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A Bodybuilder Is Born: Episode 48 - You Can't Have Progress Without Progression!

They used to call weight training 'progressive resistance training.' Without progression in your training you cannot make progress. Here's a story where dedication truly wins and efforts are rewarded.

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Article Summary:
  • Ron has noticed that his progress over the last few years has been quite lacking.
  • Randy is not convinced as Ron stills seems to be stronger than most in the gym.
  • Ron formulates a plan to bust through his plateau and continue his growth.
  • How do you define progress, exactly? In society, you could easily point to significant changes such as civil rights and women voting (for those of you who don't know your history, until not so long ago, only white males could vote in the USA). In technology, progress has taken place at a dizzying rate in just the past few decades.

    When I was a child in the 70s (1970s, you wise-@sses, not the 1870s), computers were the size of an entire kitchen, were slower than molasses, and had precious little storage capacity/memory. There were no cellular telephones yet, and when they did start showing up in the mid-80s, the phones were roughly the size of the clunky field radios the guys in the World War II movies shouted into for air support when they were getting pounded by German mortars.

    Televisions when I was a kid were also huge and boxy. The one in my living room was actually part of an 'entertainment center' that also included a record player (records were vinyl disks with music on them), and an 8-track player. 8-tracks were albums stored on fat, square cassettes about the size of a Big Mac.

    Records Were Vinyl Disks With Music On Them.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Records were vinyl disks with music on them.

    Not The Way It Used To Be

    Fast forward to 2006. In the palm of your hand, you can now hold one device that is a personal computer with Internet access, a cell phone, and also lets you watch TV or play video games. Progress when you get to the world of movies becomes more of a gray area.

    Movies today are typically louder, faster, and with highly realistic digital special effects that will convince you that you're actually watching rampaging dinosaurs, giant tsunami waves destroying cities, or believing that Harrison Ford hasn't aged at all in the past twenty years. But plots, acting, and dialogue ain't what they used to be, which is why remakes of the classics tend to suck harder than the most powerful industrial-strength vacuum cleaner.

    Now we come to bodybuilding. The champions of today are certainly bigger and carry less body fat than those of yesteryear. For example, your average pro bodybuilder in 1976, though there really were only a couple dozen at most in the whole world, was about 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, and 8% body fat.

    Thirty years later, a typical pro at the same height would be 250-280 pounds with 3% body fat. That's progress, right? It is, until you factor in the fact that the average waist is also much larger, serious injuries and illnesses are far more common, and 30-year-old pro bodybuilders often appear to be in their mid-40s.

    Your Average Pro Bodybuilder In 1976 Was About 5'10", 210 Pounds, And 8% Body Fat.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Your average pro bodybuilder in 1976 qas
    about 5'10", 210 pounds, and 8% body fat.

    Progress With Muscle Growth

    Where am I going with all of this talk about progress? Lately, I have been thinking a lot about muscle growth and what causes it, mainly because if I have to be perfectly honest, I have not grown much at all in recent years.

    I could be like most bodybuilders in my position and rationalize that perhaps I have reached my full genetic potential. After all, I have been weight training consistently since 1985 (didn't do anything for legs until end of 1987), and I have come a long way in my development in that time. My weight has gone from 100 pounds to just under 230, and I am many times stronger.

    I have been working with Randy for four and a half years now - how the time does fly! Then, he had been 22-years-old, 170 pounds, and not terribly mature. Now, he was 26, 225 pounds (though not as lean as when I met him), and still not terribly mature, though I had to give him a little credit.

    His progress has not been a straight upward climb, as there have been little setbacks along the way, but overall, it has been steady. There had been a time in my life when my physique had also made steady progress like that - but about ten years had gone by since I could say that.

    I could no longer let that situation stand, or else I was a hypocrite. The motto I sign off on all my emails is "Train hard, train smart, and never give up!" I had given up, whether I chose to accept it or not.

    Randy's Progress Has Not Been A Straight Upward Climb, But Overall, It Has Been Steady.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Randy's progress has not been a straight upward
    climb, but overall, it has been steady.

    A Search For Progress

    Randy and I were training shoulders, and seated dumbbell presses were the main course, as usual. I finished with my heaviest set, 130s for 8 reps. This never failed to impress Randy, who had been using 60s when I met him, and now was up to 90s or 95s.

    Seated Dumbbell Press
    Seated Dumbbell Press
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    Seated Dumbbell Press
    Click Here For A Video Demonstration Of Seated Dumbbell Press.

    "Unbelievable," he gushed as I set the big 'bells down with a clang of iron. I went to my workout journal on the floor behind me, a little spiral notebook. I had a few of them at home, going back at least 10 years and recording just about every workout I have done. The one I am using now was started almost two years ago. I flipped through it casually.

    "What are you looking for?" Randy asked.

    "Shoulder days," I responded absently. "Huh. 120 for 10." I turned a few more pages. "130 for 8." I spoke out loud as I found more instances where I had performed the seated dumbbell press, using anywhere from 110-to-130 pounds at the very heaviest (not counting a couple dangerous and unproductive stunts with 140s), with reps ranging from 6-to-12.

    "What are you looking for, exactly?" Randy's brows were knit and he was probably wondering if I had finally gone off the deep end.

    "Progress," I answered, "and frankly, I don't see it. I go up in weights, then I go down, back up, but I just don't see real progress. And my shoulders are big, but they aren't any bigger than they have been for years."

    "What are you talking about? Look how freakin' strong you are on this exercise! Nobody in this gym can press those overhead!" I shook my head.

    I Go Up In Weights, Then I Go Down, Back Up, But I Just Don't See Real Progress.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    I go up in weights, then I go down, back
    up, but I just don't see real progress.

    Missing The Point

    "That's not the point. I have been this strong for years, and I haven't gotten any stronger. If I really think about it, I could say the same for just about every exercise I have been doing consistently for years. Look at that guy."

    I nodded over to Big Howard, a guy who actually stood about 5-6 and weighed maybe 180 pounds, most of it in his barrel chest, shoulders, and triceps. It was chest day, as I think it usually was for him, and he had 405 on the bar. We watched as he pressed it for three reps on his own, and his burly spotter helped him with two more.

    "He's one strong bastard, isn't he?" Randy marveled.

    "Sure," I agreed, "but he's been exactly that strong since the day I first walked into this gym five years ago. He doesn't look any different, either. I don't really look so different from when you met me a few months later. Do you see a connection there?"

    Randy shook his head and I finally decided to include him in my little example.

    Has Your Strength And Size Progress Stalled?

    Yes. I'm Stuck.
    I've Hit A Plateau Or Two In The Past.
    No. Progress Is Still Going Strong.

    A Example Of Actual Progress

    "When I met you, I think once I corrected your crappy form on squats, you were only using 185 for 10 reps, roughly. What did you do on squats last week for your heaviest set?" He looked up and off to the side, recalling.

    "315 for 8."

    "Do your thighs look different now than they did when you started training with me?"

    He laughed. That was an understatement. Randy had put about three inches additional circumference to his quads and hams, and they had gone from not much better than chicken legs to respectable, though Tom Platz still had nothing to worry about. But that wasn't important in the least. Randy had made excellent progress relative to his own body, and that progress was easy to quantify.

    "You squat a lot more weight now, and your legs are a lot bigger," I explained. "You are stronger on rows and curls, and your back and biceps are bigger than they used to be, too. As you have grown stronger overall, you have added muscle thickness and overall bodyweight. We can even look at your nutrition to show progress.

    When I met you I think you were eating about 2,000 calories per day, and barely getting a gram of protein per pound of body weight every day. Through the use of certain supplements protein powders and bars, we helped you get up to two grams of protein per pound.

    By eating more frequently, gradually working up to larger portions, you eat around 5,000 calories per day now. Which makes sense, because you have a h#ll of a lot more muscle on you than you used to."

    By Eating More Frequently, Gradually Working Up To Larger Portions, You Eat Around 5,000 Calories A Day Now.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    By eating more frequently, gradually working up to larger
    portions, you eat around 5,000 calories per day now.

    What's The Plan?

    I could see it was all gelling for the young buck - who I suppose really wasn't that young anymore - it was just that I kept getting older!

    "So what are you going to do, then?" he asked.

    "Simple," I replied. "Today I am buying a new training journal to log my workouts in. I will stick with the same exercises, and for every workout, I have to either use a little more weight or do more reps on my heaviest set than I did with the same weight last time.

    I will have to get stronger; because that's the only way I am possibly going to get any bigger. They used to call weight training 'progressive resistance training,' and there was a reason for that. I just seem to have forgotten about the progressive part, which is why I haven't made much progress at all since the end of the Clinton Administration."

    "Okay," Randy said, "but aren't you going to hit a plateau eventually? I mean, if you really added weight to your bench press every week for years, you would be lifting over a thousand pounds."

    "When I stall out on an exercise and can't make progress, I switch to a different exercise and start over. Then, a couple months later, I go back to the other exercise, take a while to get back to the top weight I had been using, and add from there. I know it's not perfect, but at least it's an actual plan, not just winging it like I usually do."

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    I went home, where I struggled with trying to figure out how to copy all the pictures on my computer's hard drive onto a memory stick to free up some space, and then puzzled over my iPod. Apparently you could put pictures and video on it as well as music, but I was too much of a techno-idiot to do so. This was frustrating to my wife, who regretted not buying me the simple, less-expensive model that was simply for listening to music.

    Technology might have made a lot of progress, but I was still dealing with the same old brain of mine. But that was okay - soon I was going to start making progress with the weights after a long time in limbo, and maybe I could coax just a little more muscle growth out of this beat-up body of mine.

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    About The Author:

    Ron Harris is the author of "Real Bodybuilding: Muscle Truth from 25 Years in the Trenches," available at

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