM. For whatever reason, the two types of strength, and the fitness needed to improve each, are different.

Somewhere between Max Effort Strength and Strength Endurance is what I call “Working Strength.” I define “Working Strength” as the ability to lift a high percentage of your 1RM in any one exercise for multiple reps. The loading is too heavy, and generally, reps too few for this to be called “strength endurance.”

Working Strength is my youngest strength progression – I just developed it earlier this year, and ideally I would have a specific rep range defined for “Working Strength” – but I’m still working with this concept and fitness and haven’t one defined yet. Two of our cycles currently deploy Working Strength progression – SF45 Foxtrot and County Singer Tammy.

Unlike Rat 6 and Big 24, Working Strength Progression aims to increase the reps under the same load. Unlike Strength Endurance, however, the Working Strength Loading is heavier.

For example, let’s again use back squats, and have the athlete work up to a 5RM (5x Repetition Max – or the most weight you can lift for 5 reps). Each progression below is completed two-three times:

Progression 1:
5 Rounds
4x Back Squat @ 5RM Load

Progression 2:
5 Rounds
5x Back Squat @ 5RM Load

Progression 3:
5 Rounds
6x Back Squat @ 5RM Load

Re-Test 5RM and re-set the progression.

You may ask from above how come the first progression has the athlete completing just 4x Back Squats at the 5RM load – instead of 5. The reason is the athlete initially found his 5RM (5x Repetition Maximum) for just one set or round … not 5 rounds! He wouldn’t be able to complete 5 rounds of 5 reps at his initial 5RM load – hence the 4x reps for the first progression.

TLU Strength Progression is the Outlier

MTI’s “TLU” Strength Progression is one of my favorites, but also doesn’t follow a strict progression based on loading or reps. TLU strength sessions aim to train a total body, lower body and upper body strength exercise each training session, but modulate the intensity (loading) of each exercise between Heavy, Moderate and Light.

Strength Session 1, for example, the athlete would train a total body strength exercise with heavy loading, a lower body strength exercise with moderate loading, and an upper body strength exercise with light loading.

We dictate the loading for the Total Body exercise in this example via an initial 1RM effort, and percentage-based set/reps directly following.

We dictate the loading for the lower and upper body exercises in this example using reps per round, or total volume. The higher reps per round, the lower weight the athlete will be able to put on the barbell. Below is bare-bones example of a TLU Strength session:

Warm Up:

3 Rounds

  • Barbell Complex @ 45/65#
  • Instep Stretch

Training:

(1) Work Up to 1RM Power Clean + Push Press (Total Body Strength Exercise)

(2) 5 Rounds

  • 2x Power Clean + Push Press @ 85% 1RM (from your effort above)
  • Stretch

(3) 6 Rounds

  • 5x Front Squat (Lower Body Strength Exercise) – increase load each round until 5x is hard, but doable
  • Stretch

(4) 6 Rounds

  • 8x Bench Press (Upper Body Strength Exercise) – increase load each round until 8x is hard, but doable
  • Stretch

From above you’ll see the total reps completed (volume), minus the reps to get to 1RM, for the Power Clean + Push Press to be 5 Rounds x 2 Reps per round or 10x total reps – at a “heavy,” 85% 1RM load or intensity.

The volume for Part (3)’s Front Squats is 6 Rounds of 5 reps per round, or 30x total reps. By dictating the reps per set, we can manipulate the barbell loading or intensity of the effort, without needing to have him complete a 1RM effort. I’ve found over the years that a lower and upper body total volume of 30 reps, and 5 reps per round, results in “moderate” loading or intensity of around 70-80% of the athlete’s 1RM.

Think about it this way. If we were to dictate for Part (3), 6 Rounds of 2x Front Squat – increasing load each round until 2x was hard but doable, his final load for two reps would be much heavier than his final load doing 5 reps.

This principal holds true for part (4)’s, 6 Rounds of 8 reps per round of Bench Press – for a final total volume of 48 reps.

Our TLU design rotates which exercise type is heavy, moderate or light, each session. So for a LUT session, the lower body strength exercise would be heavy, upper body strength exercise moderate, and total body exercise light in terms of loading.

A UTL session would have upper body heavy, total body moderate and lower body light.

Overall, TLU Strength Progression is “loser” than progressions like Rat 6 and Big 24, which have strict progression rules, and accordingly, doesn’t achieve the same type of strength gains.

So why is TLU one of my favorites? For Hybrid Athletes – those with multiple fitness demands like tactical and mountain athletes, TLU design ensures that each strength day, the athlete trains strength for the full body. As well, because TLU progression isn’t quite as strict, the athlete doesn’t need to get out his or her calculator to determine the loading for each lift, each part of the session.

Finally, TLU strength sessions, with all their variety, are simply fun! They are fun to coach, and complete.

Comments/Feedback?

Email rob@mtntactical.com