For the next 20 weeks, I’m going to lead the charge on The Tiny Gains Challenge. Along the way, you’ll learn how to build better health habits, avoid injury, and get leaner and stronger in the easiest way possible.
Let me explain how this is going to work and, more importantly, why this will work.
Tiny Gains Every Week
At the beginning of this year—on January 7th, 2015—I did four sets of five chin-ups. During that first week, I did chin-ups without any additional weight. The second week, however, I strapped on a weight belt and added one pound before doing my chin-up workout. The third week, I added another pound.
I have continued this pattern for the entire year. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will do four sets of five chin-ups. When the next Monday rolls around, I add one more pound and then complete my three workouts that week at the new weight.
I haven’t been perfect, of course. I have repeated the same weight a handful of times because I skipped workouts due to travel, but generally speaking, I have been increasing by one pound every week.
After a few months passed, I started to realize something strange. I was definitely stronger because I was lifting more weight, but the workouts still felt easy. The weight was steadily climbing week by week, and yet, the difficultly was nearly the same.
Here are three videos of my progress:
- On May 18, 2015 I did four sets of five reps with 15 pounds. (video)
- On June 29, 2015 I did four sets of five reps with 20 pounds. (video)
- On August 10, 2015 I did four sets of five reps with 25 pounds. (video)
If you watch those videos, you’ll notice that each set looks virtually the same. I was setting personal records every week, but the gains were so small that I could actually adapt to them and be ready for another tiny increase the next week. This pattern has now continued for eight months.
Slowly, I began to apply this same concept to other exercises: squats, bench press, overhead press, and more. The same thing happened. Here are videos of me doing 3 sets of 6 reps on bench press at 220 lbs, 225 lbs, 232 lbs, and 238 lbs. Again, each video is a few weeks apart and they all look more or less the same.
These personal experiments are what sparked The Tiny Gains Challenge.
How The Tiny Gains Challenge Works
This challenge is really simple. The basic idea is to start with a weight that is easy for you and increase that weight by a very tiny amount each week so that by the end of the challenge your new “easy weight” is 20 pounds heavier.
There are three steps:
- Choose an exercise that you want to improve and start with an easy weight.
- Add one pound per week for the next 20 weeks. (Or, 0.5 kg per week.)
- If you want, use the hashtag #tinygains to share your progress on Instagram.
At this point you may be wondering a few things. How do I only increase by one pound? How do I know what weight to start with? What if I want to run or do bodyweight exercises instead of lifting weights? I have answers to these questions and more in the Frequently Asked Question at the bottom of this article.
The Tiny Gains Challenge starts this week. I’ll be in the gym today to kick off the first day of the challenge, but you’re welcome to start anytime this week.
This is a personal challenge, not a competition. The goal is for everyone to make consistent progress and build better fitness habits. That said, if you’re interested in following along with my progress I’ll be updating my Instagram weightlifting account each week. I’ll be experimenting right along side you.
Overall, the challenge will run for the next 20 weeks (basically until the end of the year). When 2016 gets here, you’re going to be 20 pounds stronger.
Making progress in the gym doesn’t have to be complicated. One pound per week for the next 20 weeks. Let’s do this. #tinygains
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are my answers to some common questions you may have about The Tiny Gains Challenge.
“How do I increase by just one pound?” The smallest plates at most gyms are 2.5 lbs (about 1 kg), so if you want to increase by just one pound like I do, then you need to use fractional plates. Most people have never heard of fractional plates, which are small plates that let you add tiny amounts of weight to the bar—the smallest ones are 1/4 pound. My gym happens to have fractional plates, but if your gym does not, then you can buy a decent set of fractional plates and toss them in your gym bag since they don’t weigh very much.
“What weight should I start with?” You should start with a weight that you can do relatively easily and with good form. Your reps should be crisp, smooth, and fast. When in doubt, start with a weight that feels too easy. If you actually show up each week and add one pound, then the weight will get heavy soon enough. Each time I have done this, I have started with a weight that was 70 percent of my one-rep max. So, if the most I could squat was 100 pounds for one rep, then I would start with 70 pounds.
How many repetitions should I do for each set? I use Prilepin’s chart to determine how many sets and reps I do during my workouts. This chart is based on research done with Russian weightlifters during the 1970s and 1980s. In my experience, it works very well. 1
To use the chart, you start with your one-rep max. A one-rep max is the most weight you can lift for a single repetition. Then, you decide what percentage of your one-rep max you want to lift during your workout. As I recommended above, I think 70 percent is a good place to start for The Tiny Gains Challenge.
According to Prilepin’s chart, if you are lifting a weight that is 70 percent of your max, then you should shoot for an optimal number of 18 repetitions in total with an acceptable range between 12 and 24 reps. According to the table, you can break these 18 reps out into sets of 3 to 6 repetitions. That means you can do 3 sets of 6 reps (18 in total), 6 sets of 3 reps (18 in total), 4 sets of 5 reps (20 in total), 4 sets of 4 reps (16 in total), and many other combinations. Any of those are within the acceptable range of 12 to 24 reps and they are all very close to the optimal number of 18 total reps.
How much should I add each week if I lift ___ pounds? The Tiny Gains Challenge is about making tiny gains each week. When lifting weights, I define tiny as being one pound per week or an improvement of 1 percent, whichever is smaller. So, if you’re bench pressing 50 lbs, then you should increase to 50.5 lbs next week (+1%). If you squat 300 lbs this week, then squat 301 lbs next week (+1 lb).
“What if it feels like I can add more than one pound?” This challenge will require patience. In my experience, one of the hardest parts of this challenge is having the discipline and patience to only go up by one pound per week even when it feels easy. After a week or two of feeling good, you’ll find yourself being pulled in. “Oh, I’m supposed to increase from 13 pounds to 14 pounds today? I could easily do 15 lbs. I’ll just toss that on there.” Don’t fall into this trap. Start with something easy, stick with something easy, and make tiny gains.
How many exercises can I do this for? Resist the urge to transform every aspect of your fitness habits overnight. I’d recommend you start with one exercise like I did with chin-ups and pour your energy and focus into not missing workouts. Once you find that you’re showing up consistently it is an easy transition to making tiny gains in more than one exercise.
What happens if I miss a workout? If you miss a workout (or even a week’s worth of workouts), then simply repeat the same weight you did before the next time. If you miss more than one week in a row, then you will need to drop the weight or, if it’s a gap of a month or more, simply start over.
“What if I do something instead of lifting weights?” That’s great! The Tiny Gains Challenge is about making tiny improvements in fitness. You can use it with any exercise: running, swimming, biking, pushups, burpees, and so on. Browse the examples below for more ideas.
“I have no idea where to begin and I don’t want to spend any money.” No worries! You can do the Tiny Gains Challenge by increasing your repetitions of an exercise or the distance you travel, not just with weight increases. If you’re not sure where to start, then I would suggest doing pushups or walking. You’ll find examples for both exercises listed below.
Where should I post my progress and ask questions? If you want to share your progress or follow along with other members of our community, then use the #tinygains hashtag. You’re welcome to post photos, videos, or just text updates. I’ll be sharing my workouts on on Instagram and you can ask me questions there, but you can use that hashtag anywhere (Twitter, Facebook, etc.).
Here are a few examples of how to do the Tiny Gains Challenge for various exercises. You are welcome to adapt the principles of this challenge for any exercise you do.
Squats: Let’s say your maximum squat is 200 pounds. Start with 70 percent of your max, or 140 pounds, the first week. Do four sets of five reps. Increase by one pound each week, so you will lift 141 pounds for four sets of five reps next week.
Bench Press: Let’s say your maximum bench press is 75 pounds. Start with 70 percent of your max, or 52.5 lbs, the first week. Do 4 sets of 5 reps. Increase by one half pound each week, so you will do 53 pounds for four sets of five reps next week.
Pushups: Start with an amount of pushups that seems very easy to you. Let’s say that you can do twenty pushups in a row. 5 pushups might be a very easy number for you. The first week, do five pushups per day. The second week, increase by one rep and do six pushups per day. Continue increasing by one rep per week.
Walking: Walking is a great way to start The Tiny Gains Challenge. You should start with a distance that is easy for you and then figure out a way to measure that distance. How you measure it will be specific to your situation. Then, increase by a tiny amount each week.
- If you’re walking on a track, maybe you walk around the track one time (400m) the first week and then you walk around one time plus another quarter of a lap the second week (500m).
- If you’re walking on a trail, maybe you walk down to a big rock and back. The second week, you can walk down to the big rock, go 10 steps further, and then come back.
- If you have a Fitbit or other tracking device, maybe you walk 5,000 steps per day during the first week. The second week, you can increase that to 5,100 steps per day. Again, the entire goal is to make a very tiny gain and keep the work easy week after week.
- A Brief Guide to Strength Training
- The Best Fitness Books
- The Repeated Bout Effect: If Nothing Changes, Nothing Is Going to Change
I believe the Prilepin’s chart was named after the Russian weighlifting coach, Alexander Sergeyevitch Prilepin.