Just as speed is not the only way to make progress in running, adding weight to the bar is not the only way to make progress in lifting. There are many ways to measure the process of getting stronger and fitter, so let’s discuss some ways you can set benchmarks for yourself along the way.
Lift more weight relative to your body size
If you’re a small person, or if you’ve been losing weight while you train, looking at the weights on the bar may not be the best way to determine if you’re getting stronger. Smaller people typically move smaller weights, which is why every strength sport has weight classes.
Let’s say a 100-pound person and a 200-pound person are training together. If the smaller person can squat 150 pounds, and the 200-pound person can squat 200, who is stronger? The larger person is stronger in an absolute sense, since they moved 200 pounds instead of 150, and the smaller person is stronger in a relative sense, since they squatted 1.5x their bodyweight and the larger person squatted 1.0x their bodyweight.
So, if you’re smaller, don’t get discouraged if your larger gym buddies are moving more weight than you. And whatever your size, as you progress in lifting lifting, look at setting some benchmarks for relative strength. You’ll probably be able to deadlift your bodyweight before you can squat your bodyweight, and then after that you can try to bench press your bodyweight. Meanwhile your deadlift will be creeping up to 1.5x bodyweight, then 2.0x bodyweight, and so on.
These milestones are not only fun ones to celebrate, they’re also helpful to track progress if you’re losing weight. If you could squat 200 pounds when you weighed 200 pounds, but after a long time in the gym you can only squat 225, you might be disappointed; but if you lost weight and you now weigh 175, that means you’ve gone from a 1.0x bodyweight squat to a 1.29x bodyweight squat, which is huge progress.
Lift the same weight more times
You can progress by adding more weight to the bar, but you can also lift more by lifting the same amount of weight more times.
Competitors in strongman events often use the same weights, and the prize goes to whoever lifts that same weight the most times (often with a time limit of a minute or so). If I can deadlift a car three times, and you can lift it ten times, you’re the stronger person. Or look at the bench press test in the NFL combine: players are asked to bench press 225 pounds as many times as possible, with higher scores going to those who can manage more reps.
So when you’re training in the gym and you feel ready to try for a PR (personal record), you can attempt a max rep PR instead of one for max weight. Can you squat a given weight for 20 reps? Can you do 100 pushups without stopping?
As a bonus, gritting your teeth for longer and longer sets is a type of mental toughness training. You may want to stop, but is your body truly giving out? Learning to push through the pain or boredom can be a mental training gain as well.
Do the same work in less time
Just like runners become able to cover the same mileage in less time as they get fitter, you can manage to lift more weight in less time as you get stronger and build your conditioning.
If you normally sit around and scroll Instagram for ten minutes between squat sets, try setting a timer and resting no more than five minutes. When that gets easy, set the timer for three or four minutes instead.
You can choose to progress this way without changing the weight, as in the Deep Water lifting program, which prescribes less rest time as the weeks go by, or the Crossfit benchmark workouts, which assume that as you get fitter, you can do the same amount of work in less total time.
Or you can simply be mindful of your rest times while training and increasing weight, and know that you’re improving your work capacity while also increasing your strength.
Learn new exercises
If you only ever do the same three or five exercises, it’s hard to become a well-rounded athlete. But if you add something new to your routine, you’ll become the kind of person who can lift anything or do fun party tricks without having tried them before. For example, if you normally stick to barbells, try some sandbag carries or tire flips.
Even if your gym doesn’t have a lot of options outside the usual equipment, you can find new variations of old favorites. Why not spend a training cycle on front squats instead of back squats, or get a bit weirder and do zercher squats instead?
Each new exercise you learn gives you a chance to set new PRs (with weight, or with reps, or any other metric you choose) and it also exposes you to a new training stimulus. All that variation will help to build a broad base of strength in the long run, and maybe even make you stronger when you go back to your usual exercises.