Exercise Progression – Avoid Workout Frustration and Burnout


3 years ago, I was in one hell of a serious rut. So serious in fact, that I was honestly considering giving up training all together for a while. I felt frustrated, burned out, and mentally beat up. My body felt old and cranky with various joint injuries and various aches and pains. I started to wonder, was this it? Are my best days behind me and now I start the long and slow decent into decline of strength that comes with age?

Thankfully the answer was no. Not only was I not headed on that downward spiral, but my best years were still to come. I just had to wise up to something I like to call technical progression. As athletes, we have three different ways we can progress our exercise to train our bodies towards a higher level. The first two methods are the most obvious and more popular:

Method #1 – Adding Intensity
This is pretty simple to understand and it is often where many look to progress with resistance training. By adding more weight or adjusting the speed of the technique, intensity is increased and places further stress on the body.

Method #2 – Adding Volume
This method is also pretty simple. You add sets, reps, miles, or workouts so you end up doing more of each exercise per unit of time.

These two methods were primarily what I was focused on. I just kept adding weight, adding reps and adding sets. I figured I was doing a good job especially since I was progressing in all the right ways. Unfortunately, I was also playing chicken with an on coming train. The thing with both volume and intensity is that they both place stress upon the human body. After all, that’s what we want right? The human body gets stressed and it recovers and overcompensates to become more fit.

The cool thing is that the amount of stress we can place upon our body is infinite. We can always place a few more pounds on the bar, do one more set or run a few more miles. We can always do more. Unfortunately, our capacity to withstand this stress is finite. We can only do so much before we hit a wall at best or break down like an old car at worst.

exercise-progression-burnoutThis was the situation I was finding myself in a few years ago. I had reached the limit of stress my body could withstand. I was beating myself up. At first, I tried improving my recovery. I got more sleep and improved my diet and that worked, but only for a bit. Once I increased my capacity for stress, I quickly maxed out again. I was like a compulsive shopper who got an extension on a credit card. It only provided temporary breathing room until I maxed out once again.

I was giving up hope until I made a discovery. I realized that there was in fact a third method of progression beyond adding volume or intensity:

Method #3 – Improving Technical Proficiency
The beauty of progressing technical abilities is that it safeguards against the stress that adding volume or intensity creates. It improves joint stability, ligament and tendon strength as well as reinforces safe lifting practices. It’s also infinite. While we can only handle so much intensity or volume, we can always improve our technique. Even the world’s top athletes never stop seeking ways to improve their running stride or golf swing.

The downside of technical proficiency is that it’s not always as simple as just adding weight or running one more mile. It takes time and research to learn how to make the small changes that produce big results. The other downside is that technical improvements can be a shot to the ego. It requires the athlete to step back and admit that they are not benching or jumping with the best form possible. It can also require a decrease in intensity or volume. Many times, improved technique means not being able to lift as much weight or achieving as many reps.

This was the biggest reason why I didn’t seek technical progression. I didn’t want to decrease my bench or only get 7 pullups even if it meant my technique was better. However, as a friend once said to me, “Do you want to get stronger or do you want to lift more weight?” I always thought the two were the same, but in the case of technical progression, they can sometimes be in opposition to one another.

After a few years of including technical progression into my workouts, I’m in far better shape than ever before. I’m faster, stronger, and more stable and I’ve never looked better. What’s more, all of my aches and pains are a distant memory and I have the confidence that I’ll live forever.

I know the inevitable decline is out there, heading towards me like a far off tsunami. However, with a new emphasis on technical progression, I now feel that wave is still far off at sea and I have a lot more time to play in the surf.

In my next article I’ll share with you some of the fastest and most effective ways to progress even the most elite levels of exercise techniques.

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About Author

Matt Schifferle

My name is Matt Schifferle and I'm an A.C.E. Certified Personal Trainer, CrossFit Level 1 coach, underground strength coach and I'm a 5th degree black belt in Taekwon-Do. I specialize in outdoor and playground based underground and CrossFit style bootcamps. See my profile page for more information!

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