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Making the most of your time in the gym
Using exercise progressions to improve your fitness


Many people follow the same exercise program week-to-week.  This is a mistake.

The body needs a challenge.  That’s why exercise progressions are necessary to improve our fitness.

Forget the HIIT vs. steady state debate

In the fitness world, the high intensity interval training vs. steady state cardio debate has been raging on for the last few years.  And the verdict?  Well, among the most practiced and informed coaches, there seems to be consensus.  It appears that, based on your goals and/or sport activity, some mix of the two is best.

If you’re interested in more, check out the following articles:

Intense Exercise – Why and How

Intense Exercise – The Programs

Interval Training – Are You Doing It?

Now, while I think the steady state vs. HIIT debated was a useful one, unfortunately, all the attention given to this debate deflected our attention from a much more important question; a question that’s rarely asked; a question that is of the utmost importance.

The unasked question

In my opinion, the best question to ask has nothing to do with whether one should be doing high intensity or steady state exercise.  Rather, the best question, the one the most often goes unasked, is this one:

What type of cardio progression should I be using?

Progression? Yea, you  know, how you’re increasing the work you do from one cardio session to the next in order to ensure that you continue to improve your fitness and lose body fat.

You see, your body is an amazing, adaptive piece of machinery.  When you throw a certain demand at it, it adapts in amazing ways to be more equipped to handle that demand in the future.

So, when it comes to exercise, if we do the same 30 minutes of steady state cardio from one workout to the next, within 2-3 workouts we’ll be well adapted to those exact cardio demands.  So well adapted, in fact, that those 30 minutes will be barely better than sitting on the couch.

And the same is true for high intensity work.  If we don’t progress the workout from one session to the next, the demands will be so small on our bodies that we’ll see none of the benefit we saw when we started the program.

So there is a “secret” to an ever-increasing health profile, an ever-improving body composition, and non-stop performance increases.  And it’s called progression.

Weight training progressions

Now, most people oversimplify the idea of progression.  They assume that to “make it harder” from one week to the next, they need to spend more time exercising.  However, that’s not always the case.  Sure, this type of volume progression is one method to progress your program.  Yet it’s not the only way.

In our weight training arsenals there are several ways to design programs to ensure progress toward a variety of goals, including increased strength, increased power, increased muscle mass, etc.

Here are a few examples of ways to design a proper progression in the weight room.

#1 Simple load progression

Classic progressive resistance training (or simple load progression as I call it) relies on the necessity of increasing our load lifted over time, assuming the same repetition range.

Like Milo, the Greek wrestler who purportedly jogged around the perimeter of the Coliseum with a calf on his back, getting stronger and stronger as the calf slowly grew into a bull, we try to increase the weight lifted from one week to the next in order to continue to progress.

#2 Complex load progression

Periodization models have introduced the idea of systematically increasing our load lifted while decreasing our repetitions. This model uses gradually increasing loads (or intensities, defined as a percentage of 1 rep max) while using gradually decreasing volume (measured by the total number of repetitions performed during a workout). These types of sessions are called intensification sessions.

Of course, even within an overall periodized program that’s focusing on intensification (heavier loads and fewer reps during a workout), the idea of simple load progression still stands. Obviously, if you’re using a similar repetition range from week to week during an intensification phase, you should be increasing your load used, even if you’re only using the same rep range during two consecutive training sessions for that movement.

#3 Simple volume progression

Compared to the simple load progression above, simple volume progression is pretty much the opposite. Instead of increasing the load from week to week, you keep the load the same while increasing the volume (measured by the total number of repetitions performed during a workout, whether that’s adding a few reps to each set or adding a few total sets).

So, instead of doing 6 reps at 200lbs, as you did during week one, you’d be doing 7 reps at 200lbs during week two. Alternatively, instead of doing 3 sets of 6 reps at 200lbs, you might do 4 sets of 6 reps at 200lbs. Either way, volume progresses, load stays the same.

#4 Complex volume progression

Converse to the complex load progression above, complex volume progression is also pretty much the opposite. Instead of progressively increasing load lifted while decreasing the number of repetitions (intensification), you’d increase the volume (number of repetitions and/or sets) while decreasing the intensity (measured as a percentage of 1RM, otherwise known as load). This is commonly called accumulation.

#5 Other progression methods

These are just a few of the progression methods out there that vary load and volume systematically in order to stimulate progress. And, of course, when the time factors are introduced (time between sets, total workout duration, etc.), we have another set of variables ripe for manipulation.

Some other examples, of varying utility, based on your goals, include:

  • Decreasing rest time from week to week in order to improve between-set recovery.
  • Increase rest time from week to week in order to handle heavier loads on subsequent sets.

Another example of using time as a variable is Charles Staley’s EDT. This style of training demands that, from one week to the next, you increase the number of reps you perform while keeping the total exercise time constant.

Cardio progressions

So, now that we’ve reviewed some of the possible weight training progressions, got any ideas on how to progress your cardio work in order to best stimulate progress and prevent stagnation?

Let’s discuss some of the variables available to you, whether your goals are improving overall fitness, improving your aerobic and/or anaerobic conditioning, and/or losing body fat.

#1 Volume progression for cardio

Volume progression is the most commonly used method with recreational exercisers. Time to get lean? Well then, it’s time to start walking, jogging, or riding bike a few times a week. Results stagnating? Time to do more.

Here’s an example of what your cardio volume progression might look like:

  • Weeks 1 and 2 — 60 total minutes cardio
    (1 x 60 minutes or 2 x 30 minutes or 3 x 20 minutes)
  • Weeks 3 and 4 — 90 total minutes cardio
    (2 x 45 minutes or 3 x 30 minutes or 4 x 22.5 minutes)
  • Week 5 and 6 — 120 total minutes cardio
    (2 x 60 minutes or 3 x 40 minutes or 4 x 30 minutes)
  • Weeks 7 and 8 — 150 total minutes cardio
    (3 x 50 minutes or 4 x 37.5 minutes or 5 x 30 minutes)

So what if you’re doing HIIT? Does the same type of volume progression work? Of course it does.

Note: As discussed throughout the Precision Nutrition System, you’re should be using outcome-based decision making to help you decide what to do with your food and your exercise.  In other words, you progression should be dictated by results.  If you’re losing too fast or starting to feel run-down, slow down the progression. If you’re not losing fast enough or not adapting as quickly, speed up the progression.

#2 Intensity progression for cardio

So what if you’ve used a volume progression and simply can’t afford any more time? Or what if you just want to use an intensity progression instead of a volume progression? Or what if you want a combination of both?

Well, let’s start with intensity progression alone. Rather than increasing the number of minutes spent exercising, when targeting intensity progression you’d increase the average intensity of those same minutes.

In this case, during steady state cardio, you’ll want to gradually increase the intensity of your efforts by speeding up. For example, if you’re getting comfortable biking three times a week for 30 minutes at level 5 on the stationary bike, you can pick up the intensity of your ride by increasing the level to 6. And, as discussed above, the progression should be systematic. Here’s an example:

  • Week 1 — 3 x 30 minutes at level 5
  • Week 2 — 3 x 30 minutes at level 6
  • Week 3 — 3 x 30 minutes at level 7
  • Week 4 — 3 x 30 minutes at level 8

Note: Again, progression is dictated by results — if you’re losing too fast or starting to feel run-down, slow down the progression. If you’re not losing fast enough or not adapting as quickly, speed up the progression.

And don’t be afraid to mix progression techniques. If, during week 3 you can’t get 3 x 30 minutes at level 7, perhaps starting at 3 x 20 minutes at level 7 and working your way up to 3 x 30 minutes at this level is the best strategy.

And, again, does this work for HIIT training? Can you use these intensity progressions for this type of cardio? Yes again!

With HIIT you can increase the intensity of your workouts one of two ways. First, you can keep your work-to-rest ratios the same and boost the intensity of the work interval. Secondly, you can reduce your rest interval while keeping your work interval at the same intensity. Either way, your average intensity for the session will be higher and you’ll be using a cardio progression to ensure steady results.

#3 Load progression for cardio

Another relatively unheralded way of progressing is to increase your cardio load. Cardio load? Yep, that’s the amount of weight you’re carrying around when you’re doing weight-bearing cardio.

I use an X-vest (a weighted vest) for this purpose. To use a load progression for cardio, you’d simply add small amounts of weight to the vest over time while walking, stair-climbing, etc. in order to provide more total resistance. This is the whole Milo thing discussed above.

This strategy is especially useful during periods of weight loss. Technically, rather than actually loading your cardio, you’re actually replacing the load that you’ve lost. And this is a huge asset as the same amount of cardio, once you’ve lost weight, is much less effective.

After all, 30 minutes of walking done four times per week at 200 pounds is more calorie-costly vs. 30 minutes of walking done four times per week at 185 dieted-down pounds. So why not walk at 200 pounds for a few weeks, then 210 pounds, and so on — regardless of how much body weight you’re carrying?

(Interestingly, the same goes for body weight exercises when losing weight — unweighted chin ups at 185 pounds are much less of a challenge than unweighted chins at 200 pounds.)

Be careful with high-impact activities, however. You don’t want to tear up your joints with heavy loads strapped to you during activities like running. Also, athletes shouldn’t use this type of load progression during most agility drills or top-end speed work as they’re likely to teach themselves to be slower.

And again, rather than using the example above as gospel, the point here is that you can alter your cardio load just like you can alter your cardio intensity and duration.

Cardio, courtesy of Amanda

Here are a few high intensity cardio workouts, performed by PN Director of Customer and Expert Relations, Amanda Graydon.

This first workout is a simple but very difficult one. Amanda starts the treadmill at a 15% incline and 8mph. She sprints for 20 seconds and then rests for 10. Back and forth between work and rest she goes for a total of 5 minutes (or 10 total sprints). Of course, she didn’t start out at this intensity. She slowly worked up to this over time with smart progression. And every week she makes the workout harder by either increasing the speed, increasing the incline, or increasing the number of sprints she does.

This second workout is one that Amanda is famous for. She picks 5-6 exercises and does them in circuit fashion. Typically she does 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest. Back and forth between work and rest she goes for a total of 5-6 rounds. Again, she didn’t start out at this intensity. She slowly worked up to this over time with smart progression. And every week she makes the workout harder by either increasing the work time to 35 or 40 seconds, decreasing the rest time to 20-25 seconds, increasing the load of each exercise, or by doing extra rounds of the exercises.


Hopefully you’re now wise to a variety of parameters you can alter to make your cardio work more effective, whether you’re looking for increased fitness or better fat loss. Just like weight trainers regularly use progressions with their lifting, in many cases, they should be doing the same for their cardio work.

So, if your fat loss efforts just aren’t what you expected them to be, and you’re following the highly effective Precision Nutrition principles, give some of these cardio progression strategies a try.

Eat, move, and live… better.©

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