Originally published on September 4, 2009
This article is about basic strength training progression. If you are looking for information on using single rep training you should read about the Single Rep Training Routine for Strength Training. If you are new to lifting weights or you have not done strength training in a focussed and progressive way, you may want to start with the beginner routine. See how to start strength training. Otherwise, read on to learn about single, double, and triple progression for strength training and muscle building.
The only other person, besides myself, that I’ve known to speak in-depth about single, double, and triple progression is Anthony Ditillo. However, to be frank, most of what he said about it makes no sense to me and he seems to have been applying the terms to established styles of training as an alternative to what others had named their training methods, such as “the pyramid system”.
When Ditillo spoke of single and double progression he seems to have meant simply allowing yourself to use more than one way to progress. Or in other words to manipulate more than one parameter. This should be fairly obvious since it is an intuitive means of progression for most trainees and if not told most will simply add to what they’ve done before in some way, be it weight, reps or sets of exercise.
Three Basic Ways to Progress
Consider that there are basically three ways to progress (there are MANY ways to progress but we are only considering three direct ways). You can add weight to the bar. You can add reps to existing sets with a given weight. Or, you can add sets to an already established number of sets with a given weight.
Ditillo discusses these same parameters concerning single, double and triple progression. However, it becomes clear, with due study, that most of the time he is only talking about progressing by one parameter at any one time and is simply speaking of using more than one parameter as a means to progress over a PERIOD OF TIME. So, to simply say that there is more than one way to progress over a period of time and then to give this a name, i.e. “double progressive system” or “triple progressive system” is, to me, simply an attempt to organize his thoughts about training and has not much to do with actually using anything more than single progression since a single parameter is increased at any one point in time.
To me, therefore, it’s just a name and I appreciate Ditillo’s efforts at calling our attention to the fact that there are many ways to progress, I don’t think that one can rightly call his ideas examples of “double progression” or “triple progression” in any way other than CHOOSING to name his ideas that.
My biggest problem with it is that even though you may only be progressing by one parameter in any given workout if you use more than one parameter in any given training period people think this is “triple progression”. Without even knowing what that means it simply SOUNDS like “too much”!
Tell a beginner that he can also add reps and sets rather than just weight and you will likely have armchair trainers shouting, NO! Beginners can’t use triple progression! When, in fact, single, double, and triple progression is tailor-made for the beginner. And a trainee CAN progress by MORE THAN ONE MEANS in a workout. He or she can use only single, or use double or triple and with a minimum of reactive based training, this can naturally flow with the trainee’s state of preparedness.
The great thing about being free to use all three is it can allow you to vary the stimulus so that you don’t get burned out. It can also allow you to slowly build on the volume and then back down to a base volume while increasing intensity…built in natural peaks. With all that said, it is required to get out of the mindset of a certain number of reps being the be all and end all, and just knowing that adding reps has a benefit up to a point just as adding sets does.
So, after establishing that we are talking about load (weight on the bar), reps, and sets, Ditillo and I part ways. But I’d like to be clear that I have the greatest respect for Anthony Dittilo’s teachings and his book, “The Development of Physical Strength” has had a great influence on me as well as many of his articles. He helped form my ideas about strength consolidation which basically entails increasing work tolerance at a given range – and Ditillo was a big proponent of this type of thing.
Before I begin this explanation of single, double and triple progression for strength training I need to state some very important things up front.
The first thing you will notice is that these concepts are about numbers. And I’m sure most of you reading this will be quite familiar with numbers in strength training. Most training rationales have an increase in numbers as their primary means of progression.
This may be increased weight. Increased reps. Increased sets…but it’s always about numbers. So I want to be clear that there are MANY different ways to progress and many different things that REPRESENT progression. Strength training is NOT JUST ABOUT NUMBERS. There are many things you can improve that have nothing to do with numbers and that improvement represents progression…and that can lead to higher numbers down the road.
What is Single, Double, and Triple Progression (SDT)?
The remainder of this article will sometimes refer to single, double, and triple progression as SDT for short.
SDT uses three main ways to progress and these concepts can be used at any time in your strength training career but it should never be considered the be all and end all. There comes a point where everyone has to focus on that one “ingredient” in order to see changes in absolute strength. Individuals who are new to strength training, and to resistance training in general, will find this the most useful as a primary means of training. More advanced trainees may want to use it more as an adjunct for secondary lifts or as a way to gather volume. Although even those individuals will have a need for it, as, for example, my use of it in the ‘strength consolidation’ routine.
The first thing you should notice, which should be clear from the beginning of this article, is that there is nothing new or innovative in the basic PARAMETERS of progression. It’s so simple you may think this is just plain belaboring the obvious. However, even though most people are aware of these basic parameters of progression, most never really use them in the way I will outline in this article.
Rest Periods for SDT
We will assume that rest periods will remain fairly constant for simplicity. Keep in mind, however, that depending on your needs and goals, more or less rest between sets can be used. For example, rest periods can be gradually decreased for strength endurance.
Using single, double, and single progression the way I will explain is somewhat a “reactive” based way of training and progressing. The fact is I’ve been teaching people how to use this for years..long before “reactive” training was a ‘brand name’. But reaction is only part of it. As with any good training method, we make a plan but we must allow ourselves to think on our feet and adapt to our changing needs.
Using Single, Double, and Triple Progression
To reiterate, here are the three ways to progress using SDT:
1. Add weight to an existing number of sets and reps.
2. Add reps to an existing number of sets (call this increasing density/volume. Adding any number of reps to any or all sets is progression. Adding any number of reps to any or all sets is progression.
3. Add set(s). Adding a set alone is single progression even if that added set isn’t the same number of reps as the previous sets. Now, you have to use logic here. If you were doing 3×5 and you added one more set of two, that would be less progressive than adding two reps to the first set of five. You see? Because of the rest and recovery involved. This should give you the idea that, up to a point, one should first attempt to add reps to existing sets before attempting to add sets.
Such an idea would be absolutely correct as long as one keeps in mind that it is only correct, as stated ‘up to a point’.
So, during any one workout, we can use single, double, or triple progression and at any time we can add weight to the base volume. When we add weight to the base volume we start again from there or we establish a new base to work from depending on our goals.
Sometimes it’s useful to simply count the reps and then look at any added reps as a percentage of the starting reps. This helps keep us reasonable because in fact many times we are making very big additions in volume without even realizing it. It doesn’t seem much just looking at it but in purely mathematical terms it is in fact very large. Adding another set of five to an existing 3×5 sets is a thirty percent increase in total volume.
An example of something that may happen in the gym:
|Week 1||150 x 6 reps x 2 sets|
|Week 2||155 x 6 reps x 2 sets|
|Week 3||160 x 6 reps x 2 sets, 160 x 4 reps x 1 set|
|Week 4||175 x 4 reps x 3 sets|
Can you spot the weeks that are single progression and the weeks that are double progression?
In week two, we add 5 pounds to the bar and do the same number of sets and reps. So single progression. In week three we add 5 pounds to the bar and do the same number of sets and reps plus we add one more set of 4. Double progression: we have added load AND volume. In week three, we add two reps to our last set of 4 from the previous week. Single progression. In week 4 we add weight but drop the volume and density back a bit, but not that much. So we consider this single progression.
This may be somewhat an extreme example when looking at week three. It’s not that such thing is impossible only that if one were able to add 5 pounds to the bar AND add a four rep set it begs the question of whether more weight should have been utilized at the outset.
But such an example serves to illustrate how using single and double progression gives us a natural way to gauge our training.
So here is the example again labeled:
|Week 1||150 x 6 reps x 2 sets||Base|
|Week 2||155 x 6 reps x 2 sets||Single Progression|
|Week 3||160 x 6 reps x 2 sets, 160 x 4 reps x 1 set||Double Progression|
|Week 4||175 x 4 reps x 3 sets||Single Progression|
Note that since the total number of reps in week four is the same as in week one. But the density has decreased as it took us three sets instead of two to it. But we have increased the load fifteen pounds from the previous workout and 25 pounds since week one. So, given such a big jump in poundage and a relatively short time we consider week 4 to be single progression FROM week one, made possible and/or manifested by weeks three and four.
So, by the same token, if it took twelve weeks to get to that 175 pounds then we could not compare it reasonably to week one but instead would have to gauge our progress by the weeks leading up. To avoid the possible confusion that long and drawn out periods of progression present, I separate the progressions into four to six-week phases.
Therefore, as in the above example, we have a four-week phase. A new baseline is established in the fourth week with three sets of four with 175 pounds. So our new phase can start with that but keeping in mind our original starting point. In week one of this new phase, we might repeat the last workout of the old phase, our starting point for this one. But in the example below we will continue to progress:
|Week 1||175 x 5 reps x 3 sets||single progression|
|Week 2||175 x 7 reps X 1 set, 175 x 5 reps x 2 set||single progression|
|Week 3||175 x 7 reps x 3 sets||single progression|
|Week 4||180 x 3 reps x 1 set, 175 x 8 reps x 1 sets, 175 x 7 reps x 2 sets||triple progression|
|week 5||180 x 5 reps x 1 set, 175 x 8 reps x 1 set, 175 x 7 reps x 2 sets||single progression|
|week 6||190 x 6 reps x 2 sets||basic progression|
Note that in week six we add weight but drop the volume back down to the original two sets of six. Even though we have added ten more pounds we have cut the volume by more than half. So we have progressed forty pounds from our starting point and deloaded a bit from the aggressive volume we had built up.
This is example may be pushing it to the edge of what is possible except for novice trainees. But of course, this way of progressing is particularly suited for novice trainees. However, all such examples are ONLY examples. They are not to be taken as a recipe for progression. Although there is nothing wrong with having a loose plan in place for how you wish to progress, SDT allows you to simply progress by whatever means you are able to do at the time. Or, whatever you feel like doing at the time.
Unlike rote linear/single progression schemes you will always be able to progress in some way and will not have to ever REMOVE weight from the bar. Personally, I cannot think of a more psychologically damaging concept for a trainee than to continually have to remove weight from the bar in order to build back up and continue progressing in the same mundane way you were doing it before. And I certainly wouldn’t call such a process “efficient”. So SDT represents a simple and natural way to progress. It is not contrived and stilted and that is exactly what makes it elegant.
How about an example using pullups?
|Week 1||6 sets x 1 rep||base|
|Week 2||7 sets x 1 rep||Single Progression|
|Week 3||2 sets x 2 reps, 5 sets x 1 rep||single Progression|
|Week 4||1 set x 3 reps, 2 sets x 2 reps, 6 sets x 1 rep||double Progression|
|Week 5||2 sets x 3 reps, 2 sets x 2 reps, 5 sets x 1 rep||Single Progression|
|Week 6||2 set x 3 reps, 3 sets x 2 reps, 5 sets x 1 rep||Double Progression|
|Week 7||5 sets x 1 rep w/added weight, 1 set x 3 reps, 3 sets x 2 reps||Single Progression|
That should serve for now as a general introduction to the concept. This is not to be taken as a program but simply as a set of guidelines to be used as needed. My use of the abbreviation SDT was only so I didn’t have to write out the words single, double, triple throughout. Please don’t take this a “stamp” such as with HIT or HST. Take it as my attempt to remind you what you may have forgotten or simply had beaten from you by all the programs out there.
Don’t Confuse SDT with “Double Progressive” Training
There is a way of structuring a resistance training workout that is sometimes called the “double progressive system.” This system has nothing to do with what this article explains.