The power of programming exercise for the longterm

Posted on September 18, 2017


One of the most common pitfalls of the new exerciser is wanting progress too quickly. Millennials are blamed for everything these days, it seems one out of every five geriatrics feels the need to tell me all the ways I’ve disappointed them, but we’ll blame this thinking on baby boomers. History tells us millennials didn’t invent the infomercial, Bernie Madoff, the 2008 recession, nor did millennials raise themselves.



Joking aside -I have many older clients; they’re often my favorite ones- this is human nature. We all do it at times. Some more than others.

By the time people reach me and become a client, they’ve been through a filtering process where most understand changing their body takes time. But here and there I’ll get the “Can we up the weights faster?” “Can I run further?” Weight wise, most of the time I have people progressing anywhere from 1-10 lbs per week. Let’s think about what that can do.

Squat / Deadlift

If we start at a paltry 100 lbs, at 10 lbs per week we’ll have more than a six hundred pound squat. In one year.

DB Bench Press

If we start at a measly 25 lbs in each hand, at five pounds per week, in 52 weeks we’ll have a 285 lb -in each hand– DB Bench Press.

Bicep Curl

If we start at a minuscule 10lbs in each hand, at two pounds per week we’ll have a 110 lb DB in each hand, after a year.


Rotator Cuff

Doing some shoulder rotations starting with bodyweight, at 1 lb per week, gives us a 50+ pound shoulder rotation…

First, this is often how I’ll progress exercises. The more muscle mass the exercise entails, the bigger the weight progression I’ll give. In the above, Squat / Deadlift has more muscle mass than DB Bench Press has more than Bicep Curls has more than Rotator Cuff exercises.

Second, we can see the starting point should lean towards too light rather than too heavy. It’s always better to err on the side of caution, but there’s more to it than that. Say I start someone at a 200 pound bench press. They want to start at 225 lbs, closer to their personal record. Well, at five pounds per week, in five weeks we’ll be where they want. If all goes smoothly, in a year, will it really matter if we started at 225 lbs? The risk of going too low is what? We’re arguing about being at 450 or 425 pounds after a year. If your PR was around 225 lbs, ain’t nobody got time for worrying about 450 or 425! But the risk of starting too high is readily evident.

By starting higher, you’re trading increased risk for possible increased gain, but a gain which is

1) unlikely anyways

2) probably irrelevant to the person’s goals

3) can easily be made up for (in this scenario, bench pressing a year + five more weeks)

Most importantly, while you get the potential of an increased ending point by a higher starting point, you also get increased odds of a lower ending point. If an injury occurs early on, which is more likely with a higher starting point, now everything gets delayed. (If you get hurt benching 225, you’re going to have to decrease the weight.) So why take that risk early on? When in doubt, start lighter.

-> It’s like trying to get somewhere in your car. If you’re time crunched, going 100 mph, suddenly thinking everybody who’s going under 80 is a wimpy bitch conspiring to make your life harder, may be the only way you still get there on time. But going 100 mph carries more risk than going 70 mph. Risk to a point you might get delayed (speeding ticket) or might not get there at all (accident). Few endeavors necessitate going 100 mph, as being a little late is rarely that big of a deal.

Third, these are outrageous gains. Whenever somebody complains about the speed of improvement, I put the numbers in this context and the lightbulb pretty much always goes on. When you frame it as “Would you be happy if in a year you had even half these gains?” it’s hard to argue with the logic.

Fourth, one of the beauties in keeping the gains this incremental is as the person gets stronger, an exercise becomes riskier. Not only that, but the exercise takes more out of a person. A kid doesn’t get too tired running around as fast as they can. In fact, a toddler will do this until you throw up from looking at how they should be nauseous from the circles they’re running in. However, an adult runs at full speed for only a few minutes and they might require days, if not weeks, to recover. Absolute intensity matters.

Thus, with the incremental gain the progression is relatively less each week:

If you’re squatting 100 lbs in week 1, in week 2 you add 10% by adding 10 lbs.

In any week after that though, you will add less than 10% because you’re still adding 10 lbs to a number greater than 100 lbs.

That is,

10 lbs on top of 100 lbs is a 10% gain in week 2. In week 3, 10 lbs on top of 110 lbs is less than a 10% gain.

In week 11, you’re at 200 lbs. Now, adding 10 lbs is only a 5% gain.

The exercise becomes riskier; the exercise takes more out of a person => we exercise more caution by progressing in smaller increments. You might ask a teenager to beat their PR by 10%. You don’t ask a professional athlete to do that.


That brings us to runners. One of the worst pieces of advice in the running world is “Add 10% mileage per week.” Uh, 10% of what?

This is 10% per week, relative to the previous week, for one year, starting at five miles:

Say it aloud. “I’m currently running five miles. In about four months, I’ll be running a marathon.” Your voice doesn’t sound too believable, right?

A better approach is starting at a given 10% and sticking with that absolute number. In this case, 10% of 5 miles is 0.5 miles, where you then add that each week. Do so for a year and you STILL end up running over a marathon at one time. “I’m currently running five miles. In a year, I’ll be running a marathon.” Your voice sounds more confident.

Running pace is another one. Say you start running at 4.0 miles per hour. This is roughly the pace people find the desire to start jogging.

Now let’s say you add what is for most a nearly imperceptible increase of 0.1 miles per hour, per week. Then after a year you will be 5.2 miles per hour faster, or running at 9.2 miles per hour. For someone who just started jogging a year previously, they’ll be hard pressed to not be happy running at close to a six minute mile pace.


Of course, who believes they’re going to be squatting 600 lbs in a year? Which is partially the point. If you don’t expect to be squatting that much in a year, how can one rationalize they should be trying to improve at a rate faster than 10lbs per week?! (Or 5lbs, or 2lbs, or 1lb, depending on the exercise.)

The majority of people don’t plan to e.g. squat for a year and be done with it. Most are looking to exercise on a longterm basis. Extrapolate these numbers out a couple years then and you can truly see how excessively ambitious it is.

-> Wannabe parents of pro athletes take notice: your kid is 10 and you’re obsessing about increasing their fast ball by how much in a year? Is that at all a realistic improvement rate for more than a year or two? Spread that improvement out over a few years and you get less injury (and burnout) risk, which actually makes the potential of pro ball more likely.

Meaning we could then debate making the improvements slower. Try to improve your squat 2 lbs a week for five years and we’re at the 600 lb mark. Considering most 600 lb squatters have been lifting for at least a few years, we’re starting to make more sense. Because the real world will come calling. Needing to make nutritional adjustments, life getting in the way of having a perfect schedule all year, genetic limitations, needing a deload week.

It’s tough for us to think longterm. Our genetics have spent disproportionately more time evolving in a world where a few years was a much more significant chunk of our lifespan than it is now. But if you can step back and look at progress in terms of years, even just A year, instead of months or weeks, you immediately set yourself up better for how you’ll be in a few years.


Keeping yourself in check is easier said than done. Most of us go 100 mph even though we can understand it’s not worth it. It’s hard to reign yourself in when you’re in the moment. 

Having somebody help is another underrated mindset.


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