The Zone of Proximal Development

By Tucker Loken

The Zone of Proximal Development is an education term relating to the difficulty level of a subject being taught and whether the learner can effectively absorb the information.  You can think of it in the way in which a person who is entirely fresh to a subject can only learn effectively from starting at a 101 class, whereas at the 200 level or beyond, wouldn’t be able to absorb anything.  That same person, after completing the 100 level courses can then learn most optimally in a 200 level class, and could still probably pick something up in a 300 level, but 400 level would be way over their head.  We can incorporate this into our approach to weightlifting; one of your biggest priorities in each training session should be finding the correct level of weight and difficulty that your muscles can tolerate and improve from without going beyond their ability to develop from it.

A new way to look at your training

Each time you consider the weight you’ll move in a given exercise, you should stop and ask yourself if it is going to help you or waste your time.  Just like the student trying to learn a subject, your working sets are your classroom time.  Even if you could sit through class and take notes, it doesn’t make much sense to take a course too advanced beyond your knowledge level on a subject because you’ll have missing pieces that will show through when test time comes.  Instead of trying to skip courses, slowing things down and developing a good understanding of the fundamentals would make you the most successful in the long run.  You would always be caught up to pace on the material, and you wouldn’t have gaps in your knowledge that would hinder your learning or problem-solving ability when you get into much more difficult courses.  Even if you did move on to more advanced courses early, eventually you’d have to backtrack and learn the pieces that you missed.  You might as well do things in order, rather than having to go back and learn it when you’re already in a much more difficult upper-level class.  In other words, even if you aced the 100 level courses, why jump to 300 level right away?

The same logic can be applied to your weight training.  Let’s say you can bench the 100lbs dumbbells for a handful of reps, but it’s a struggle and doesn’t look very pretty.  You can get 8-10 reps out, although it’s not very gracefully.  Even though you may get a decent chest pump out of it and feel sore the next day, it doesn’t mean you should be using the 100’s.  If you made some rapid gains and went from pressing the 70’s to the 80’s and then jumped to the 100’s, you would probably get much more out of bumping the weight down and mastering the lighter dumbbells before moving on.  If you went down to the 80’s and allowed all the muscles that need to catch up to strengthen and build coordination, by the time you’re back to the 100’s your reps would be much more effective.  It’s not only your pecs that are needed to press the weight; it’s everything from your core and full body stiffness to provide stability, your rotator cuffs and back to support your shoulder joints, along with your chest, shoulders, and triceps to move the weight up.  If you took your time with it and lowered the load when you return to pressing the 100’s you’ll be pumping them out with nice, clean reps instead of squirming around trying to use everything you can muster to get a top set of 8-10 reps.  If you mastered the 80’s and 90’s before moving on when you press the 100’s you’d be thoroughly stimulating your pec muscles and training the rest of your body to stiffen and support the weight correctly.  You would be a much different person, both in looks and in actual strength, while lifting the same amount of weight.

Let’s look at this concept applied in a few different settings.

Rehab, Prehab and Physical Therapy Movements

Applying the principles of the ZPD here is usually the most natural pill to swallow.  We all know that to stimulate the body’s smallest muscles we need to use very lightweight.  When the load is too heavy, the muscles we need to activate don’t get the attention they need, and the big muscles or bad patterns of movement take over. 

Strengthening your rhomboids vs. strengthening your traps is a good example; when the weight is light, the rhomboid can do its job and squeeze the shoulder blade towards the spine.  When the load starts getting heavy, the body wants to compensate and use what it has to get the job done.  It’s more focused on completing a movement than stimulating a muscle, and the traps are much bigger and more accessible to stimulate, so they take over, and your underperforming rhomboid doesn’t get the attention it needs.  The same can be said for your posterior chain; maybe you’re trying to do a glute bridge to help ‘wake up’ underperforming glute muscles, but your hamstrings start doing some of the work, or you end up overextending your back and using your erectors.  Decreasing the load will help the glutes that aren’t doing their job catch up.  Luckily, I don’t know anyone who has an ego over how much weight their rhomboids can lift, so going too heavy on rehab/prehab exercises usually isn’t the issue.  The most common way people find themselves out of their Zone of Proximal Development in physical therapy is when they are given poor instruction or aren’t fully paying attention during the exercise.  If they are doing it incorrectly, or just going through the motions, the muscle they want to target is not going to be stimulated as much as it could be with proper form and focus.

Powerlifting

How many beginner powerlifters have you seen who blow through their Zone of Proximal Development while getting stronger?  Answer: Almost all of them.  Most of us have been there.  The body can do a lot of amazing things, and it can compensate very well when things aren’t working the way they are supposed to. 

I can picture someone now who is squatting, and their form looks decent at 300lbs, breaks down a little bit at 400lbs, and looks atrocious at 500lbs.  The ugly 500lbs might still qualify for white lights, but it didn’t move the way they would like.  In their mind, this person has a max squat of 500lbs, but if we break it down body part by body part, it might be a much different story.  Let’s say their lower body is strong, but they are missing core and upper back strength.  We are only as strong as our weakest link, and even if someone can manage to hoist the weight back up after squatting, by going that heavy, they’re not helping themselves towards making a PR.  Although their legs may be strong, their upper body is stuck in a lower level, and the heavyweights they are trying to push is the same as the advanced material that goes right over someone’s head when they’re in a class that’s too advanced.  Their core and upper back strength might be stuck in the 200-300lb competency level, and they have to go back and relearn the proper technique and strengthen the necessary muscles to lock themselves in properly to prepare for a big squat.  This might take some small PT-esque movements, and it will also take squatting with not much more than 225lbs for a while until they can slowly get their upper body to engage and stabilize in that weight range properly.  Once that level of competency is reached, they can reassess where their new Zone is and start to add some weight.  While they may still be able to hit a top single at around 500lbs technically, the Zone they need to be training in is where their squat will develop and improve.  Their Zone of Proximal Development is going to be in the lighter range; the place where it’s challenging enough that their body will be forced to adapt, but not so advanced that their body doesn’t absorb the new stimulus given to it. 

Bodybuilding

Bodybuilders often ignore their ZPD, too and can build unbalanced physiques because of it.  They get some good gains in the first few years, and some muscles progress faster than others.  Left unchecked, this will continually plague their physique unless they make some serious changes in their training.  Even the conscious ones who aren’t slugging up weight for their ego are often falling outside of the weight range that the specific muscle they are targeting would benefit most.  When trying to isolate and bring up certain body parts, the ZPD is about developing the feeling and awareness of the muscle so that it will activate while not letting the other tissues surrounding it take over. 

Let’s use the back as an example, and let’s say someone is trying to bring up their lat width – not only up near the shoulder, but they want to develop the sweep going down towards the waist to give it that full “V” look.  Dumbbell rows, keeping the elbow tucked and dumbbell low near the hip would be an excellent exercise to stimulate the outer lat sweep; there’s no need to use near maximal weight to accomplish this goal.  Since the lat muscle is lagging, the Zone that it can be appropriately stimulated and grow from is going to be much lighter than what the rest of the back can tolerate.  Just like the dumbbell bench press example, we can break it up by how much weight each part of the back will benefit.  Let’s say they can row the 100s without much of an issue, but that’s never developed the part of their back they’ve been trying to hit.  They feel it in their traps, erectors, and overall mid/upper back, but not much in their lats, especially down near the insertion.  They’ll have to keep moving down the rack until they can get to a weight light enough that they can finally feel their lats and lat sweep contract and get a good pump.  They may have to go all the way down to the 50’s or lower to find a weight they can isolate their lats with.  If anything below 40lbs doesn’t feel like much of anything, but anything above 60lbs starts to engage the rest of the back, and they can’t focus on their lats, then between 40-60 lbs is this person’s Zone of Proximal Development.  It will take patience, lightweight, and entirely dropping their ego to wake those muscles up, but that’s a small investment to be able to make real improvements on a lagging muscle group. 

The ZPD should be something you’re always aware of; When you’re training, ask yourself if the weight you’re using is in or out of your Zone.  Are you moving along at the correct pace and keeping all of your muscles balanced, or are you skipping ahead, having to come back eventually to even out the missing pieces? Don’t skip 200 level just because you felt like 100 level was manageable.  The 300 and 400 levels will always be there for you, and as long as you master the material along the way by moving in small steps and staying within your ZPD, you’ll be able to improve and perform at the high level consistently.

**Note/Credit: The Zone of Proximal Development is an educational theory developed by Lev Vygotsky, used in learning for children and adult learners.  The actual ZPD is mostly used in language learning and determined by what a student can do on their own, what they can do with a teacher’s assistance or in a peer group setting, and their eventual mastery of the skill/knowledge.  The examples I used are simplified for this article but the theory itself is much broader, and I’d encourage anyone who would find it useful to research it on their own.

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Tucker Loken
Tucker Loken is a Bodybuilder turned Powerlifter turned Powerbuilder from Eugene, Oregon. He did his first bodybuilding show when he was still in high school, and has been training male and female competitors for shows since 2011. Several years ago he decided to take a step away from his normal routine and learn how to get strong. He worked with Brian for 9 months, added 200 pounds to his raw total and qualified as an Elite lifter in the 220 pound weight class. He returned back to bodybuilding much stronger and now incorporates the 10/20/Life philosophy into his training to keep himself healthy and making continual progress in the Big 3 as well as adding size and shaping his physique. Now part of Team PRS, he brings his unique expertise of nutritional knowledge and how to balance Bodybuilding with Powerlifting to help athletes achieve their best potential.
Tucker Loken

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