Make some kind of progress every workout.
This is something that has come up on this blog before. It really doesn't matter what the progress is. Just make some kind of progress.
As a trainer, I like to see some kind of improvement in the gym every workout. This could be any of:
- higher weights for the same reps
- higher reps for the same weight
- higher weights for higher reps (this one is awesome, but sadly hard to get)
- shorter rests
- longer duration
- better technique
- more resistance or a steeper slope (for cardio-type machines primarily)
- longer distance
You can also measure outside factors - bodyweight and size spring to mind. But mostly what I've learned is those are very hard to control. They're output rather than input. I'm talking about working on the input.
The key here is that if you always make some kind of progress, you are always gaining on your goal - assuming your goal matches your workout of course! If not, at least you're improving something.
I can't increase my weights every workout indefinitely! No, you are absolutely right. You can't. But what you can do is improve the total reps of your main lifts or your accessory lifts. You can try a more difficult variation (Sure you did 3 sets of 6 incline presses, but try it with a 2-second pause at the bottom this time) or go back to an easier variation and try to eke out a few extra reps or pounds or just work on getting your form closer to perfect.
Every workout? Yes, every workout. I'm a big believer in setting a record every workout. Something must be better. Do 2 sets with 12 pounds and 1 with 15 this workout? Make it 1 with 12 and two with 15. Or Do 10, 15, 20 this time and set a new top-end weight. Get a fourth set. Shorten up your rest times. Go even 10 seconds longer or finish that mile 1 second faster. Don't settle for putting in the time. Accept it if you can't do it, sure, but not until you've made a real attempt. I've personally known I didn't have it in the tank that day and shifted things up a little to ensure something was a PR - lower weight than before but more reps than ever, more weight for the same reps, a few seconds faster, an extra yard of pushing.
If you adopt this approach with yourself and your clients, you'll find that the results add up, and add up quickly. Leave the gym knowing that today you set a record, and did more and better work than last time.