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New ways to measure your progress once your “newbie gains” have passed!

December 22, 2014

I've always been a big fan of holistic or total fitness and making sure my training includes a wide range of skills i.e. strength, speed, endurance, power, flexibility training etc. I find it’s good for the body and better for my health overall. Of course there is nothing quite like adding 5kg to your clean, but there is a whole lot more to progressing in your training than just that. Sometimes it’s good to step away from the tree directly in front of us and look at the whole forest, and see the bigger picture.

If you have been training for a few years and your awesome “newbie gains” have long passed, PBs are going to be a lot harder to come by. You will have to work so much harder for every kg added to the bar. This is completely normal and will happen to every single person (unless they are superhuman or perhaps using an illegal substance). Obviously, if we were able to continue adding 5kg to our lifts every week we would all be squatting, pressing and lifting thousands of kilos. That just doesn't happen. Your progress at a consistent pace will definitely slow down the more advanced you become in your training, and this can be frustrating and many times you will FEEL like you’ve hit a plateau.

If you’ve been training for longer than six months to a year, and most certainly if you have been training for longer than 2-3 years, you may need to slightly adjust your expectations.  Maybe this month you can only add 1kg to the bar on one of your lifts, and everything else stays the same, but you progress in other areas. You bust out 15 pullups in a row instead of 12, your squat form is feeling so much smoother and more comfortable, and you start to grasp technique better for some of your lifts. Those are PBs right there, not always as easily measured as weight added to a bar, but still just as important and sometimes even more needed!

In speaking to some of the people I coach at CrossFit, and from my own personal experience, I know it can be a big source of discouragement when you just can’t seem to add any weight to your lifts for awhile, and it gets even more discouraging when you have days regularly when you can’t even hit your previous PBs.

I always try to remind myself that my progress from training is not made or broken from one session or one PB (or lack of PBing), one day of the week. Rather it is the sum TOTAL and the cumulative effect of all my training sessions put together. That’s where the real progress comes from. Even that day you went to the gym and you thought you had a shit session; you couldn’t even deadlift close to your PB, and yet you trained anyway and gave it your best for that day—that session still plays a part in your overall progress and your PBs down the track.

Also remember that in the end, a PB is a PB, and whether you lifted something heavier (even by 500 grams), learned a new skill, increased your intensity, moved better and more efficiently while under fatigue, or added more repetitions than you could do before, you're getting stronger. And that’s what matters.

Here is a list of ways you can gauge your progress and improve your strength (apart from always only measuring strength increases by the weight you can lift). Remember, strength is relative. You can be strong in different ways and I’ve always believed that it’s good to have a good balance and work on different aspects of strength and fitness.

Practice doing more things “unbroken” and train your grip strength:

In my hand care tips for serious exercisers blog post, I wrote a bit about the importance of training your grip. This is something I notice women are especially weak in, and if you improve your grip strength, it will improve EVERYTHING from your deadlift to your pullups. Increasing your grip strength is a great way to gauge your progress and it will transfer to new PBs all around. Here’s a portion from that blog post:

Begin by adding some simple finger and hand grip strengthening work, like pinch weight-plates for time and even walking with them for distance, hanging from a pull-up bar for time, farmers carries etc. Just do a bit of these things every time you come to the gym and you will build up tougher hands and fingers. …Grip strength is extremely important and I think this is something that most women could work more on. From training both guys and girls, it has become very clear to me that girls struggle with grip strength the most. It’s often a big weakness in females. Having solid grip strength will give you ladies a massive edge and make you better at EVERYTHING…weightlifting, gymnastics, pull-ups, you name it! You will be able to do more things unbroken and spend more time under tension before dropping the weight or coming off the pull up bar, and that extra time spent under tension will build more muscle and make you stronger. Don’t underestimate the importance of grip strength!

Learn a new skill or become a boss at an existing skill.

For me at the moment it’s handstand walking. But it could be anything that you want to improve in. I have been including more upside-down time in my routine and I try to spend some time upside down every day.

Handstands and being upside down in general is a good way to improve your strength. If you are brand new to it, just start by adding in more moving and supporting on your hands. Start by kicking up against the wall and practice handstands against the wall. Add in lateral handwalks, alligator push-ups, partner assisted wheel barrow walks, etc. All of these things are great for building up strength and stability in the shoulders and excellent for improving your balance and will eventually lead to handstands if you practice. If you can go from not doing a handstand at all to doing a handstand or even handstand walking, that is a huge strength improvement.

If you pick an area or a skill to improve in, attack that one thing consistently. Put a lot of focus into learning that skill. That is the best way to improve at anything, do more of it regularly. Practice it consistently.

Add in isometric holds, and increase your core stability and strength.

I have recently become a little bit obsessed with isometric holds. These are basic bodyweight exercises, but where you hold your body in a static position.

Examples of these are static gymnastic holds, v-sits, horse stance, hanging from a pull-up bar in a L-sit, pallof and other cable or band holds, plank variations etc. Regular movements and exercises improve muscle strength over a range of motion, but when you do isometric holds these are great for joint, core and stabilizing strength. Often this is an area that is lacking with many people and it’s a hidden weakness so it’s often forgotten and hard to measure. But to have a strong core and good stabilizing strength is pretty badass and useful!

To get better in this area incorporate more static isometric holds, even in to your warm ups. You can increase the intensity of these, and harder variations build insane levels of strength and athleticism that can’t be duplicated with other methods.

Test your max sets

This is a cool one! Maybe you can deadlift 150kg, but how many reps can you get out unbroken at 100? That’s another form of strength. The same goes for squats. Maybe you can back squat 150 but what is your 20 rep max? You might be able to get a 10 or 20 rep max PB even if you haven’t been able to PB your squat in the last couple months. The same goes for pullups, dips and other bodyweight movements. Doing max sets at a pretty high percentage (ie 70-80 % of your 1RM) is very challenging and requires a mixture of strength, muscle endurance, work capacity as well as grip strength (see point above).

Improve your range of motion and flexibility if needed

Do you need to improve your range of motion or your flexibility? I find this one is often applicable to guys more than girls as women in general are naturally more flexible. If you are very tight and can’t squat without tipping forward, do you think it’s more beneficial to keep increasing the weight on your squat or to improve your actual squat and get comfier with squatting and being in the squatting position? I would say definitely improving your squat. That’s a PB in itself. This could apply to any movement.

Make it look effortless and become more efficient with your movements

What’s the point of adding 2kg to your lift if it looks really ugly? That might sound a little harsh but it's true (unless you're in a comp). I think it’s good idea to strive to make our lifts look more effortless and to be more fluid in our movements. Making it look natural and easy, rather than ugly or a huge struggle is another BIG way we can make progress.

We all know those people who make their lifts or training look easy and this is something that comes with greater body awareness and control. It also ties in with core control, motor learning and improving technique in general, which are all good things to work on. We have also all seen those people who make everything look like such a struggle, and often times there is no real reason for this; no mobility issues or problems, other than just a lack of paying attention, focusing on their technique and efficiency of movement and actually putting some time and effort into it.

How do you make movement effortless? Pay more attention to your body and the way it moves. Learn how to complete the movement as efficiently and smoothly as possible. How we move is completely under our control. Paying attention takes focus and if you are lazy and you just want to go through the motions and get the training done, it’s not going to happen. You have to put a little bit of effort in but you will be rewarded with getting more done and improving your times and weights when you can move more efficiently.

Eventually if you strengthen your neural pathways through enough perfect practice your subconscious will take over. The more you practice something, the stronger a neural pathway gets. This is how muscle memory exist. Through repeat exposure, you create a smoother more easily navigable path for energy to travel within your brain. That means you can complete the movement easier, smoother and with less energy.

When this pathway is big enough, your subconscious can react before you conscious brain even registers the new information. This is the essence of intuition and doing something with ease, which is the essence of mastery.

Increase your power, speed and coordination:

When is the last time you added in some dynamic exercise? Dynamic exercise is anything where you’re not performing set routine after routine. Things aren’t fixed. They are in flux and constantly changing. You’re moving in more natural movements, rather than a continuous repetition of fixed patterns. This is good for your body and it will develop speed, power and coordination, which will help you out in developing your athleticism and will transfer to your lifts as well.

Adding in more crawling, rolling, jumping and climbing is great. Changing directions and using sprints and drills in your training is good as well. If you simply always run and move in a straight line your athleticism will slowly decrease over the years because breaking and cutting will have been ignored. Incorporate change of direction drills. Being able to accelerate, and more importantly, decelerate quickly will improve your speed and coordination massively. This also ties in with the point above, on making things look effortless. Becoming more coordinated and agile will help with this.

So there you have it! New ways to gauge your progress if you feel like you are stuck and not seeing measurable progress. Try to set little goals for yourself every time you train, and celebrate the little victories just as much as the big ones. This will open your eyes up to see all the new ways you are improving and PBing!




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