Optimized Figure Training

The scene is probably repeated thousands of times per day in gyms across North America. A woman meets her personal trainer for the first time. She discusses her goals, needs, and desires for a toned, sleek, and sculpted physique. But all the meathead trainer can think is, “Aw man, not another one of those stupid general ‘toning’ programs to design! I’m going to die of boredom!”

The trainer clearly wasn’t listening. This woman is using different wording, but what she desires isn’t that much different than what most men want: a solid, lean, and good looking physique. Her motivation is just as strong, and she’s willing to work just as hard to reach her goals.

It’s been my professional experience that when set in the right direction, a woman is actually morededicated to her training program and diet than most “hardcore” men. The problem is that they’re rarely steered in the right direction from the start.

Why? Because coaches and trainers automatically take it easy on new female clients. They underestimate their will and motivation. They think the girl really doesn’t want to be there, that she’s afraid of putting on muscle or becoming “too big.” So the trainer will change his tone of voice or word choice and tell the female client what he thinks she wants to hear!

He thinks that she’s afraid of gaining muscle so he’ll say that they’ll focus on lighter weights and higher reps to simply “tone” her muscles. The inexperienced woman, who doesn’t have the depth of knowledge (yet) to understand training adaptations, will then think “high reps will increase the size of my muscles but just enough to make me toned, and heavy weights will make me gain too much muscle.” The following will get imprinted in her mind:

High reps = muscle gain that looks good

Heavy weight = muscle gain that’ll make me look masculine

How idiotic! Muscle gain is muscle gain! There’s no “masculine hypertrophy pattern” or “feminine hypertrophy pattern.” There is only hypertrophy.

Muscle gain can only be faster or slower. But even if you’re using the more efficient/faster hypertrophy-inducing methods, you still have to go through all the levels of development. To paraphrase T-Nation contributor Jen Heath, before going from a 10″ arm to a 16″ arm you must first reach 12″, then 14″, etc. Does it really make sense to use ineffective training methods simply to slow down the growth process?

Doesn’t it make more sense to get to your target size as soon as possible by using effective training and then simply maintaining that size while working on improving something else? I might be disconnected from reality, but that second option seems like the smart choice to me!

The sad thing is that trainers who make female clients use ineffective, slow growth methods ultimately cause these women to adopt bad training habits (the clients learn how to nottrain hard). Chances are that in order to avoid growth that’s too rapid (as if there is such a thing) coaches might end up designing programs that actually lead to no progress at all — nothing but wasted hours! All because the trainer assumes that his female client doesn’t want to work hard.

The role of a trainer is to teach proper training methods to his clients. This includes the correct execution of the best exercises, but it should also mean showing clients how to train to get results. And to get results there’s no way around it: the key is progression.

If the trainee doesn’t strive to improve her performance in the gym then results won’t follow. That’s true for men and women. The simple act of walking into a gym and going through the motions on a few exercises will not magically lead to the physique of your dreams. To reach their goal of a lean and aesthetic physique, a woman will need to work just as hard, if not harder, than her male counterparts.

As I mentioned, progression is the key. And there are several ways one can progress from session to session. Let’s take a look at them!

10 Ways to Progress

1. Progression by Load

This means gradually adding weight to the bar while keeping the reps the same (or in the same zone). For example, if you go from 10 reps x 100 pounds to 10 reps x 110 pounds on the squat, you’re progressing and increasing the difficulty of the workout.

Obviously you can’t keep on progressing by adding weight every single workout. Even if you were to add only five pounds each week to your major lifts, you’d increase your strength by 260 pounds per year. Not gonna happen!

2. Progression by Reps

This means performing more reps with a given weight than you did before. If last week you did 8 reps with 75 pounds on the bench press and this week you’re able to do 9 or 10 good reps with the same weight, you’ve progressed and made your workout harder.

Just like with progression by load, you can’t keep on adding reps forever. First because progression isn’t linear, but also because if you change your rep zone you might not get the type of results you want. For example, sets of 15 reps won’t have the same physiological demands as sets of 5 reps.

3. Progression by Sets

This is another type of progression by increasing volume (increasing the reps is the other one). It simply consists of doing more total sets for a muscle group. For example, if last week you did 9 sets for your quads and upped it to 12 sets this week, your training will be harder.

I generally compare doing more sets to a worker who does some overtime: overtime will give you more money, but it’ll also lead to more fatigue. At some point the added fatigue might become excessive and it will lead to a negative state where you feel bad and have a hard time working at all.

So it should be understood that although adding sets occasionally is a good way to progress, if you do it too often, too abruptly, or for too long, the ensuing fatigue might slow down (or even halt) your progress, kill your motivation, and even lead to injuries.

4. Progression by Density

Density simply means doing more work per unit of time. Density is normally increased by decreasing the length of the rest periods between sets while maintaining the other parameters.

Ideally, when you decrease those rest intervals you want to avoid having to lower the weights you’re using. For that reason you should reduce the intervals very gradually. For example, don’t cut down your rest period from 2 minutes to 30 seconds right away! Go down to 90 seconds for a few workouts, then 75 seconds, 60 seconds, etc. Only reduce the rest period if you’re confident in your capacity to maintain training intensity.

5. Progression by Increased Eccentric Work

The eccentric portion of a movement is the part where the muscle is producing force while lengthening. This is often referred to as the “negative” portion or the lowering portion.

The eccentric phase is the part of the movement where you’re at your strongest. You can increase the difficulty of your workout by slowing down that portion of the movement to make the muscle do more work at every set (it’s harder to resist a weight than to simply lower it down).

6. Progression by Increased Lifting Speed

The concentric part of a strength training movement is where you’re “lifting” the weight. In that phase of the contraction, the force formula applies: Force = mass x acceleration. If you lift a certain weight with more speed/acceleration (while maintaining perfect technique) you increase the amount of force you produce and thus make the set harder.

It takes a lot more force to throw a baseball 50 yards than to throw it 5 feet. The weight is the same, but you must accelerate the ball more. More acceleration equals more force.

7. Progression by Exercise Choice

Not all exercises are created equal. Machine work is generally less stressful on the system than a free-weight movement for the same muscle group. A compound exercise (where more than one main muscle is used) is more difficult than an isolation exercise (focusing on only one main muscle). So by changing exercises it’s possible to make the training session more difficult.

For example, if you move from a leg extension machine to a leg press (isolation to compound) you increased the difficulty of your workout. If you were to exchange the leg press for a free-weight squat (machine to free-weight) you’d once again bump up the difficulty level.

So, if your lower body workout goes from…

A. Leg press — 3 x 10-12 reps

B. Hack squat — 3 x 12-15 reps

C. Leg curl — 3 x 10-12 reps

D. Leg extension — 3 x 12-15


A. Back squat — 3 x 10-12 reps

B. Long-step walking lunges — 3 x 12-15 per leg

C. Leg curl — 3 x 12-15

D. Romanian deadlift with dumbbells — 3 x 10-12 reps

… then you went from four machine exercises per session to three free-weight and one machine exercise per session, which makes the second session much more challenging. You also increased the number of compound movements which also contributes to making the session harder.

8. Progression by Special Methods

If you add special training techniques such as supersets, pre-fatigue, post-fatigue, drop sets, etc., you make the workout harder. This is mostly because you create more fatigue in the muscles which forces your body to recruit a greater number of muscle fibers.

A lot of people are too quick to jump on these intensive methods though. While they’re effective when used in moderation, in excess they can lead to chronic fatigue and stagnation in your rate of progress. Like all things, optimal, not maximal use is the word.

9. Progression by Mental Focus

Even if all training parameters (sets, reps, exercise selection, rep speed, rest intervals, methods) stay the same, simply increasing your focus and concentration during the execution of an exercise will make the session more productive.

When lifting a weight, establishing an optimal connection with the target muscle will be much more effective than simply lifting the weight from point A to point B. Remember that when you’re training to improve your muscle mass and aesthetics, you’re not lifting weights; you’re contracting muscles against a resistance.

10. Progression by Failure Scale

Training to failure means doing reps until it becomes impossible to complete a technically correct repetition. This means ignoring the pain barrier, blasting through the comfort zone, and getting those extra few reps until your body forces you to stop.

This requires an intense mental focus and high tolerance for pain. Not everybody can handle it right off the bat, but you can progressively work toward that type of training. The closer to total failure you’re able to push yourself, the harder the session will be. So by gradually working close to failure you can progress in the quality of your workouts.

Improve by Category!

Obviously you won’t be able to progress with all ten methods at every single workout. But you should try to improve in at least one category at every workout.

Don’t feel strong enough to add more weight or do more reps? Try to rest for a shorter period of time or lower the weight under control. Do you feel “in the zone?” Then today might be a good time to blast some heavy weight! Had a rough day at work and feel like killing someone? Good! Use that killer instinct to increase your training focus by turning that rage into higher lifting intensity!

Progression is the real key to sustained improvements. If you really want that hard body you’ll treat every single workout like a personal challenge and will do everything in your power to find a way to hustle and get that daily progression.

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