After more than a decade in the gym, it's clear to me that the vast majority of lifters aren't familiar with one of the most fundamental components of strength training – linear progression.
And that's a shame because most guys could be getting bigger and stronger faster than they thought possible.
Simply put, linear progression means making incremental progress every single workout, usually to the tune of a 5 lb increase on barbell exercises.
If you graph this progress, it'll result in an upward trending straight line.
And anyone who hasn't maximized their newbie gains has the potential to get incrementally stronger on the major barbell lifts, every single workout for at least several months.
But be warned…
Linear Progression Is Terrifying, If You Have The Guts To Keep Going
To understand the toll that linear progression takes on your body, imagine that you've just completed a marathon and collapsed after crossing the finish line.
That's it, the most you could possibly do, an achievement of a lifetime.
But a friend picks you up and offers encouragement, convincing you to run another mile for good measure.
And you do it because it's just one more mile. After finishing the additional mile, you again collapse as you cross the finish line. Now you're truly exhausted.
But your friend picks you up again. Only this time their tone is more violent than encouraging, definitely not the friend you're used to. Being physically exhausted and not looking for a fight, you concede to shuffle along for another mile.
After you finish and collapse again. Completely spent, panting, body aching…you think you might die.
Then you feel the cold barrel of a gun pressed against your temple and hear, “just one more mile…” whispered into your ear.
That's what it feels like to add weight to the bar when you don't think it's possible, even though it's a measly 5 lbs more than you did last time. The accumulated stress and fatigue is brutal.
Of course, you can throw in the towel at any time, but when you want progress more than anything, your tolerance for abuse increases exponentially.
Linear Progression Is Effective
My client's progress on Starting Strength, one of the best linear progression programs available.
Linear Progression works so well because of the simple fact that even using submaximal weights, (meaning you don't have to constantly be working on a razor's edge) if increased systematically over time, can increase your strength potential.
Even though this is the most simple progression model and will produce the best results in the shortest amount of time, most guys just want to go into the gym and lift the heaviest thing they can on whatever exercise is on their mind.
They simply don't consider how today's workout affects future workouts.
For the genetically gifted, this haphazard approach does produce results (as does nearly anything else), but it doesn't carry them anywhere near as far as a simple linear progression plan would.
Every time I convince someone to reign in their enthusiasm and take a consistent and conservative approach, they blast past their expectations within a couple months and do so relatively injury-free.
But even with this success rate, most don't have the self-control for such a surefire plan.
I hope you do.
Who Can Benefit From Linear Progression?
- Experienced lifters
- People recovering from injuries
So, almost everyone. Really, the only people who don't seem to benefit from linear progression are the ones who've already exhausted it.
Ideally, a complete beginner would, with the guidance of an experienced lifter, take the time to perfect their form and technique on the major barbell lifts, progress in weight slowly, and eat in a caloric surplus.
This will result in the most significant and rapid strength and mass gain in your lifting career.
Linear progression can also work great for the lifter who's bounced around from one program to the next without ever making major progress. The newbie gain potential is still there, though not as dramatic.
Experienced lifters who are burnt out and looking to cut out the bullshit and get back to basics can benefit from focusing on making systematic progress on the essentials.
Finally, anyone coming back from an injury needs to get back in the game gradually and can benefit from linear progression.
Every time my lower back has acted up in the past, I've had to reluctantly reset my squat and deadlift and build back up to where I was.
Linear Progression Will Toughen You Up
I hear the same criticism all the time…
Only 5 sets of 5 for 3 exercises, that's it!?!? I can do that in 20 minutes!
I'm only supposed to lift 5 more pounds? But I can lift more than that!!!
Sure it's only 5 lbs and a few exercises, but have you heard of the straw that broke the camel's back?
In the case of linear progression, you're both the camel and the son of a bitch loading the straw!
If you can complete 5×5 squats in under 30 minutes, you aren't lifting heavy enough. Give it time and those 5 lb increases will eventually add up to a weight that's impossible to lift.
How close to that impossible weight are you willing to get? With linear progression, you don't get to rest on your laurels.
So you can deadlift 405? Great. But how about 410, 415, 420 and so on? This is when you find out what you're made of.
Are you going to be complacent with some strength milestone? Or are you going to continue clawing your way to the top?
Linear Progression Prevents Injury
Injury prevention on a program that incorporates linear progression is accomplished in multiple ways.
First, by starting with lighter weights than you're capable of, you have all the time in the world to work on technique before the weights get heavy and having rock solid form becomes extremely important.
Second, by progressing slowly, you allow your joints, connective tissue, and any weak muscle groups to adapt on pace with your overall musculature and nervous system.
How To Incorporate Linear Progression Into Your Routine
Linear Progression Starts Light And Progresses Slowly
If your goal was to smash through a locked door, you wouldn't walk up to the door, place your forehead on the surface, then press as hard as possible.
No. You would back up, get a running start to build momentum, and crash into the door full-force with your shoulder.
Increasing your strength should be approached in the same way.
If you try to incrementally load your bench press starting at a true 5RM (similar to placing your forehead on the door) you may be able to progress for a couple weeks, but you'll find yourself beaten and battered real quick, unable to continue.
However, if you start light and build slowly, you have the potential to blast past your previous best lifts.
It should feel really light at first. You'll be wondering why you racked the bar after only completing 5 reps when you could've done 10.
That's perfect. You're building momentum and should be feeling eager to get to the heavy weights.
Since you started light and are progressing slowly, your body adapts at a rate consistent with the load increase and you'll find that when you reach your old 5RM the load still feels light!
Before you know it, you'll be setting PRs every workout and still feeling amazing.
Linear Progression Works Best With Compound Movements
Any exercise can be loaded incrementally, but when you consider weight increases as a percentage of the total then compound exercises come out ahead.
For example, if you're doing lateral raises with 20 lb dumbbells (40 lbs total) and go up to the next heaviest dumbbell, you'll now be lifting the 25s, or 50 total. That's a 25% increase.
How long do you think you can make jumps like that?
However, if you add 5 lbs to a 315 lb deadlift, that's only a 1.6% increase which is much more sustainable over time.
Stick to things squats, deadlift, bench press, press, rows, olympic lifts, dips, and chin-ups and their variations.
Linear Progression Works Best With Simple Programming
With the amount of fatigue that accumulates on a linear progression program, it's best not to do too many exercises.
When the main goal is to increase a compound movement, you can't have things like preacher curls and triceps pressdowns interfering with your bench press progress (which almost crushed you last session and you can't imagine how you can possibly lift more tomorrow).
Full body, upper/lower, or push/pull type of splits work best. Save the one body part per day program for when you're satisfied with your strength levels and just want to refine your physique.
Linear Progression Works Best With Higher Frequency
For me, working a body part or specific lift once per week feels like taking one step forward and one step backwards in terms of strength.
To make consistent progress, it's best to make small increases two or three times per week.
Even if you schedule a light day for certain exercises in between your heavy sessions, practicing the movement frequently helps tremendously with gaining strength and muscle.
Get The Most Out Of Your Workouts With Linear Progression
By setting yourself up with a program revolving around a handful of compound movements performed multiple times per week and progressing slowly, you stand to make the best progress of your lifting career.
That is, of course, assuming that you're willing to keep pushing once things get tough. You'll know you're there when it takes you 30 minutes just to warmup and get to your first heavy set.
Then you're in the trenches. You have to stay mentally strong because things aren't getting easier from here.
But that's okay because you're setting yourself for a lifetime of health, functional strength, and muscle mass.
All the best,