Progress; toward what?

The purpose of exercise is to stimulate muscle growth. Muscle growth stimulation is a key benefit toward general health. How does one know then that their exercise process is effective? In other words, how is progress measured? Any so-called study that I’ve ever read on the subject of exercise effectiveness has measured the quantity of performance of the process used for exercise, and the vast majority use previously untrained subjects. It is absurd to suggest that anything other than skill acquisition i.e. coordination is responsible for any significant improvement in performance in a newly introduced activity. In this case the word training is appropriate instead of exercise. Even when a static measure of force is used there remains significant improvement, with practice, in one’s ability to recruit muscle fibers in producing force. This increase can be gained in a very short amount of time. However skill and fortitude are heavily involved and this disqualifies any claim of improvement in physical attributes.

If one is truly interested in testing for improvement in strength as an indicator of muscle growth, then one must choose an independent activity that is practiced with regularity for a minimum of six weeks prior to the beginning of the exercise process and continue that same regularity throughout the entire testing time frame. There are still plenty of factors that will skew results, but until someone makes at least this amount of effort the published reports will continue to be illegitimate.

Now, to the point. The purpose in the process of exercise is to inroad strength efficiently and not to perform efficiently as these are mutually exclusive. In “The Renaissance of Exercise”, Ken Hutchins addresses the idea of plateaus which are the appearance of progress flattening for a time. He lists 5 considerations for evaluating progress:

  • Form
  • Time between exercises
  • Sequence of exercises
  • Number of repetitions
  • Resistance

They are in the order of importance and that is typically the reverse order of the attention they receive. Form can always be improved and must be given the utmost attention in order for it to not degrade. Time between exercises should be the minimum that allows safety and form. Even a few seconds affects energy reserve and the performance outcome must be evaluated in light of that. Any exercise that is normally done last, when done first will display a significant difference. That does not equal improvement. Improvement may very well have occurred, but it cannot be evaluated meaningfully. The number of repetitions, time under load or whatever duration measurement is used is an easy thing to give far too much attention. It’s always tempting to compromise form for the sake of that count. The count is only legitimate if form is consistent. The desire to display an increase in resistance is another trap. Progress cannot be imposed externally. It must happen internally and be assessed objectively.

In the long term, progress can often appear to slow, stop or even reverse. Perception is not trustworthy. Progress might be advancing, but in an unexpected manner. If strict attention is given to form and time between, then the count may be down and a decrease in resistance may be called for. This could indicate that more intense inroading and thus a more effective growth stimulus is possible with less external load and more focused control. Stimulus is the goal, inroading is the process and performance is an indicator to be kept in proper context.

7 thoughts on “Progress; toward what?

  1. Hey Ethan. Great article as usual. I like you how you bring a different perspective to my perspective of how this all begins with internalization. There has been a lot of eye opening stuff regarding internalization on some other sites recently as well.

      • You’re quite welcome Ethan. To answer your question I would say yes indeed.

        I have recently been trying dynamic, cocontractions with very light external loads with certain exercises. This has been inspired by some other sources and you. My intention is better contraction and removing mechanical speed bumps that would other wise prevent further dynamic contractions Currently, higher external load seems to be more necessary for me with leg exercises. To help better feel the muscles / contract better.

  2. Ethan
    Then how do we measure “progress”. I understand your comment, and it would have been nice to know before starting, but now 4-5 years later how do I measure the progress. My nature likes to have “results” or to see/feel progress.
    I believe I have made progress, my activity level is greater than it was before I started exercising, but still I like to have tangible results/progress.

    • Turner,
      That’s a great thought provoking question. I think to start, one must decide what progress is desired. What tangible effect do you want to see? I think you’ve stated something like that in your comment. I think part of the frustration is that we don’t have an absolute unit of measurement. We’re left with evaluating, as best we can, what our potential is and whether we are moving toward it as it varies because of many factors. These considerations are presented to help in that evaluation and to keep provoking thought. We’re always balancing between over-simplification and over-complication.

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