Making Progress: The Lowest Common Denominator Theory

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First off, do I care if this theory actually abides by the definition of the phrase lowest common denominator? No. I do not. All I care about is that myself and my members make progress in a safe and sustainable way. So this is what I’ve come up with.

The Lowest Common Denominator Theory simply states that we want to create the smallest possible volume-load progression for each exercise, each week we step in the gym.

We use a lot of rep-maxes and estimated 1RM’s to create programs that allow our members to progress slowly from week to week. When we progress slowly week to week, we create progress that is more sustainable. And success in fitness is built on sustainability, which helps us develop commitment and consistency.

Progressing bodyweight exercise

Bodyweight exercise can basically be split up into a few different categories:

  • Isometric holds like planks, side planks, & bears
  • Upper body movements like chin-ups, pushups, or inverted rows
  • Low body movements like bodyweight squats or pistol squats

Now for many of these movements, you’ll find that both yourself and your clientele are performing full or “real” reps for the very first time. Things like full pushups or chin-ups are great achievements in the gym and we strive to get all of our members to these points.

In terms of progressing pushups and chinups, the smallest jump we can make is generally total-volume rep increases. For example, we could perform 21 reps instead of 20, but in the same number of sets. This works well for almost all bodyweight movements.

Adding weight to bodyweight movements (e.g. using a weighted vest for chin-ups) doesn’t make sense until we’re more proficient with the movements. However, once we are proficient with a movement like chin-ups or pushups (that is, performing 10 reps or more), small increases of about five pounds will actually make for smaller jumps overall.

Isometric positions are a bit different and adding a few seconds to an isometric hold would be imperceptible, especially considering the differences in activation both inter- and intra-individual.

So for our isometric work, we generally try to increase the difficulty of the variation before adding seconds arbitrarily. This could mean using a long-lever plank instead of a standard one or adding some instability to our hold.

Progressing band exercises

Band exercises are awesome. Exercise bands are super versatile and can be effective in almost every movement pattern that we use.

But like isometric work, bands can be a bit unreliable as only a small change in position can drastically alter the band’s tension.

In these cases, we typically add reps to the equation until somebody feels comfortable jumping to the next band. There’s really no way to get an exact “weight” measurement on a band (despite what they might be rated for) so our best bet is to keep our position relatively stable and add reps to our sets. After we’re added 2-5 reps per set, we can probably move to a higher band.

Progressing dumbbell & kettlebell work

Aside from barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells are the most useful and physiologically disrupting of all the equipment that we use. However, dumbbell and kettlebell progressions are largely based on the amount of weight that we’re actually using. Here’s an example:

Let’s say we’re performing three sets of ten with 50 lbs of total load. We can either add 5 total pounds (for a volume-load increase of 150 lbs) or add two reps to each set (for an increase of 300 lbs).

Now what about 100 lbs of total load? We can either add five pounds (an increase of 150 lbs) or add two reps to each set (an increase of 600 lbs).

The conclusion here is that as long as your weight jumps are 10% of total weight or less, it makes more sense to bump the weight up each time.

However, at small weights it actually makes more sense to increase reps a few times before increasing weight. And this is for two reasons:

  1. The volume-load increase will be smaller. (For instance, adding five pounds to 25 lbs increases the load by 150 lbs whereas adding two reps to each set increases the load by 125 lbs.)
  2. Weight jumps can be more difficult mentally when the weights are light to begin with.

As a general rule of thumb, we progress our dumbbell and kettlebell exercises by adding reps until somebody is tossing around 50 lbs of more. This is an easy rule of thumb and will keep your progression sustainable while continuing to build mental confidence.

Progressing barbell exercises

Since barbells start at 45 lbs and can get as high as 85 lbs (in the case of our mega trap bar), progressing barbell exercises is simple.

Adding 2.5 plates to barbell exercises consistently will always be the easiest and most sustainable way to progress barbell exercises. I’ve personally seen many people work from a 45 lb bar to 200-300 pounds with weekly 5 lb increases.

We use these small weight jumps within the context of whichever rep scheme we’ve chosen to use for that cycle. For instance, adding five pounds but subtracting two reps from each set does not work.

Just as a little note, 5 lb weight increases aren’t a forever solution. As you become more advanced and have been training for a year or two, some level of periodization and variation will be necessary to keep the weights moving. But that is far beyond the scope of this article so we won’t be covering that.

So let’s generalize here for a second …

Okay, so if we’re dealing with bands, dumbbells, or kettlebells, adding reps will always be the best way to create sustainable progress.

When we’re talking about barbells, 2.5 plates are a nice way to add volume-load in a manageable way.

Bodyweight movements should be practiced. Difficulty can be increased incrementally as movements become a 5-6 RPE or a “medium” difficulty.

Creating manageable growth in fitness (and in life, actually) helps develop consistency and commitment. And consistency is the only thing that matters to long-term fitness success.

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