Old School Progressive Training: Maximal Lifting based on the Methods Used by Steve Reeves

By Aaron Hallett)

Steve Reeves, sadly deceased, was an icon from what was the start of the Golden Era of Bodybuilding. A former Mr America (1947), Mr World (1948) and Mr Universe (1950) achieved a physique which is still popularised by bodybuilding fans today.

The basic principle behind progressive training is to try and increase the amount of weight lifted and the amount of reps over the required number of sets. Many trainers use this method at present, building up the weight lifted over a number of sets to a final set which was near their maximal lift.

Mr Reeves' individual take on progressive training was to start each movement with a weight that was close to his maximum for a number of reps and reduce the weight each set afterwards completing as many reps as possible. This method would be used throughout the workout with each exercise.

I started off bodybuilding in my teenage years using this method of training through instinct and whilst reading some old articles written about Steve Reeves' training, I was happy to discover this method was used by him. Like all bodybuilding training methods, everyone has their individual take on the method and engineer their own variation to make it their own.

My variation on this style of progression training was keeping close to the original method but with a small number of differences. I would start out with a weight near my maximum, for instance six reps, and instead of automatically dropping the weight on the next set; I would evaluate how the first set went in terms of performance.

  • If the set was easily completed without a struggle to complete that last rep(s), I would make a note to increase the weight the next week.
  • If the set was completed but with a struggle and minimum spotter assistance, I would keep the weight the same the next week until I completed the set without assistance.
  • If I was unable to complete 3-4 reps and I required a lot of spotter assistance, then I would reduce the weight the next week.

At this moment I would like to stress that an appropriate warm-up is carried out at the start prior to embarking on the first working set.

This evaluation is made for every set for each exercise throughout the workout.

A note book is essential as the notes you make will be used to determine what weight you use the next week.

Example of one exercise over a 6 week period:

Bench Press

Week 1Week 2Week 3
Set 1. 100kg - 6 reps (a)Set 1. 105kg - 6 reps (b)Set 1. 105kg - 6 reps (b)
Set 2. 100kg - 5 reps (c)Set 2. 95kg - 6 reps (b)Set 2. 95kg - 6 reps (a)
Set 3. 90kg - 6 reps (b)Set 3. 90kg - 6 reps (a)Set 3. 95kg - 6 reps (b)
Week 4Week 5Week 6
Set 1. 105kg - 6 reps (a)Set 1. 107.5kg - 6 reps (b)Set 1. 107.5kg - 6 reps (a)
Set 2. 100kg - 6 reps (b)Set 2. 105kg - 6 reps (b)Set 2. 105kg - 6 reps (b)
Set 3. 95kg - 6 reps (a)Set 3. 100kg - 6 reps (c)Set 3. 97.5kg - 6 reps (b)

(a) = Set was easy to complete, increase next week
(b) = Set was a struggle, required a little assistance, stick with next week
(c) = Set was a failure, too heavy and unable to complete without major assistance, reduce next week.

At the start of a workout your energy and glycogen levels are at their highest, and as you continue throughout the workout these energy stores will deplete and the energy you are able to put into each set will subsequently reduce. With this method of training, emphasis is placed on ensuring you take advantage of using the energy at its highest level to create the most stimuli for hypertrophy.

If you can easily complete a set without duress then the assumption can be made that a level of muscular adaptation has already been achieved and no further stimuli is therefore generated to spur new growth if the same weight is used. By using this variation based on Steve Reeves individual method of progressive resistance, new stimulus is created and adaptation can be readily seen in the increase in weights lifted throughout the coming weeks and months on every set for every exercise.

An analogy of this training method would be one of the card game 'Blackjack': you 'stick' if the weight is good enough to keep with or you 'twist' if the weight isn't enough. Don't be afraid to 'bust out' and realise the weight is too high; without taking the leap of faith to 'twist' you will never know if you will be dealt with something worth sticking with. The situation is ultimately a win-win as the next week you are dealt the exact same cards and will know from the week previous whether to stick or twist.