Progressing in Commercial Gyms

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It is well known that training in a commercial gym is quite a challenging experience, going from people stealing your equipment – even plates on a bar you are using –, to being unable to properly progress on the weight because of the lack of small increments in dumbbells, cables and plates for the barbells.


I have to say that I’m very fortunate and grateful for having my own gym with the world’s best equipment: Atlantis machines, Eleiko bars and plates, and Black Iron Strength Dumbbells, with the possibility of being able to increase the weights in jumps as small as 0.125 Kg.


This whole subject reminds about one time we were teaching in LA, and one afternoon after the class we decided to go to the famous Golds Gym at Venice Beach – The Mecca of Bodybuilding – and the idea was to train arms. I say the idea because trying to find a pair of dumbbells suited for the workout was not possible, all bars were being used, and all the machines were busy as well. The only “strategy” to avoid leaving the gym and forgetting about training that day, was to choose one machine, stand by it, and simply jump in it as soon as the person finished the set, of course before somebody else do the same thing. Do one set, and repeat the same procedure on another machine, until completing 60 minutes of “training”. I can confidently say that it has been the most random workout in my entire life, and the least conductive to results, but we were able to live the experience of “training” at a pick hour at such a famous gym, and that’s an experience I don’t want to repeat.

Aside from the lack of good equipment, the impossibility of using what you need to use (in terms of equipment) and the hostile environment, commercial gyms normally don’t have small weights increments. If you are lucky, dumbbells increase in 5 pounds or 2 – 2.5 kilos jumps, the smallest plate is 2.5 pounds or 1.25 kilos, and the cables increase the weights also in jumps of 5 pounds (2.3 kilos).

With this lack of small weight increments, progressing properly becomes very challenging. Let’s say one of your clients is doing Trap3 with 5 pounds or 2 kilos, 3 sets of 10 reps on a 3-0-1-0 tempo, and you need to increase the weight for the next session. Are you going to provide 10 pounds or 4 kilos dumbbell? That’s a 100% increase! Or another client is doing 3 sets of 10 reps on a 3-0-1-0 tempo on the Incline Bench Press with Barbell using 50 pounds or 25 kilos, and again, it’s time to increase the weight, so are going to provide 55 pounds or 27.5 kilos? That’s a 10% increment in the weight!

Both scenarios are not realistic if you want your client to keep proper form, stay in the prescribed strength quality or be injury free. So, what are your options? Here are a few that can be applied to ensure progress for that person:

Increase 1 rep every set, every workout:

Going from 10 reps (on the first workout) on the Trap3 with 5 pounds to 11 reps (on the second) with the same weight, not only is perfectly doable, but also maintains your client within the norms for the strength quality selected. Of course, in the subsequent training session the person will do 12 reps.

Increase 1 second in the tempo prescription

Here you have more than one option and the one you choose will depend on the needs and goals of your client. Going back to the Incline Bench Press example, you could prescribe one of the following, maintaining the weight (50 pounds or 25 kilos) and the number of reps:

  • Add a pause in the disadvantageous position, so the new tempo will be 3-1-1-0 for the second workout and 3-2-1-0 for the third one.
  • Increase the length of the eccentric contraction, so the new tempo will be 4-0-1-0 and 5-0-1-0 for the second and third training sessions, respectively.
  • Increase the length of the concentric contraction, so the new tempo will be 3-0-2-0 for the second workout, and 3-0-3-0 for the third one.

All of the options above are perfectly reachable and the strength quality initially selected remains the same.

Increase 1 set per workout

If the design of the workout allows you to, another way of progressing is to do one extra set every workout, so going back to the examples above, on the first workout the client performs 3 sets, on the second session will do 4 sets and on the third one will do 5 sets, maintaining constant all the other loading parameters, which again, will keep that person inside the determined strength quality.

These 3 options above will ensure a proper progress for your client, which in turn will allow you to produce better and faster results.

Getting a set of Eleiko Friction Plates, magnetic Plate Mates if the dumbbells are metallic, and a set of adjustable dumbbells, is probably one of the investments I highly suggest to do in order to improve the quality of yours and your clients workouts.

Training yourself or a client in commercial gyms is not a recipe for failure. By using the options above, you have ways to perform or prescribe better workouts in order to increase your success rate and reputation.

Coach Carlos Castro

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