January 20, 2013

The Best Methods To Quantify Progress

“Progress is a slow process”: Many of us have probably heard this quote at some point and as it relates to the development of physical attributes such as body composition adjustment (AKA weight loss, nay, FAT loss), strength development, or attempting to create a symmetrically developed, aesthetically pleasing physique, for either competitive or personal reasons, it is incredibly accurate.

Most beginners will notice that gains in strength come relatively easily at first, but this is primarily due to neurological adaptations. In a sense, lifting weights is a skill, comparable to other skills like swimming, or riding a bike, in that, once you learn to swim/ride, there’s not much room for improvement after that, and if you want to continue to progress, you need to progressively overload the body, and force it to undergo further adaptations.

Once the nervous system has ‘caught up to speed’, and the motor patterns for the movements that you’ve chosen to perform have been developed, and reinforced with repetitive action, the results begin to slow down, and in most cases, come to a complete halt, AKA hitting a plateau.

When, or if, progress begins to pick up again, it seemingly comes at a much slower pace than that at which you first experienced it. This in itself can be very de-motivating, and agonizing, by contrast. It is for this reason that one should attempt to look for as many ways to quantify progress as possible.

While lifting more weight than you previously ever have is a very black and white way of quantifying progress, it isn’t the only way. There are many ways to quantify progress that don’t include lifting more weight each and every training session. If progress was that simple, you wouldn’t be reading this, or looking to educate yourself further on how to make progress!

In a perfect world, anybody would hypothetically be able to go online or use an app on their trusty smart phone, search for a training program suited to their goals, get into the gym and follow it to a ‘T’, and develop the body that they ultimately want within a reasonable time frame (barring any major injury). Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and just because a program calls for a specific number of sets to be performed with a given rep bracket, doesn’t mean that it will just happen that way.

For example, a set and rep scheme may look like this: 5 X 4-6. At the completion of the workout, if the individual was able to perform 5 sets of 4-6 reps with a given intensity, then next time, the logical progression would be to increase the weight and try for it again. But what if the individual doesn’t complete the minimum prescribed 4 reps on all 5 sets? Then what?

While some may think, why not just lower the weight to get the prescribed amount of repetitions? To me, that’s like an explosive type of athlete such as a sprinter, or short distance swimmer/cycler deliberately choosing to run/swim/bike slower during what’s supposed to be an all out sprint, just to leave enough energy ‘in the tank’ to complete the desired number of sprints that his program calls for. Deliberately running/swimming/cycling slower will NOT make anyone faster, I don’t care what anybody says. So that rules out the, ‘lower the weight to complete the desired number of reps’ method.

On the flip side, what if the individual does happen to hit the maximum prescribed 6 reps on all 5 sets? Is it expected that by increasing the weight by an ‘appropriate’ amount, that he/she will be able to do it again? Like I said earlier, if progress was that simple, you wouldn’t be reading this in an attempt to learn alternative ways to quantify progress, as it would be a waste of time that could be used to train and just get bigger and stronger.

While it is certainly possible to increase the weight and hit the bare minimum of 4 reps for all 5 sets the next time you perform a given workout, there is still the possibility that it may not happen, especially not every single time.

Over the years I’ve realized that it’s important to look for other ways to quantify progress aside from just increasing the weight as often as possible, not just for your own workouts, but especially in working with the average, everyday person, who’s simply looking to improve their overall health profile. Being able to see quantifiable progress is perhaps the single most motivating factor there is, after all, we as humans are results motivated, and that’s true for all facets of life. No one wants to see zero return for their investment.

Ways to quantify progress, besides lifting more weight!
-          Increase reps
-          Increase sets
-          Reduce duration
-          Increase time under tension by increasing eccentric tempo
-          Decrease time under tension by reducing concentric tempo

Increase Reps

Like lifting more weight, performing more reps with a given intensity is also very black and white as far as quantifying progress is concerned. If you perform more reps of a certain exercise, with the same weight as you did last workout, assuming the technique and tempo at which you perform the reps is identical, than there is no question whether or not you’ve progressed.

The major limitation to this method is the same reason that you can’t just add weight each and every single time. If you could, then hypothetically speaking you could take your 1 rep max, and make it your ten rep max in ten workouts. Not saying it’s not possible, I’ve just never seen or heard of such a thing.

Also, given that the amount of reps performed will influence the training effect, if you are able to simply perform more reps, the results you get will certainly vary. Hypothetically adding one rep each and every week will lead to the development of differing strength qualities, which may not be in line with what you want to accomplish.

For example, if you were training for aesthetic purposes, and want to build bigger muscles, you may want to perform roughly 8-10 reps per set. After a few workouts, you may be capable of doing more than 8-10 reps with that same intensity, but instead of making it harder by adding more weight to overload your muscles, you decide to perform more reps with the same weight. Doing this may not continue to build muscle upon which you’ve already built, because the fact that you can perform more reps than you could before, would suggest that the weight you are using is now ‘too light’ for what you want to accomplish.

I like to personally use this method when I feel that increasing the weight, whether for myself or for a client, will not be successful, so instead of trying to lift more weight, I’d rather seek an improvement in the total amount of reps performed in a set.

For example, let’s say the prescribed rep bracket is 6-8, and you are capable of performing 8 reps for all your prescribed sets. Instead of trying to up the weight and failing to hit 6 for all your prescribed sets, I’d much rather perform 9 or 10 reps, and then when I feel ready, up the weight so that I can manage to fall between the 6-8 rep range on every set.

This method is especially suitable for exercises performed with dumbells, as dumbells typically go up in 5 lb. increments. A 5 lb. jump per arm (10 lbs. total) equates to at least a 10% increase in weight if you are using under 55 lb. dumbells, and at least a 5% increase unless you are using at least 100 lb. dumbells.

A 5% increase is very reasonable and realistic for most, but for those who are not yet able to use over 55 lb. dumbells for the exercises of their choosing, a 10% increase, or more, may be too much, and that’s when increasing the reps beyond the rep bracket goal is most appropriate.

Increase Sets

Performing more sets is another method in which you can use to gauge progression, but like increasing the weight or reps, you are limited with how many sets you can add before you overwork your body’s ability to recover, and therefore overtrain, which I dare say is counterproductive to any strength/physique related goal.

This method is best suited for those who are not at the point where increasing the weight is the most effective decision, and where increasing the reps will not lead to the most effective adaptation relative to your goal.

For example, if you are training to make relative strength gains, which means you DO NOT want to put additional muscle mass on your body, as the additional bodyweight regardless of whether it be fat or muscle, could negatively affect your ability to make weight for a physique or athletic competition, than adding more sets may be a solid substitute as far as methods used to quantify progression is concerned.

Performing additional sets at a given intensity is one of the most effective ways to promote the development of the desired strength quality by further recruiting and fatiguing as many motor units as possible to perform a given task, whether it be strength and/or size development, or improved muscular endurance.

The major flaw to this method is its accuracy as it relates to quantifying progress. For example, if in one workout you perform 4 sets of 6 reps, and the next workout you choose to perform an extra set for the same exercise, because you feel that upping the weight may be too much of a stretch, and increasing the reps is not in line with your goal, who’s to say that you couldn’t have performed that extra set the last time you trained? While lifting more weight, or more reps, is a very black and white way of quantifying progress as in, you either do it, or you don’t, performing more sets may leave you asking yourself more questions, than having provided you with answers.

Nevertheless, more sets ultimately equates to more overall volume, and as long as it is within your body’s capacity to recover, it should result in progression.

Reduce Duration

When adding more weight is simply not feasible, adding more reps is not possible or in line with your goal, and there’s simply no room to add more sets to the workout without overtraining, you can always try performing a given workout in less total time. The total time taken to perform a given training session is referred to the workouts ‘density’.

If one week a given workout takes you roughly 45 minutes to complete, and the next time you do that exact same workout, which means you hit all your sets for the prescribed number of reps, and you complete it in roughly 40 minutes, than you would have improved your workout density.

This method obviously has limitations very much the same as adding more weight, reps, or sets, in that you can only reduce the amount of rest between so much before you are not resting at all. It should go without saying that, if limiting the amount of rest you give yourself starts to take away from your performance, than adjustments should be made.

If you’ve been pounding away in the gym for several years, you’ve probably had ‘one of those days’ where you felt that adding weight may be too dangerous and lead to injury, increasing reps may lead to a breakdown in technique and therefore result in injury, and adding more sets may be of too high a demand for your body. When this happens, as it usually will at some point, as we can only get so strong before the weights begin to take their toll on our body as well as our psyche, than attempting to perform the same workout a few times in a row may appeal to you the most, based on the assumption that, if you’ve already successfully performed a given workout without injury, than surely you should be able to do it again (as long as too much time hasn’t passed between workouts).

While strict attention should be paid to all the loading parameters, regardless of which method you choose to use to quantify progress, this one in particular requires additional attention to be paid to rest intervals. Depending on the total amount of exercises and sets you choose to perform, shaving off just ten seconds of rest between sets can ultimately add up to a few minutes in the end.
For example, if you perform 20 sets over the course of a workout, by resting ten less seconds between sets than you did last time you performed the same workout, you’ll perform a given work load 200 seconds (3 min, 20 sec) faster than you did the last time you performed that workout. If you do that again the following workout, you will have knocked off 400 seconds from your original time!

I personally find this method to be most suitable for those in the beginning stages who are having a difficult time lifting more weight properly, don’t have the muscular endurance to add more reps and/or sets, or those who are so strong that adding more weight, or going for that extra rep and/or set is just not safe.

Increase Time Under Tension

Increasing the length of the eccentric portion of a repetition is a great way to boost strength levels, increase muscle mass, and leave you feeling like you got run over by a truck (depending on what bodyparts/exercises you trained) for a few days (anyone who’s done enhanced eccentric squats, deadlifts, presses, and pull variations can relate).

For those who want to gain size/strength, but feel that attempting to lift more weight is a bit premature, adding reps is not in line with their goal, and performing more sets would lead to overtraining/injury, than increasing the time under tension with each set may be the most effective way to go about making progress.

The major limitation here is that, as you increase the eccentric tempo of each rep, you’re ultimately increasing the overall duration of the set, as well as workout, and you can only lower the weight for so long before it negatively affects your ability to lift a given load, for a given number of reps.

For example, let’s say you are taking roughly 2 seconds to lower a weight, irrespective of how long it takes to lift it, and you are performing 10 reps. This means that 20 seconds of the set are dedicated to the eccentric repetition. By upping the eccentric tempo to 3 seconds, you’ve now added at least 10 total seconds onto the duration of the set, and that’s not taking into consideration that the concentric is surely to take longer as fatigue sets in.

The additional time under tension may or may not affect the amount of weight that is lifted, and this will primarily come down to metabolic fatigue. If it doesn’t, than increasing the eccentric tempo can work to your advantage. But if you have to dramatically lower the weight, just to hit the prescribed amount of repetitions, than it would be in your best interest to look for other ways to quantify progression.

With that being said, this method is particularly effective if you are using relatively heavy weights, for low repetitions (1-5 is suggested). That way, the accumulative effect of the increased time under tension won’t negatively affect how much weight can be used. If you are performing 5 reps of less, than upping the tempo by 1 second will only tack on a maximum of 5 seconds per set, and 10 seconds if you up it by 2 seconds. This leaves room for small increments of progress to be made for a few weeks at a time, while ensuring that you are still training as close to your target strength quality zone as possible.

Decrease Time Under Tension

Another way to measure progression would be to increase lifting speed. After all force = mass x acceleration. Therefore, the same load, lifted with more speed, means more muscle activation.

As with each of the above methods, there are limitations with this method as well. After all, you can only lift so fast, and unless you are recording the set with a digital camera, that can breakdown the lift frame by frame, it’s virtually undetectable by the human eye whether or not one rep is faster than the previous rep (the exception being sets performed for high repetitions, in which the concentric is dramatically slower as fatigue sets in).

Also worth noting is, the heavier the weight lifted, the slower the concentric repetition will be, therefore making this method inappropriate if you are lifting relatively heavy weights.

The only time this method would really be effective for quantifying progression, is if you are lifting a light enough weight that you can deliberately lift it slower on purpose. For example, if you could deliberately lift a weight for 3 total seconds, then next time, using the same weight, you could opt to take only 2 seconds to lift it. That in a sense would be progression, but I wouldn’t consider it to be all that effective, because who’s to say you couldn’t have lifted it even faster than that the last time?

Personally, I would never use this method, as it is my opinion that every rep should be lifted with the intent to move the weight as fast as possible (within reason, meaning proper form is adhered to), but for arguments purposes, as it relates to the scope of this article, I figured I’d throw it in there, because some people may want as much variety as possible when it comes to looking for ways to quantify progress.

Connecting The Dots

Given that the body adapts to whatever stimulus it’s exposed to over an extended period of time, it is crucial that changes be made in a positive way to continue to overload the body, and prompt it to progress. Unfortunately, as stated earlier, nothing will work forever, and thus, the need to find other ways to make progression become necessary. Below is a sample blueprint of how you can manipulate the methods above to your advantage throughout a few weeks of training, to keep yourself progressing, followed by a summary. Note that the method highlighted in bold, is the one that has been adjusted for that specific week.

Week 1: 4 sets X 6 reps, 2 min. rest, 2 second eccentric

Week 2: 5 sets X 6 reps, 2 min. rest, 2 second eccentric

Week 3: 5 sets X 4 reps, 2 min. rest, 2 second eccentric

Week 4: 5 sets X 6 reps, 2 min. rest, 2 second eccentric

Week 5: 5 sets X 6 reps, 2 min. rest, 3 second eccentric

Week 6: 5 sets X 6 reps, 1 ½ min. rest, 3 second eccentric

Week 7: DELOAD! AKA reduce the volume to allow for the body to go through a super compensative effect and reap the benefits of all the hard training from the previous 6 weeks.


The purpose of the first week is to lay out some baseline numbers, to which we can build upon over the coming weeks. Don’t get too caught up in the exact number of sets, reps, rest and tempo that is displayed. The numbers used are strictly for demonstrative purposes, however, they would be appropriate for someone looking to improve their absolute strength levels, but in the end, your goal should determine the specifics (including exercise selection, which I deliberately left out so that focus could remain on the methods).

If all goes well in week 1, meaning you picked the appropriate amount of weight to hit your set and rep goals, then the next week you could add another set to increase the volume, as highlighted in week 2. Increasing the volume with a weight you’ve proven you can handle for 4 sets, in my opinion, will have a higher success rate, than bumping up the weight after just one workout. Psychologically it’s easier to cope with the thought of performing more of what you’ve proven you can already do, than stepping up to unknown territory and attempting something for the first time (that being a heavier weight). The more times you expose yourself to a given stimulus, the faster it becomes ‘the norm’, and when this happens and the weight is no longer challenging enough for you, you can focus on increasing the weight.

The reduction in reps highlighted in week 3 indicates an increase in weight. The sets remain elevated in relation to where they were in week 1, since capacity had been worked on the week before with the addition of an extra set. It wouldn’t make sense to reduce the sets and allow yourself to lose what you’d just finished working so hard for, especially since you are performing less total reps per set.

The increase in reps highlighted in week 4 indicates that the weight remains constant for this week, but the goal is to simply lift it more times. By this point you will have increased the volume, increased the weight, and are now attempting to perform the new weight for more reps, which is a very realistic expectation.

By the 5th week you’ve increased the volume, weight, and reps with a greater amount of weight than when you started, so now you could focus on increasing the time under tension with every rep/set by slowing down the eccentric, as highlighted in week 5. This method, along with that in week 4 can be used interchangeably, meaning that if you couldn’t up the reps the previous week, or felt it wasn’t the best way to go, you could focus on increasing the time under tension, which would contribute to you being able to increase the amount of reps you can do next time, by virtue of increasing your strength levels.

Finally, after increasing the sets in week 2, weight in week 3, reps in week 4, and duration of the eccentric repetition (and therefore the entire set) in week 5, you can attempt to get all that work done in less time in the 6th week by reducing the rest intervals.

The sample blueprint above is just that, a blueprint. You can, and in most cases should, make adjustments to more than one method with each workout, I just decided to keep it as simple as possible for educational purposes, as it is a lot easier to remember one thing at a time, as opposed to many. One example of how you could adjust more than one method at a time is, as the weight is increased, it is often a good idea to minimally increase the eccentric repetition tempo as well to make up for the loss of time the muscles are under tension, since the reps will (likely) be lower.

Also, slowing down the eccentric is a safer way to go when handling greater intensities to help prevent injuries. Very often, people will unintentionally lower a heavier weight faster the first time they handle it, to get the added benefit of the stretch reflex to help propel the weight back up during the concentric portion of the rep. While this technique may help you complete more reps, it will wreak havoc on your connective tissue over the long haul, and could lead to irreversible injury.


The only reason anybody would do anything, especially as physically demanding, and time consuming, as lifting heavy ass weights, day in, day out, for weeks, months, and years on end, is to see progress. No one in their right mind would willingly choose to devote the time necessary to accomplish goals that hold some level of significance to them, unless they really wanted it.

The problem however, is that real results, that can be measured (quantified), become harder and harder to come by, the stronger and more experienced you become, which can be extremely demotivating, unless you are aware of various other ways to quantify progress.

I started it off with a quote, and I’ll end it what a quote as well. I recall reading Lee Priest saying something like, “the day that I’m satisfied with my results, is the day that I will quit”, and my interpretation of that is, he believed that there is ALWAYS room for improvement, regardless of what level of experience you may have. After all, that’s the type of mindset that propels the best in the world at their respective sport/career, to keep working hard. If you are someone that takes strength training seriously, and has for quite some time, then the methods illustrated throughout this article should be enough for you, or anyone, to continually make progress, and keep making improvements.

If you have any questions about how to modify your own training so that you can find ways to quantify progression, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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