Using Baseline Exercises to Measure Progress

I understand that two of the most important factors in making progress in weightlifting is progressive overload (adding weight, reps, sets every workout) and periodization (changing your routine to prevent stagnation and overtraining).

Where I become confused is how much change is good, and when does it become counterproductive? I see these programs like PX90 that are built on constant change for best results, and several programs that hardly every repeat the same rep/set scheme (from 3 sets of 12 to 4 sets of 5 to 2 sets of 20).

Wouldn't it become difficult to measure progress with constant change? Should I have a baseline exercise and just measure against that periodically?

My Answer: Yes, you should have a set of baseline exercises from which to measure progress.  Question is what sort of progress is it that you're looking for?  If you're training for looks, then are strength indicators truly a measure of progress in your physique?

For myself, I train primarily for looks.  So when I judge the effectiveness of certain exercises, I'm judging them on their ability to build muscle.  Indicators of progress would be an increase in muscular size and increased muscular definition.  Building strength (increased weight) or endurance (reps) are secondary goals for a physique athlete.

Baseline exercises that you want to use measure progress periodically should be compound exercises that build overall muscle mass.  Exercises such as pull-ups, bench presses, squats and deadlifts.

Now if you have a program that is based on microcycling (such as the 6 Factors program), you would be measuring these baseline exercises once a week on your strength-based workout.  So if you have a microcycle such as this:

Workout #1- 3 sets of 12
Workout #2- 4 sets of 5
Workout #3- 2 sets of 20

Then you would take note of how much weight you're using on workout #2, the strength workout.  Are you increasing the weight for your bench press, squat or deadlift from week to week on Workout #2?  For pull-ups, are you increasing the number of reps?

Periodization or microcycling is essentially variation or consistent change.  So even though there is change and variation in your program, the variation is patterned and repetitive and hence consistent enough to measure progress.


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