Traditional notions of “progress” in strength training are ubiquitous but you need to know that they have an expiration date. In weight training, progress means adding more weight, sets, reps or training days. In calisthenics, substitute harder exercises for more weight. For example, as a beginner, you may start with knee push-ups for two sets of eight repetitions. A few weeks later you are doing regular push-ups for three sets of ten. Then it’s on to diamonds, feet-elevated push-ups, dips, etc. Once you can get a good set of ten pull-ups with good form, it’s on to twelve, fifteen, twenty (rarely). But does this continue indefinitely? No, of course not. It is not conceivable that by the same means you would eventually get to a set of 100 pull-ups with good form.
Good programming begets progress. For beginners, three workouts a week, three sets an exercise, add a rep or two per week. Follow the program, record your progress, eat and sleep to support your training, and you will progress. Until you don’t, at least on the same scale. Factors like age and years spent training put you into a new scale for measuring progress. If you continue to push it in the same manner as you did as a beginner and intermediate, eventually you will break down and sustain injury because you will be forcing more reps (and sacrificing form) where there are no more reps to be had. And injury is the athlete’s biggest enemy.
Instead of progressive programming, think in terms of concepts. Years spent in honest training, improving mind-muscle connection, good health, and lack of injury become your marker of progress. Refining an exercise, improving your form, extending your range of motion, and increasing your frequency of exercise… these are your programs. If you work hard so that your sets are taken a few reps shy of muscular failure, and you manage your fatigue so that you are able to perform again without loss or injury, and you perform the exercises as often as you can with good form, you are guaranteed to have made progress, even if you did not do any more reps than you did the prior workout or the prior week.
Imagine going from fifteen fast pull-ups without lockout and with chin barely above the bar, dropping quickly on the negative — to ten perfectly executed reps performed slowly on the positive and even more slowly on the negative, shoulders back, chin completely above the bar, full lockout at the bottom. That’s fewer reps, but you’ve made progress. Now imagine three sets of these pull-ups three or more times a week.
There is always improvement to be made even if you don’t get more reps, and maybe even BECAUSE you don’t get more reps. And you know what? A few years from now if you continue with this concept-based method of improving exercise performance, you are guaranteed to be in a better place, even though you are older, than you were when you started. How’s that for a longevity boost?