Shortly before and after New Year’s Eve, there’s always a slew of articles and blog posts about how to train and burn off the holiday pounds.

They mostly preach the same message about taking it easy and not overdoing it. It’s such a tired and boring topic, so I’ll spare you that. Last year around this time I wrote an article about how people fail their New Year’s resolutions. You might want to check that out if you need some general advice about how not to approach your training and diet in 2010. This time I’ll talk about something different.

Checkpoints

I never feel the need to do any post-holiday dieting. I prefer to look awesome every day and not just three months of the year like many people I know. One of my secrets to staying in shape at all times of the year is a little concept I call “checkpoints”. A checkpoint is a pre-determined day during which I note all my relevant stats: my body weight and my strength in four key movements. For each checkpoint, I try to beat the results of the previous checkpoint.

Each year I have six checkpoints interspersed by eight weeks. I usually place them on holidays; placing checkpoints on days of festivities is like having a carrot in front of yourself. For example, my last checkpoint was on Christmas Eve, my next checkpoint is on my birthday (22nd Feb) and my next checkpoint is on my mother’s birthday in late April. Next checkpoint after that is on Midsummer’s Eve in late June. Each checkpoint is celebrated by plenty of cheesecake, red wine and/or other indecent behavior.

If your goal is to slowly improve your body composition, this is a great way to measure long term progress. Another big advantage of a checkpoint is the competitive spirit it brings. If you constantly compete against yourself and know you’ll have to answer for your sins every so often, checkpoints bring all the motivation you need.

If more folks would use checkpoints, we wouldn’t see legions of people suddenly ramping up cardio and going on crash diets shortly after New Year’s Eve. Checkpoints is part of the reason I never need to make any New Year’s resolutions related to diet and training.

Measuring Progress

I try to better my stats for every checkpoint. Weight is taken first thing in the morning three days consecutively prior to the checkpoint and divided by three. This will give a more representative number than a single reading, since it lessens the chance of the number being skewed due to water retention or dehydration. After that, my latest and best sets of bench presses, squats, deadlifts and weighted chins are recorded and compared against the results of the last checkpoint.

My progress is then quantified in relative strength. For the intermediate or advanced lifter, relative strength is hands down the easiest way to know if your body composition going in the right direction. Beginners are trickier – substantial strength gains don’t necessarily mean a proportional amount of muscle mass gain. However, for someone well acquainted with the key movements, the quality of the weight gained, or lost, can be measured by how much your lifts increased (or in the case of weight loss, how well you managed to maintain or gain strength).

Quantifying progress

An extra 10 lbs added to your bench isn’t impressive if you also gained 10 lbs of body weight. That’s a 1:1 ratio of weight to strength, which is strongly indicative of fat gain. However, assume you added 10 lbs to your bench, but only 3 lbs of body weight. That’s a 1:3.3 ratio of weight to strength, which is quite good. Odds are most of those 3 lbs came in the form of muscle and not fat.

Setting up specific guidelines to strive for in terms of weight to strength ratio is hard and has been a pet project of mine for a long time. While some very general guidelines can be set up for the average guy of average height and build, there are differences between body types.

Tall and long-armed individuals, such as myself, will excel in pulling movements while suffering in pressing movements. For them, modest weight increases usually result in a lot more weight on the bar on movements such as the deadlift. Conversely, they will always see lower gains in pressing movements and usually have to gain a substantial amount of weight to get their bench moving. The reverse conditions apply to short and barrel-chested individuals, which excel in pressing movements but suffer in pulling movements.

Another confounding factor is training experience. It’s easier to get your bench press from 200 lbs to 250 lbs without gaining a ton of weight, but harder to take it from 250 lbs to 300 lbs.

For the intermediate lifter, a category I think the majority of my readers would fall into, strive for the following weight to strength gain ratios:

  • Bench Press and Weighted Chins* – 1:3
  • Squat – 1:4
  • Deadlift – 1:5

* Example, weighted chins:

Body weight (180 lbs) + 25 lbs x 6 = 205 x 6 to body weight (185) + 35 lbs = 220 x 6 is a 1:3 ratio. 5 lbs weight gained, 15 lbs strength gained.

Additional notes

  • I prefer to use bench presses, squats, deadlifts and weighted chins for my checkpoint-lifts. If your strength has increased in these four key movements, it’s very likely that you’ve gained strength in assistance movements as well. That’s why I don’t care to record my best set of curls, triceps extensions or close-grip chins. Keep your mind set on a few key movements and the rest will follow.
  • With strength, muscle follows. Anyone that tries to tell you differently is a fool. For the intermediate and advanced lifter, where strength gains via neural programming or technique improvements are moot issues, modest weight gains followed by substantial strength gains is the best indicator of lean mass gain.
  • Your checkpoint-lifts should be performed first in your workout, or under similar conditions. For example, I always do weighted chins after deadlifts, and deadlifts are always done first. Even if your training routine may change in between checkpoints, you should not alter the sequence of checkpoint-lifts in a way that may skew results.
  • You may use other lifts as checkpoint-lifts if you for some reason cannot do the aforementioned lifts. Instead of bench presses, weighted dips or dumbbell presses. Instead of squats, front squats or leg presses. Power cleans, romanian or stiff-legged deadlifts can be used as alternatives to deadlift movements. Weighted chins can be substituted for weighted pullups or lat pulldowns.
  • How do you measure strength gains if reps are lower or higher compared to the lifts recorded at your last checkpoint? If you increased your 6RM bench press from 200 lbs x 6 to a 4RM of 220 lbs x 4, that doesn’t mean you increased it the lift by 20 lbs. For a quick and easy way to figure out how much your 1RM strength increased, use this 1RM-calculator.
  • 8 weeks for each checkpoint is a good time frame to judge progress in the intermediate and advanced lifter. For the beginner, 4 weeks can be used due to the rapid progress often seen in new lifters. Very advanced lifters may consider 12 weeks between checkpoints, since progress is very slow. However, having checkpoints interspersed by too many weeks may be detrimental, since it increases the likelihood of slacking off on your diet and training. I’ve found that 8 weeks is just right for “keeping the eyes on the prize” so to speak.