The term that fans of Starting Strength and certain 5×5 programs hang their hat on is linear progression. In this article, I am going to explain the meaning of this term and reveal whether such programs which rely on linear progression make sense.
Starting Strength and Linear Progression
I’ll start with a shocker to any 14 or 15-year-old readers who think starting strength and linear progression is the key to strength, ripped muscles, and all the babes you can handle. In reality, the term is meaningless semantic babble. These programs do use something that could be called linear loading, although even this is just throwing a little gild on the lily. Let’s see why this vogue term in the strength training world is so meaningless.
What is Linear Progression?
There are many ways of looking at linear progression. All progression is linear. It’s just not all a straight line. But this is not what people mean by linear progression. What they really mean, as I stated above, is linear loading. Linear loading refers simply to loading a barbell or dumbbell with a certain amount of weight each time you train, and peforming a pre-determined number of reps and sets with that weight. However, a huge misunderstanding in strength is that your training will continue to be a simple journey from point A to point B and there will always be a straight line between those points. While it is possible to load in a non-linear way, it is not possible to progress in a non-linear way! For example, if your goal is to move your squat from 150lbs to 200lbs, progressing from 150 to 175 is always going to be linear. You can’t ‘progress’ in a circle! However, you can, at some point, decrease the load on the bar during training for one purpose or another.
So, imagine that point A is at the bottom of a long flight of stairs and point B is at the top. Even if you go up two stairs and regress down one, up one, and down two, and so on and so forth until you eventually reach the top your PROGRESSION from the foot of the stairs to the top is still LINEAR.
This is exactly the model you want to assure people will always work if you want to be a really successful strength writer. You may not be such a successful strength TRAINER but that is not required. Lucky! A straight line is always more inviting than a curvy one full of detours and side-roads.
Detours and side-roads are, of course, the reality. So-called linear progression (but really, again, an imaginary significance because any progression is linear), straight up the stairs, works for a certain period of time when you first begin but the more advanced you get the more creative your training must become. The more thought it takes. I didn’t say complex. Complex is not always required. But simple-minded may not continue to work.
Milo and His Bull is a MYTH!
This is not the message for winning over the masses, however. So, the first thing you want to do is get up a nice piece about Milos of Croton and his bull. I know you’ve heard that story. It is required on every strength related website and most books. So, Milos got himself a bull calf and he carried it up a hill, or a mountain, depending on the version. He repeated this every day. As the bull got bigger he got stronger until eventually, he was carrying a full-grown bull up a hill or a MOUNTAIN! WOW!
Most people know that this is a fable. But most people believe it to be a true model of strength training. They believe that if you increase the load in very small, minute, increments, over a long period of time you won’t ever “feel” the difference but eventually these very small increments (even one-half pound a day) will add up to hundreds upon hundreds of pounds.
You definitely want to use this story. It inspires people. If that is all there is to it, I can do it, they think. They can envision themselves lifting herculean weights without too much effort at all!
You and I both know that Milos would have failed miserably to continue to carry the bull up the hill. At some point, this straight and so-called “linear progression” would have failed to continue. Remember, LOAD is the ONLY parameter that changes here. The distance he carries the bull does not change and the story is implying that the time involved does not change. He doesn’t carry the bull any faster or slower each time. After all, he doesn’t even ‘notice’ the changing weight.
Linear progression, or more correctly, linear loading, WORKS when it WORKS. We must accept that the same thing will not continue to work forever. We are constantly changing. We are not static. We are dynamic.
To be abundantly clear, when I use the term linear progression in this way, I am borrowing the term the way it is generally meant. The idea that there is a way to progress that is “non-linear” is ridiculous. Don’t get “periodization” which regards training, mixed up with progression. If you regress, you have ceased to progress. This doesn’t mean that your progress has become non-linear. All progression, no matter what the training method behind it, involves the same goals. The fact that you can sometimes load a barbell with a certain amount of weight each and every week and be able to do a certain amount of reps is not magical nor is it linear where other types of training are not linear.
It may seem that I am just arguing semantics, but there is more to it than that. Trainees are lead to believe that there is something special about these programs because they employ linear loading, and that this type of loading is the most appropriate way for beginners to train. However, this claim is not based on the actual physiology of training in any way. Instead, it’s based on circular thinking. If you are a beginner, you should use linear loading (aka linear progression. And, if you are able to use linear loading, you are a beginner. I’ve written a road-map for beginners to strength training to follow that will allow them to progress much faster in strength and to progress for much longer periods of time. To follow this road-map, see: