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Exercise Progression: The Best Way to Get In Shape

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

I was on TV earlier this week discussing the BuiltLean Program) and the benefits of progression, which in my opinion is the most important exercise variable to safely, quickly, and effectively get in shape and change your body, whether you want to lose fat, or build muscle.

Nick and Neil to your right were on TV with me discussing the benefits of progression and how working with me and using BuiltLean Program helped them get in the best shape of their lives and change their bodies.

Progression is a really big topic so I’m going to try to give you a helpful overview.

What is Progression?

Progression is an exercise concept where you slowly make your workouts more challenging over time.1 The body is a homeostatic organism that is resistant to change, so progression in combination with smart nutrition forces the body to change and become stronger and fitter. Conversely, if workouts do not become more challenging, the body may not improve.

How Fast Should You Progress Your Workouts?

Many popular fitness programs require as many as 6-7 workouts per week for 60-90 minutes. If you haven’t worked out in a while, attempting to workout too hard and too frequently is simply not a smart idea. Similarly, if you are already in shape with a 250lbs bench, don’t try to jump to 300lbs cold turkey. Even small increments of 5lbs can help increase your strength and progress your workouts.

The key is to listen to your body and slowly adjust the variables in your exercise regimen to make it more challenging. Overall, it’s better to progress too slowly then too quickly. If you are just starting out, light workouts 2-3x per week then ramping them up is a smart approach.

Using the right pace of progression decreases the risk of injury, overtraining, and burnout.

Do You Have to Progress Your Workouts to See Results?

If you want to increase strength, or improve your cardiovascular capacity to get in great shape, you absolutely do need progression. In addition, if you are going for muscle gain, you must create progression by lifting heavier weights over time to build muscle mass.

If you want to lose fat without muscle loss, you can get away with not progressing your workouts while still eating clean foods and maintaining a calorie deficit. The issue, however, is that your results will not be nearly as good as compared to progressing your workouts.

I know the thought of constantly making your workouts more challenging can seem daunting, but think of it as a challenge, or competition. Because you are only making small changes over time, you don’t need to feel intimidated, or fear being able to complete a workout. I only progress my workouts when I’m trying to make changes in my body and I will do so for 1-2 months at a time. Most of the time, I do not progress my workouts, because then I would be working out as hard as a professional athlete, which is not my goal.

Three Ways to Progress Your Workouts:

There are a number of different ways to tweak your workouts and exercise regimen to make it more challenging, but below I believe are the big three:

1) Increase the Volume
Exercise volume can be defined and calculated in different ways, but the basic idea is to increase the overall amount of “work” when working out:

• Lift more weight
• Increase the distance of running, or doing cardio
• Increase the number of sets, reps, or exercises performed in a workout
• Increase frequency of workouts per week

2) Decrease the Duration of Exercise
Try to decrease the amount of time it takes you to complete a certain amount of volume:

• If you are running intervals, you can decrease rest between intervals
• During strength training, you can decrease rest between exercises
• If you are going for a jog, you can decrease the amount of time it takes you to run a certain distance

3) Choose Harder Exercises
There are many different exercises, or movements that can be made more challenging:

• Start out walking, then jogging, then running, then sprinting
• Choose harder and harder exercise variations:

Legs Exercises(Easy to Hard)
1) Exercise Ball Squats
2) Smith Machine Squats
3) Barbell Squats
Abs Exercises (Easy to Hard)
1) Standard crunches
2) Reverse Crunches
3) Hanging Leg Raises

For an abs progression video, check out Strengthen Your Abs: 5 Great Abs Exercises. For more information on how all the pieces fit together (exercise, nutrition etc.), check out this video: BuiltLean Fitness Philosophy.

I hope this overview has helped improve your understanding of why progression is important and how to add it to your workouts, whether you want to lose fat, or build muscle.

Let me know if you have any questions, or have anything to add by leaving a comment!

Show 1 References

  1. Coburn JW, Malek MH. NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training. Human Kinetics 10%; 2011. page 373


  • Jessica says:

    Niel is a hotty!

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Jessica - Haha. I'll let him know. I'm still training him. I think he'll be flattered.

  • Nancy Ioannidis says:

    Hi Marc, I have a question about the rhythm used when using resistance machines. I see people doing fast reps and others very slow. I hope I do the right thing. I try to be in between and not use momentum. Would you be able to share the physics that are behind the best way to pace the movements? It always helps to know why you do what you do. Thank you very much. Nancy

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Nancy Ioannidis - That's a great question. The rhythm you refer to is technically called "tempo". I think for most people, 2-3 seconds on the negative portion of exercise (where you resist the weight), and 1-2 seconds on the positive portion of exercise (when you are lifting the weight) is ideal. The positive phase is faster than the negative phase because your muscles are stronger resisting force than creating force. For most exercises, momentum is not desirable, so fully controlling the exercise is ideal for three reasons, which are all connected:

      1) You will adequately stimulate the desired muscle group
      2) Decreased risk of injury
      3) Easier to use proper form

      Some methodologies go as far as requiring 10 seconds for positive and negative phases, which is known as "slow burn". While this very slow tempo is effective at stimulating your muscles, I find it's extremely boring and can lead to overtraining if completed too frequently. The idea is to feel the desired muscles working and control the weight. I'm going to put up a video that covers this topic eventually so thanks for the comment. Hope this is helpful.

  • Aaron says:

    hey marc,
    i was wondering what you think about swimming for cardio and a steady workout to lose weight. also if you have any suggestions for losing stomach fat, my body is pretty lean except for my stomach.

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Aaoron - I love swimming and think it's an excellent exercise for long term healthy and longevity. I would recommend doing some interval sprint work maybe 1-2x per week to make the swimming more anaerobic, which can help with fat loss. What I mean is that you swim hard for 2 laps, rest 30 seconds, sprint again, then repeat 5x. This also helps increase your endurance as well.

      The stomach fat is tough to lose. It's probably a couple things (1) increased levels of cortisol, or (2) nutrition. If you have a lot of stress in your life, don't sleep well, and workout too much, it can increase cortisol levels in your body, which makes it harder to lose fat. The most important part of the equation is nutrition and eating less calories than you burn (See: How Many Calories Do You Need To Lose Weight?. As you get leaner, of course losing fat becomes harder. The last 5-10 pounds of losing fat is the hardest.

      I hope this is helpful and thanks for your comment!

  • Curt Bizelli says:

    I know smoking is a bad thing, so don't tell me to quit. My question is will it SIGNIFICANTLY decrease my chances of getting in shape OVER TIME will it become harder as opposed to easier because I'm losing weight and getting in shape but still blackening my lungs? Which has more dominance? The positive exercise? or the smoking cigs? (is basically what I'm asking). I'm 26, 203 lb. 29.6 BMI, 21.4% BF ... I started at 223.6 lb. 25.6% BF and over 32 BMI (2 1/2 months ago). I do metabolic strength training aprox. 3 times per week for about 5-10 min each, Judo/Kickboxing every day, pushups every other day, and High Intensity Weight / Circuit Training aprox. 1-2 times per week. Oh yeah, and I take the occasional walk around the block. ;-)

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Curt Bizelli - I don't think I will be able to tell you what you want to hear. As you probably know, smoking is horrible for your health and well-being. The reality is that working out can be helpful for you, but it certainly will not overcompensate for smoking, or somehow block the negative effects of smoking. For example, if you smoke, you may get emphysema, which is an illness that slowly rots your lungs. I'm guessing that will effect your workouts. It won't matter how much running etc. you do, you may still get emphysema. Chemicals in cigarettes, like nicotine and cyanide, are actually poisons that can kill in high enough doses. Over time, smoking can cause cancer even if you are in great shape. It's tough to say how much smoking will hold you back in terms of your ability to get very fit, it really depends on how much you are smoking and the aforementioned issues. I think you can get in great shape and lean if you smoke and maintain it for sometime, but again, smoking will catch up with you if you continue to do it. I don't mean to be harsh, but truthful. The facts are not pretty.

  • Toni says:

    This is the whole priniciple behind P90X, only he calls it "muscle confusion". I always wondered about how to break through the plateau effect. It makes total sense. If you don't continue to challenge your body, the muscles grow lazy because they start to adapt to the exercise routine and become complacent. I switch up my routines on a monthly basis to avoid this and to counteract boredom with my workout. You've got to keep the body guessing as to what's next because there's always room for improvement.

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Toni - Muscle confusion is actually different than progression. In fact, muscle confusion is just a new name for an old concept called variation. While variation is important, I would argue progression is substantially more important in terms of making positive body changes. For maintenance, mixing it up is key and prevents boredom. FYI, top athletes need to change up their routine every 3-4 weeks, whereas most average people can get benefits on the same routine for 3-6 months!

  • Kay says:

    Marc you are a BOSS for the excellent advice you give. After reading this I went out and bought a small notebook to start tracking my progress at the gym. Thanks & keep it up.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Kay - Thanks for the comment!

  • carla says:

    I just discovered this site and I love your articles! Well written, easy to understand and they help me to stay motivated.
    There's one thing I didn't quite understand with the exercise progression. I just started working out in a fitness studio a week ago (i'm in pretty good shape though, i've been playing tennis regularly for 15 years). When do I have to start increasing volume/intensity/choose harder exercises etc? Already after one week?...Or should I stay 2-3 weeks on the same level and then increase slowly?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Carla - That's a great question. I would recommend choosing one workout and making it a little harder every week; maybe you are doing 10 push ups one week, the next week you could do 11, or 12 and so on. Maybe you are doing 2 sets of push ups, the next week, you can do 3 (in this case, wouldn't need to increase reps because the extra set is adding more volume). Same thing goes with rest between sets, which can be adjusted almost weekly. So reps, weight, and rest between sets can be adjusted every 1-2 weeks. Choosing harder exercises is a bit more challenging and may take 1-2 months. So for example, you may be able to do 10 reps of incline push ups, but 2 of pus ups on the ground in standard military form. It make take you a few months to do those flat push ups.

      Of course, trying to improve every week can be daunting, but it can be done. If you ever need a break, you can just vary up your workouts and not create progression.