The concept of double progression involves, as the name implies, two different but parallel routes toward strength and muscle gain. The first is increasing weight. If you can lift more weight this month (for the same number of repetitions, in the same style, etc.) than you could last month, your strength has increased in that time and in many cases so has your muscle mass. The second avenue of progression is in the number of repetitions of an exercise that can be performed. If you are able to lift the same weight for more repetitions this month than you could last month, then your strength has again improved with a similarly likely increase in muscle mass.
Unfortunately, the fact is that you can neither increase weight nor repetitions alone indefinitely. If you attempt to add more weight each week, you will very quickly find that your body cannot keep up, even when adding very small amounts of weight. In the same vein, if you try to add more repetitions each week you will also hit a wall in terms of progression and, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, you will also see little if any muscle growth as the repetitions add up. Luckily, there is a solution. Double progression incorporates both increases in weight and repetitions in a focused and disciplined way, ensuring multiple paths of progression and providing the opportunity for virtually continuous improvement.
The first step to designing a double progression plan for an individual exercise is to determine a range of repetitions that you know will produce strength gains. Unfortunately, that optimal range varies between people and indeed can even differ between muscle groups within a single subject. The key to finding your range is to simply try out different options and see what works best. This process can take quite a while, but it produces extremely valuable information.
I will relate my personal rep ranges so that you can develop an idea of how to start investigating your own. From experience, I know that most of the muscles in my back (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, spinal erectors, etc.) produce the most consistent strength gains over time using a range of three to six repetitions. However, the muscles in my shoulders (deltoids) require a higher rep range of about five to eight. The difference in ranges may seem insignificant, but through trial and error I’ve found that, for example my progress on rowing exercises slows to a crawl or even stops if I use sets with more than six repetitions. Attempting to gain back strength using sets of eight is, for me, essentially futile. Similarly, when performing the overhead press, which strongly activates the deltoids, I have found that performing sets of less than five reps leads to rapid stagnation. While sets containing between five and eight reps are effective, sets of three produce little to no success. Experimentation is essential to determining your optimal repetition range, but the time spent is well worth the valuable data you will discover. On the other hand, if you are just starting out and have no experience, simply choose a range anywhere between six and twelve repetitions. From there you can try different ranges as you become more comfortable
Once you have determined a productive repetition range for each exercise, you now must find a weight at which you can begin to work your progression. One method used to come up with a starting weight is to discover your maximal capabilities at your desired repetition range and then decrease from there. Of course, any time you are working to the point where you cannot lift a weight anymore requires a spotter to ensure your safety. Once you have a safe mechanical and/or human safety system in place, work your way up in weight until you reach a point where you cannot properly complete a set. For example, if I choose five to eight repetitions as my optimal range in the bench press, then I will need to find out the maximum amount of weight I can lift for five repetitions, also known as my five rep max (5RM). After enlisting an experienced spotter to catch the bar when I fail, I will begin to lift in sets of five reps with adequate rest in between, raising the weight by five to twenty percent each set. At some weight, say 210 pounds, I will be unable to safely complete all five reps. I might get three or four and then be forced to stop. The weight used on the previous set is then my 5RM. For this example, we will say it was 200 pounds.
Now that I know what my maximum weight is for one set of five, I need to find my starting weight for my progression. Generally one does more than a single set of each exercise. So, for this example I’ll choose three sets of five to eight for the bench press. The total volume (set multiplied by reps) is another variable that you can tweak over time to produce the best results. Some people respond better to higher volume and many progress best with lower volume. Begin somewhere in the middle with two to four sets and work from there. When beginning a new double progressive cycle, it is best to underestimate your starting weight to give your body some time to adapt to the new regimen. With a 5RM of 200 pounds, I will begin the cycle with 160 to 170 pounds, or 80% to 85% of my 5RM.
To execute the double progression, my first workout will consist of a good warm-up followed by three sets of five to eight reps with 160 pounds. During each set, I will attempt to complete all eight reps. If I am unable to succeed with eight reps in all three sets, I will use the same weight next week and try again. However, if I do complete eight reps in all three sets, I will then increase the weight by five pounds during my next training session. I may be able to perform all three sets of eight successfully again with 165 pounds, prompting me to add another five pounds for the following week. However, at some point I will not be able to complete eight reps in all three sets. At that time, my goal would then be to add at least one rep each week until I again reached by goal of eight reps for three sets. More weight will then be added, the reps will drop back down, and the cycle continues.
Double progression fights stagnation and allows for multiples avenues of progression by taking into account both increases in weight lifted as well as the number of repetitions performed. By setting a repetition range that you know if effective for you, you can most efficiently effect strength and muscle mass gains while consistently raising the working weight to compensate for your newfound abilities. Progressive resistance is essential to produce increases in strength and muscle mass. These assets are extremely valuable to both men and women, regardless of their age, condition, or previous activity level. You will gain confidence, functionality, and self-esteem through the use of a properly designed nutrition and progressive resistance exercise program. Don’t be intimidated by the numbers or the challenges of lifting. Start slowly, do your best, and discover abilities that you never knew you had!