The Philosophy of Progression Part 1: Strength Training for the Athlete

My hope with this blog post is to simplify Strength Training Theory for athletes who are training on their own; and to introduce coaches to the work of Anthony Ditillo who's book, "The Development of Physical Strength," is quoted by the late great Charles Poliquin as being, "the best ever written."

Alexander Nurse Bey
April 25, 2021

Let's jump right in.

I feel that there may be a present trend among some trainees to downplay the importance of raw strength adaptations in favor of improving lactic fitness and athleticism. While those are also important qualities, there are attributes afforded to focused efforts in the development physical strength that the former qualities do not offer. These include the optimizing of hormone profiles (muscle makes a lot of hormones); increasing resistance to and resilience from injury; increasing speed and sprint momentum; potentiating the ability to jump and throw; and a general increase of robustness in the face of contact and competition.

Speaking to that, the work of Anthony Ditillo provides a framework for success in our endeavor to build strength whether we are looking to do so in a single exercise; or looking to design a program that will provide us with lasting adaptations along the Speed-Strength continuum.

Ditillo's work may be an uncomfortable throwback to old-school “bro-science” for modern students of strength and conditioning- and may even present a challenging read for coaches who are more scientifically inclined, but it is hard to deny his genius when it comes to tracking the most important outcome of any training program: progress.

Who was Anthony Ditillo?

Ironically, given the title of this post, Anthony Ditillo was not a traditional sport athlete as far as I know. But there is a lot that athletes and coaches can learn from his methodical approach to strength training. He was a contributor to various strength magazines and authored several books in the 70’s and 80’s. He earned his industry reputation with the performance of gargantuan feats of physical strength and a body that weighed upwards of 250lbs at only 5'6. I wont get into the details of these feats, as you wouldn't believe me, anyway! But I do implore you to look him up for yourself. Suffice it to say, Ditillo was strong.

The Single, Double, and Triple Methods of Progression

Ditillo's philosophy simplifies the means by which mechanical and neurological changes can be achieved in training, and revolves around what he refers to as the Single, Double, and Triple methods of progression.

In the classic interpretation, a Single Progression method means that the load on the bar remains constant throughout the program and does not change unless a certain number of repetitions are achieved (a predetermined marker).Then- depending on the adaptation you are chasing, there is either a change in the exercise; or an increase of the load.

The Double Progression method means that your aim is to increase the number of reps and the number of sets for a given exercise or program when you hit a predetermined marker, but the load must remain constant.

The Triple Progression method means that your aim is to increase or change the reps, the sets, and the load for a given exercise/program in a systematic manner depending on what predetermined markers are hit (for example: 200x8; 225x6; 245x4; 200xMax)

There it is. The Single, Double, and Triple methods of progression. Alone, none of these are particularly novel. If you are involved in strength training whether as a trainee or coach, you are accustomed to manipulating these progression factors (reps, sets, and load) and are as familiar with them as the back of your hand.

But I think many of us can agree that when watching trainees, or even when reflecting on our own work, there is a lot of mixing and matching of methods. We are quick to arbitrarily increase the weight; or to work with an inconsistent "rep-range"; or to add a set or take a set away; or to include so many exercises in a session that there is no time to properly adhere to the predetermined method for the main lift(s) of the day; or we may not even use a method, at all.

Where Ditillo's philosophy of progression demonstrates its "novelty" is in choosing the best method for the exercise or program in question and sticking to it! Adding weight to the bar is not always the best measure of progress and there are consequences when we treat it as such. A clear vision for the right form of progression will aid athletes in avoiding symptoms of overtraining; prevent the subjection of tissue to work it cannot bear; reduce the occurrence of missed lifts; improve the capacity to recover from session to session; cement long-term increases in the strength reserve; and make longer lasting adaptations.

Although Ditillo’s slow-and-steady philosophy of progression may seem somewhat rigid or even monotonous we must keep in mind that training- while not entirely unpleasant, is about work, not play. As this philosophy relates to sport performance, learning to match these methods with the ebbs and flows of a season will result in getting the most out of every training session over the length of an athlete’s competitive career.

Next time we will explore the other progression factors not included in Ditillo’s work: namely, the use of Tempo and Rest as the Fourth and Fifth factors.  

See y'all then.

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