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Micro-Progression: A Safer Way to Size and Strength

Kick the ego to the curb, lighten up the stack of weights and see more results with micro-progression.
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Picture this scenario: It’s bench day again. Last week, you successfully conquered your heaviest day yet and made it through all of your working sets at 225 pounds. In fact, that session was one of your best ever. This week, you’re scheduled for the same workout. To up the challenge and continue progressing, you slide an extra 10-pound plate on each side totaling the bar up to 245 pounds. Impressive? Yes. Smart? Maybe not.

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As the primary indicator of strength and a marker of comparison between you and your buddies, nearly every guy has a strong urge to continually load more weight on the bar. At a certain level, piling more weight on each side is necessary for improvement. On the other hand, far too many guys progress too quickly in an effort to beat their chests with pride. This can lead to poor performance and injury. According to Rob Sulaver, head coach at Bandana Training, “It's not only muscular capabilities, it's tendons, ligaments, and fascia that need to be trained. Loading too much weight too fast makes for an angry body.” Constantly loading on the big boys can overstrain your entire body keeping you out of the gym with nagging aches and pains. The answer: use smaller plates.

Progressing Safer: Using Smaller Increments

Micro-progressions - or increasing weight a little bit at a time using smaller plates - are a lot safer and more effective in the long run. Although they are consistently underutilized in the gym in favor of 25’s, 35’s, and 45’s, smaller plates can make sure you keep progressing and avoid injury. Sulaver cautions lifters to use smaller progressions more frequently because they’re more natural to the body. “Micro-progressions are awesome. That's how the body adapts, especially as you near your genetic potential.”

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How to stack up the weight

To determine how much you should go up on a weekly basis, work in percentages rather than just playing the guessing game. Sulaver advises most of his clients to increase 2.5-5% each week depending on the exercise. For someone working at 225 pounds in the example above, that’s only 5-10 pounds total in a week at most. This keeps the chance of injury low while still allowing for increased performance.

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Other progression boosting strategies

Don’t get stuck in the rut of thinking adding weight is the only opportunity for progress. Tempo and volume are two other methods to increase difficulty. Maintain the same weight, but slow down the lowering phase to three seconds. By increasing the time it takes to complete each rep, you’ll increase your overall time under tension and put more strain on the muscle for each set. Similarly, adding an additional set at the end of your workout can increase the total volume while avoiding putting too much stress on your tendons and ligaments.

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Picking the right time to progress

Not sure if you’re ready to go up in difficulty? Use reps and bar speed as your primary indicators. According to Sulaver, “Reps completed is my primary indicator. If you're is easily completing the prescribed rep range, go heavier. But from there, speed of movement is a big indicator for me. If a client is throwing a weight around, that's usually a sign they need something a little heftier.”

At the end of the day, progression is a key aspect of getting stronger and creating the body you want. Micro-progressions make it easier to increase difficulty while simultaneously staying healthy. Factor smaller progression - and other methods of increasing the challenge of an exercise - into your workouts for consistent results that don’t leave you sidelined with an injury.

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