Why Slow Incremental Progress is Important: A Neurochemistry Approach

Written by: Kevin Cann

A coach I follow had asked this question on his Instagram, “Is it ever warranted to hold back an athlete’s rate of progress?”  This is a great question, and one that I have wrestled with over the years.  

When I started with Sheiko, he literally told me what to put on the bar when we had our test.  It was always a 2.5% to 5% increase in each lift.  I actually surpassed this number one time and he was not very pleased with me.  Hartman was very similar.  He paid attention to my week to week performance in the lifts and gave me a number to put on the bar.  He was very intuitive in doing this, and I have witnessed him do it with lots of other lifters as well.

Sheiko used percentages and was very strict in that you do what was on the sheet.  I could go up 5% to 10%, but not very often.  Hartman would select weight each week based off of the previous week’s performance.  You would run a certain variation for 4 to 6 weeks and then it change. 

In the case with Hartman, you had the opportunity to increase weights much quicker, but he would only allow this if technique was good enough under those heavier weights.  I would say that Hartman was a bit more aggressive in this case than Sheiko, but both believed that technical proficiency under heavier loads was extremely important for progression.

There is this quote from a Russian text that I use a lot, “The weights need to mature and ripen before you let them grow.”  Oftentimes a lifter will attempt a weight they may have only hit one time, or never before in the gym on the platform.  This can work out well sometimes, but many times it does not.  The coaches that use this successfully are generally having the lifters hit over 90% consistently in the gym, so they too have a way of monitoring progress and what is a good weight to put on a bar.

Most lifters are only going to last 3 to 5 years in this sport.  I think it is reasonable for a coach to try to get everything out of a lifter in that time period.  I truly do not think there is a right or wrong answer here, but I have my way of doing things and I will explain why.

There was a time that I did not put caps on progress, in spite of what the coaches I had in the past did.  I allowed lifters to just keep hitting PRs without letting previous PRs settle into stable adaptation.  They fed off of the energy of the group and continuous success.

Their technique became worse, but I didn’t care as much because we were getting stronger and getting stronger is the name of the game.  The performance was definitely not as stable.  Lifters were missing more weights on the platform than we had in the past, or ending at much lower 3rds than what was hit in the gym.

We were still hitting PRs, and large PRs at that, so it was not something that caught my attention yet. However, eventually those large PRs, or any PRs for that matter, stopped completely.  Not just temporarily, but for a long period of time.

I shared a PR squat from Mike yesterday.  It was a 20lb PR with a little room to spare.  This was his first squat PR in about 2.5 years.  In the first year that he was coached by me we put 60lbs on that squat.  He would hit 25lbs less on the platform than that PR, and we would not beat either of those numbers for the next 2.5 years.

Larger picture, 80lbs on a lift in 3.5 years is really good progress.  We are averaging about 20lbs per year in that case.  Just how we got there was a little bumpy.  This frustration is probably not good for the long term as lifters may decide to quit or change coaches and programs.  Fortunately enough, Mike stuck it out with a good attitude.

Now we will leave the anecdote and get more into the science of why incremental progress is more likely beneficial for high level performance.  This is going to be largely based on the fact that high level performance takes time.

Now, I understand that many lifters come onto the scene and seem to have very quick success in the sport. My guess is that a deeper dive into their backgrounds would show some type of lifting for a prolonged period of time.  Many world class lifters that I have interviewed started lifting in some fashion at 12 years old.  Maybe they began powerlifting in their 20s after football was over, but there was about 10 years of lifting up to this point.

I am going to quantify high level performance as qualifying for USAPL nationals under the new qualifying totals.  These are very elite totals for each weight class.  Every human has the ability to get to this point.  Not everyone will win a world championship, but everyone can qualify for nationals.

Technique is critical to this success.  Yes, some might get away with less than optimal technique.  This is the exception and not the rule.  If you want to take the average person and get them to be competitive at a national level, technique will matter.  You can’t outlift physics.

In order to set up a lifter for long term success, which is what will be needed to achieve this level of performance, we need to put them in a position where their neurochemistry will keep them coming back and eliciting the adaptations that we are looking for.

You hear old school lifters say all of the time “5lbs at a time.”  There is actually a reason for this neurochemically.  That reason lies with our dopamine response.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for motivation, movement, cognition, and reward driven learning.

Every single time we hit a PR, we are giving ourselves a blast of dopamine.  Our brain does not understand emotions.  Experts still disagree on what emotions actually are.  These neurochemicals will drive our behavior throughout our lifetime.

When we do not hit a PR, and we get in an agitated state, we get a blast of norepinephrine.  This norepinephrine sets the body up to learn a new skill.  It gets the attention of the upper levels of the nervous system.  Without this agitated state, after a period of time, the lower levels take over and that skill becomes a habit.

This does not just mean technique.  The brain preplans how much force needs to go into a movement as well.  The lower levels taking over are not necessarily a bad thing.  This is how habits are formed, but from a performance standpoint, it may be how performance is stabilized.

If the upper levels are always turned on, we are in the learning stages, and not the learned stage.  Also, if we get too much dopamine, our body has a defense mechanism for this.  The receptors for dopamine will down regulate, requiring more to get the same motivational response.

This desensitization of dopamine receptors can lead to burnout over time.  We also have dopamine receptors within the muscles that play a role in contraction.  This is something that I need to explore further as well as there may be a limit to the contractile potential of the muscle under certain circumstances.

The best way to develop long term increases in performance is to set training up in a way that allows for small bursts of dopamine, as well as norepinephrine.  This allows us to learn, but continue to be motivated.

In week 1 of our programs we hit a max effort lift of a new variation.  This increased attention to an awkward movement brings an increased response from the upper levels of the nervous system.  They are told to leave 5-10lbs on the bar for week 3.

Week 2, they will focus on one technical piece that should have the largest outcome.  On week 3, we beat week 1 by 5lbs.  This little PR is a blast of dopamine.  Week 1 can bring about some frustration with an exercise being awkward, as can week 2 trying to focus and fix a piece of the movement.  This seems to be a nice blend of both.

I think ultimately how much progress we push onto someone has a lot to do with how quickly they are learning.  The coach needs to be able to monitor this in some way.  The goals of training need to be clear for one, so the coach can intuitively monitor progress.

I like to see a lifter hit the same weight, with good execution, in multiple variations before I push progress further.  This often comes with the lifter saying, “This weight doesn’t make me nervous anymore.”  This tells me that the nervous system is having less of a reaction to that level of performance, and the ability to hit that weight has now almost become automatized.

The more I continue to learn, the more I will redefine this process.  There are top down and bottom up mechanisms here as well that need to be analyzed and addressed.  Perhaps this will be the topic of the next article.  

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