One of the supposed drawbacks of bodyweight training is the vast jumps between certain progressions. Going from an open tuck lever to a straddle can be a monumental strength gain. Going from straddle to full lever can also take ages……….
Even on non leverage based moves that are more bent arm in nature, it can take quite some grinding to go from a set of 3 free standing handstand push ups to 4 or 5.
And you needn’t be a bodyweight fanboy to get something from this post as we see this in the weights world plenty, too. How many times has a guy started a reddit thread because he’s plateaued on bench press or even an overhead press? It’s all too common to get stuck at a certain weight or a certain rep count on one of those classic compound lifts.
The point is: sometimes you can’t just sleep well, eat your greens, destress and come back slightly stronger forever. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a favourite fantasy of mine but then I wake up, alas.
So, what do you do? Because this can, and will, happen even in the context of deloads and intensity cycling; you’ll still have to go a while without rep increases on big moves. What’s the antidote?
The inexperienced approach is to force the issue and just grind it until you make it happen. I’ve done that so many times. I’d coach people and never let them do that, yet I would constantly do it. This is like a mechanic who never fixes his own car. Eventually though, the wear and tear catches up with you and you can’t keep living like this – nor do you want to.
So you have to get smarter. Hard work takes you to a point in the ascension curve then you have to apply strategy, otherwise your ultimate potential will not be reached.
Improving rep speed & lowering the ‘RPE’
When it comes to elements of progression we’re brainwashed into thinking we either need to up the volume (rep increase) or up the intensity (weight increase). Few people even consider doing the same load and volume but making it feel easier, making the bar/rep move faster and just executing the move with better technique overall as an equally viable method of progression.
The problem with this approach is the ego doesn’t like it. The ego likes numbers and cold, hard, perfectly quantifiable progress. Whereas the rep speed and RPE/overall quality approach isn’t exact and can take a session or two to really know it’s working, but believe me, it’s a method that works exceptionally well!
I’ve used it with clients and more recently with my own training. One of the reasons it works so well is it keeps you away from failure and going into gut busting intensity zones so often. Also, by repeating the same set/rep scheme you know instinctively you can always do what you need to. Therefore there’s no doubts going in. No thoughts of how you’ll kill yourself because you didn’t get 6 reps instead of the 5 last time.
I did this with my overhead press over the last few weeks. I was getting sick of the bar getting stuck halfway on the 3rd rep for 5-10 seconds on days I weren’t 100% and there wasn’t a harvest moon. The randomness was pissing me off. So I figured I’d lift slightly lighter (2.5 kg less) and cap the rep range (3) and from there, I would either slightly reduce the rest periods on days I felt good and/or do some extra sets (go as high as 8 instead of 5).
By doing so I found the last rep of every set might slow up a bit but I wasn’t getting stuck for seconds on end and looking like a Parkinson’s sufferer. And it should go without saying but I felt the muscles work better and saw way more carryover to the handstand push up.
Quality trumps everything. It always has done and always will.
You don’t need to do this on every move and in fact, if you haven’t hit the wall yet in your program, keep pushing and milk all the gains you can. Reserve this for the stubborn and more complex moves/lifts……..
Overhead presses, bench presses, pull/muscle ups, back/front squats, handstand push ups, press to handstands, front lever raises, planche push ups and any other movement that falls under the skills/complexity category.
Stick to the same sets and reps over a given number of weeks and just pour all your efforts into making the move/lift look better, move faster and feel easier. Once your RPE goes from a 9 down to a 6/7 there’s no way your rep count/overall strength hasn’t gone up. And you will have done it without excessive fatigue and joint wear and tear associated with grinding reps every session.
Let me know if you have success with this method. Thanks for reading.
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.