The most successful method of long-term strength gains I’ve come across: gaining ground. Here’s how it works: You get a plate&quarter weight that you absolutely own (i.e. 95, 135, 185, 225, 275, etc.). That’s your weight. It’s not your PR. It’s a weight you can hit every time you enter the gym, regardless of circumstances. As you get stronger, you claim the next increment. Then the next. Then the next. It’s sort of like a psychological placeholder that makes the weight seem like they’re never getting any heavier. Your PR is never more than 90 pounds away from “your” weight. For example, last spring, I owned a 455 squat. My max was just north of 500, but I knew on my worst day I could smoke 455, and I did so a minimum of 3 times per week. You get VERY used to seeing that weight on the bar. When I went for my first 545, it wasn’t intimidating because it was only a plate per side away from a weight I’d done (literally) 100+ times. Plates aren’t that heavy. If I could so thoroughly dominate 455, there was no reason I shouldn’t be able to dig out a single at 545. When I claimed 495, PRing at 585 wasn’t a big deal. My placeholder had moved. Now 495 was my easy weight, which made 585 much more doable. The placeholder is physical as much as it is psychological. Eventually 365 felt like 315 did. Then 405 feels like 365 did. PRs are never more than 90 extra pounds on your back/in your hands. This is just an idea, but I bet it has to do with bones thickening in response to habitually handling a load. Whatever the reason, scary weight become boring, and unthinkable weight become targets as you gain more ground. There’s nothing better than walking out a PR attempt and knowing you’re going to smoke it as soon as you feel the weight on your back. It’s also a buffer against bad days. You own a specific weight. So what if you don’t want to go heavier that particular day? At least that weight is still yours. As long as you are consistent, progress becomes nearly unavoidable over time. I think it’s a concept that fits into the general paradigm of hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal-axis-governed set points as well. You establish a new set point as your base when your body’s systems adapt to it as the new “normal.” Then you improve again. The reason this was on my mind, I suppose, is that I feel like I’ve finally claimed 585. Feels good 🙂 p.s. I’d guess this same approach would work for other endeavors as well. Specifically I’m thinking running. Maybe you have a 5k time that you want to hit even on your worst days. You’d make sure you AT LEAST run that pace, and then PR on days you’re feeling it. Over time you bump it down 10-15 seconds at a time. I’ve never done it though, so I don’t know if it would work. If I ever tried running, that’s probably the approach I’d take though.
About Greg Nuckols
Greg Nuckols has over a decade of experience under the bar, a BS in Exercise and Sports Science, and a Master's in Exercise Physiology. He’s held 3 all-time world records in powerlifting in the 220 and 242 classes.
He’s trained hundreds of athletes and regular folks, both online and in-person. He’s written for many of the major magazines and websites in the fitness industry, including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, Bodybuilding.com, T-Nation, and Schwarzenegger.com. Furthermore, he’s had the opportunity to work with and learn from numerous record holders, champion athletes, and collegiate and professional strength and conditioning coaches through his previous job as Chief Content Director for Juggernaut Training Systems and current full-time work here on Stronger By Science.
His passions are making complex information easily understandable for athletes, coaches, and fitness enthusiasts, helping people reach their strength and fitness goals, and drinking great beer.
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