By Max Dallman
The fastest known way between two points is a straight line. When we talk about getting stronger, we utilize the term linear progression. But, what exactly does that mean? It means increasing the weight on the barbell by small increments each training session for as long as possible. In other words, an athlete will continue to increase weight until “progress” is not happening. Now, why barbells? Well, barbells allow you to load human movement patterns in a measurable and incremental way.
How does linear progression work? In theory, linear progression requires that your body experiences a little more stress than it is used to, adapts to that stress, and then you apply a slightly greater stress the next time. Simple, right? If too great a stress is applied, your body will either get injured or sore. Neither of these is ideal because they interfere with training. Injury is obviously a problem, but so is muscle soreness. Many people believe soreness is indicative of a “good” training session, but in reality, it’s not necessary when we are talking about getting stronger. Plus, doesn’t being sore stink? I often hear people remark, “I’m so sore; it hurts. It’s good, but I’m so sore, but I like it….” Personally, this is nonsensical. No need to be tough; being sore is not fun.
Unfortunately, this model is difficult because a trainee’s ego or lack of understanding almost always interferes with proper programming. For example, an adult male with little training experience and a squat maximum of less than 200 pounds will often start his first set at 135 pounds (maybe even first two sets). Then, he proceeds to lift a 155, followed by 175, and then he is ready to move on to the next exercise. In general, one working weight set is not enough…unless you’re a genetic freak, which most likely you’re not (sorry!). What should be done instead? Well, using this example – first, he should begin with a set or two with the empty bar, followed by 75, 105, 135, and finally, three sets at his working weight of 165. It is very important to take appropriate jumps and warm up sets. If you are not sure how to do this or feel like you need an “ego check,” reach out to your coach – you do have a coach, right? If you do not follow this, you could end up with a rather serious injury. It might not happen immediately, but over time, science will catch up with you!
For this method to work, you must think of training as a process towards a distant stronger you, and not as an individual training session or program. To exemplify – if you start at 65 pounds, train three days per week, and add five pounds per session, you would add 60 pounds to your lift in just one month’s time! Some beginners can maintain this for two to six months, especially if they are eating and sleeping well (recovery!). Not only is this excellent progress, but it is VERY fun and motivating!
Besides being aware of proper sets and weights, exercise selection and “variety” is another important factor. As a beginner, the number of exercises you do should be limited. Focusing on normal human movement patterns, such as squat, press, deadlift, bench press, and power clean, is the best route. These movements also have a long effective range of motion that uses a large amount of muscle mass. Even though they are the most trainable exercises, they need to be trained consistently for you to get better at them. Consistency means both frequently and with proper form and range of motion EVERY time.
But, Max, this sounds so boring! Yes, this is the most common complaint I hear when someone trains this way. Totally get that. Doing five exercises every week can get boring for most people. But, don’t you want to remain pain-free and reach your potential more quickly? Using linear progression, you get to make weight increases each week and continue to train without pain or injury. And, as you get more experienced as an athlete, you will be introduced to new exercises. If you do it right, you won’t be going through that “beginner” stage again. Make the most of it and ENJOY yourself!