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Building a Road Map – Understanding Exercise Progression and Regression

Fundamental Movement Personal Training

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When it comes to exercise selection, many of us through either classes, individual gym sessions or sessions with a trainer or coach, will be familiar with most of the traditional resistance lifts.

We will often be able to picture what we mean when we use terms like Bench Press, Back Squat, Pull Up and Deadlift for example.

This is why when it comes to programme design, they’re often included from the most basic introductory programmes all the way through to those individuals more experienced or specific in their training approach. These movements are considered the fundamentals…

Yet whilst the pattern of movement may be something we should always place high value in (squatting, pushing, pulling etc…), tying oneself to an exercise variation can often be to the detriment of not only a clients progression, but your capacity to effectively coach.

However you choose to classify exercise, the basics tend to always remain similar in essence.

  • Locomotion (Running, Cycling, Versaclimber, Rowing…)
  • Triple Extension (Ballistics/Plyometrics eg. Box Jumps/Hurdle Hops)
  • Change of Direction (5-10-5, or Cone Touch Drills)
  • Knee Dominant (Squat/Lunge Patterns)
  • Hip Dominant (Hinge/Deadlift Patterns
  • Horizontal Push (Bench Press, DB Press…)
  • Horizontal Pull (Inverted Row, Seated Row…)
  • Vertical Push (BB Overhead Press, Shoulder Press…)
  • Vertical Pull (Chin Up, Pull Up…)
  • “Core” (Pelvic Control vs Ribcage Control)

This covers the vast majority of ways in which we can exercise in some form or another. 

Yet the most common mistake we see when discussing previous exercise exposure with clients is the tendency to try to fit individual to an exercise as opposed to an exercise to an individual. 

We often fail into the trap of prescribing exercises on a ad-hoc basis dependent on what we ourselves have done previously, something we may have seen/want to try, or a simple attempt just to put the most load into an exercise to show a client the incredible “progress” they’ve made.

We often fail to recognise contraindications for an individual that should act as a break on exercise selection for us. 

One of the most common examples that we will use for the purpose of this insight is seen within squatting. Coaches and trainers when wanting to develop squatting as a pattern often will jump straight into a Barbell Back Squat, regardless of a clients exposure to exercise or the movement itself. It may be as coaches that’s what we deem the “typical” example of a squatting pattern, the variation we ourselves may use. It’s also often what gets written in “cookie-cutter” programmes and most online programme prescriptions. It’s what we recognise. 

Yet it’s an extremely rare occurrence that a client may pick up this exercise variation and show sensorimotor competency from the start without previous exposure. If this is the case however, great! With appropriate volume and load this may be a great tool for lower body strength development.

But what we tend to see far more often is one (or more) of the following scenarios for example…

  • Lack of sufficient depth
  • Knee Valgus
  • Incapacity to maintain “upright” torso
  • Hinging action as opposed to a Squatting action
  • Loading position causes pain through compression
  • Loading position causes pain through shoulder dysfunction

Now, we can endlessly coach the individual as consistently as we want, using both internal and external cues. Or we can alternatively recognise that the exercise variation in question isn’t right for this individual, AT THIS TIME. This is not to say it cannot be reintroduced at a later date, just that it’s not what we need now.

This is where our concept of regression and progression comes in. Let the exercise variation teach the movement pattern.

Using our Back Squat as an example, the task becomes can we use a variation on the squatting pattern that enables movement competency AND the ability to use sufficient volume and intensity to illicit a training stimulus.

This is the exercise progression/regression formula we’ve been using for the past few years for the Squat pattern…

  • Plate/DB Squat Reach
  • DB/KB Goblet Squat
  • 2 KB Front Squat
  • Front Squat (should thoracic mobility allow…)
  • Safety Squat Bar
  • Back Squat

Notice how the traditional Back Squat is the LAST exercise progression we will use!

Let’s walk through why…

Plate/DB Squat Reach

The simplest of steps to begin. By taking the load far in front of the individual, this acts as a counter balance for the exercise. With this, it becomes far easier to not only meet the motor competency requirements of the exercise, but allows the individual to sense how they stack body segments on top of one another, using abdominals and hamstrings to maintain good pelvic and ribcage position. It doesn’t take a significant amount of time or load for individuals to begin to understand what we would have spent sessions trying to teach in a more complicated variant.

DB/KB Goblet Squat

By now brining the load towards the body, we’re starting to challenge how the individual controls centre of mass when we increase load. Can they maintain an upward torso and truly squat down as opposed to hinging back. We can easily use a box as a cue to emphasis this pattern. We offset any potential thoracic and shoulder limitations that may limit range of motion in a posterior loaded exercise by keeping the load at chest height.

2 KB Front Squat 

An often under-utilised version of a goblet squat variation. We get to increase load without compromising position. Beginning to work on some of the thoracic and appendicular position needed to progression into Barbell loaded squat progressions. 

Front Squat

The most challenging of the anterior loaded variations as it allows for higher resistance. By keeping load anterior, we keep the ribcage and pelvis optimally aligned by strongly engaging abdominals to keep the torso upright against load. We can sit through the squat by using the offset of load.

Safety Bar Squat

This is the simplest way of bringing load posteriorly without excessively challenging pelvic and ribcage position as well as pressure management of the internal system. With the ability for my arms to reach forward as a ribcage retracts, we can keep the load stacked over centre of mass. With this, we can teach individuals to sit down through a squatting pattern as opposed to hinging back.

Back Squat

The Back Squat represents one of the hardest of squat progressions especially when working with general population clients. By placing load posteriorly, it automatically brings into consideration how well the individual can maintain control of both a pelvis and ribcage. Most individuals lack this capacity early on. We’re pitched forward in an attempt to keep the load stacked over our centre of mass, we therefore have to often move into hyperextension at key joints (lumbar spine, knees…) to compensate.

With each of the exercise classifications we began with, (knee dominant, hip dominant etc…), we should all have a road map that takes the client through the appropriate progressions and regressions so that they development sensorimotor competency and in time are exposed to sufficient volume, intensity and duration to enable progression over time. 

Here are a few things to consider…

  • Does this movement match the outcome we’re trying to achieve?
  • Does it enable me to achieve the range of motion I desire?
  • Can it be performed at a tempo I control?
  • Can I control position of my body in space? (Pelvis, Ribcage, Spine…)
  • What strategy am I using? (Low threshold vs high threshold, anterior vs posterior impingement)
  • Am I able to control breathing throughout?

This approach in time develops an exercise library that enables coaches and trainers to show adaptably in exercise selection without impacting on client progress. At IFT we have a go-to exercise library of approximately 60-80 exercise variations across the exercise classifications that are fine tweaked and altered over time. On top of this there always remains multiple variables we can manipulate through volume changes, intensity, tempo, amplitude, direction, plane of motion, and level of complexity.

This creates a near endless number of exercise solutions to meet the individual where they are and provide them with the teaching opportunity and stimulus they need for change.

If a client comes in unable to perform exercise variation A, we have options B to F which we can utilise, each one may offer us a short or long term fix without completely removing a pattern of movement.

Have a road map for your client, understand exercise progression and regression and recognise that intensity and volume aren’t the only variables we can manipulate. 

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