Building Momentum to Optimize Progress: The Low Hanging Fruit You’re Missing

Over the past year, I have experimented with numerous progression methods in my training to learn and expand my toolbox of ideas and training modalities in order to be a better athlete and coach.

Through this process, I learned the importance of building momentum in a properly periodized training approach.

Let’s use a quick analogy to illustrate this concept clearly. Imagine you are competing in Ski Jumping in the Winter Olympics. In order to win, you must cover the most amount of horizontal distance by jumping from a hill and landing safely. If you haven’t seen this event, check out this YouTube video, then come back to the article. How do they achieve this feat? We know it would be impossible to approach the jump from a dead-stop. The best approach is to start at the top of another hill and begin skiing downhill to maximize their speed once they approach the actual hill used to make the jump.

This same approach applies to your training. Imagine the sequence of events from the start: where they begin to slowly move downhill, to midway through: when the athlete has picked up considerable amounts of speed, to the end: when they make the jump and land as a parallel to an entire Mesocycle of your training.

Connecting the dots…

The start of the event begins really steady and easily. Starting as fast as possible with as much effort as possible could lead to a fall or a disruption in technique leading to a poor score. Likewise, it’s not a great idea to start week 1 of your training going “all out” and pushing to failure with crazy amounts of volume (there’s a time and a place for that, keep reading).

A case for lighter training early on

A 2017 meta-analysis by Schoenfeld and colleagues [1] demonstrated low loads (below 60% 1RM) and high loads (above 60% 1RM) can result in similar hypertrophy if volume is similar and effort is high. This means that there is a range of loads we can use to progress. This is an excellent tool to use when starting a new block of training, especially if you are introducing new exercises to the mix. Even at an advanced level, technique can be a little shaky re-introducing a movement (new exercise). Starting a little lighter, not necessarily at the very bottom of the loading range, can help you get back in a groove and engrain proper technique. This will set you up very nicely for the coming weeks.

Now shifting our focus to training volume, a 2019 study by Heaselgrave and colleagues [2] analyzed the effects of different volumes on hypertrophy. Three groups of trained subjects performed either 9, 18, or 27 total sets of Rows, Pulldowns, and Curls and were measured for Biceps Hypertrophy. They found every group experienced a significant amount of growth with the 18 set group having the most amount of hypertrophy. Although the middle group experienced the best gains, it’s important to note that every group grew. This means that, like the intensity of load, there is a range of volumes at which progress can be made. Even though the 18 set group grew the most, training with less and more still resulted in growth. A good place to start for most is around ~10 sets per week per muscle group and slowly but surely increasing your volume to ~20 sets per week (maybe even higher for some). Your current experience level, previous training history and current minimal effective volume/maximal recoverable volume must be taken into consideration. Starting a block with slightly lower training volumes may be a good idea for the same reasons as starting with a lower load.

The threshold to pass in order to progress is lower than we often train at. Likewise, the range of intensities and volumes that is “effective” is very wide.

Much like the skier easing into the downhill trip, easing into your training right away will put you in a great place for the weeks to come. Experts in the field such as Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. Eric Helms, and Lyle McDonald all recommend some sort of intro/primer week (roughly 50-75% training volume). We’ve all been there before (myself included), feeling fresh and ready to go crazy in the gym, have a great session, only to result in soreness that lasts nearly a week. The amount of muscle damage caused is completely unnecessary and can be counter productive to progress. With the body spending so much adaptive resources repairing damage, little is left to be spent on adaptation (the growth we want). Having an intro week will limit the unnecessary damage accrued from novelty and/or high amounts of work and better prepare us for hard training.

Ramping it up and benefits of more

After getting oriented to the hill, technique, wind, etc., it almost takes the skier no effort to now move downhill and significantly pick up speed. In the same way, the training plan is ironed out and we can move towards that “sweet spot” of optimal training volume and intensity and run with it for a while. Most of your training should occur in the zone (which is again, a range). 

As the skier’s speed increases over time, the horizontal jump gets closer and closer and will have to be made. Comparable to training, fatigue will rise week to week and a deload will be required at some point to allow for further progress. The approach that last week before a taper, would be a perfect time to ramp up your training intensity and overall volume via an increase of sets, load, proximity to failure (RPE), etc. In the world of Sports Science, it is well documented that we can benefit from more work acutely than over a longer period of time for recovery reasons. Training to concentric failure results in full motor recruitment and a greater anabolic response to the muscle when directly compared to sets not taken to failure[3], however, the fatigue cost of pushing to failure all the time eventually results in decreases in performance [4]. In most cases, your best bet is to stay away from true failure, but since we do not need to be recovered for the following week, it may be a good idea to push the limits to get the most out of the Microcycle as possible. As mentioned above, an adaptive range applies to both intensity and volume. Optionally, you could add additional sets and push towards the most volume you can recover from. Taking the Heaselgrave study [2] into consideration, the 27 set group still grew, which means some subjects responded really well for there to be an average positive trend of everyone in that group. Responses to volume vary considerably person to person, so if there’s a chance you could respond better with more, now is the time to test and see.

This type of training is not sustainable for much longer than a week or two, but since we drop fatigue that next week, it’s appropriate. This week of harder training could be a parallel to the point at which the Ski Jumper approaches the hill and makes the jump. Using all the momentum provided by the downhill start, the athlete is at maximum speed and is in a perfect position to make the longest jump possible.

In many cases, it takes heaven and earth for an advanced athlete to make considerable progress. Periods of super high training stress are often required to make a great athlete, better. But the high stress needs to be implemented intelligently at an appropriate period of time. Using a ramping method is one way to do it. The size of the ramp (or the ΔWork) can vary considerably because the “productive” range is so wide.

If you have never wanted to deload before, you will at this point. This can be seen as the “landing” per se of the jumping event. You can now look back and see how productive this period of training was with a slightly different organization of training stress.

Regardless of the progression method I use, I will always start a block on the easier side and end on “almost too much”. This has been a great way to organize my training – including elements of hard training and managing stress accordingly.

In summary, it’s a good idea to use an intro week to familiarize yourself with new movements, rep ranges, and new volumes of training. In regards to volume and intensity, there is a range of productive work that we can work within and we can use that to our advantage by utilizing the lower portion of that range when needed and gradually turn the dial up before periods of lighter training where immediate recovery is not needed. Additionally, autoregulation can be useful in working through this range to properly manage fatigue throughout the weeks.

Article Featured Article

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *