How to Master Exercise Progression and Regression

I used to associate exercise progression with volume and load. Want to progress? Add more sets, weight, and reps.

I didn’t understand mobility and stability. I didn’t understand symmetry. I didn’t understand movement.

I thought “ I’ll just start back squatting and then add 5 pounds each week”.

I’m not saying this doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work. I’m saying that it doesn’t ALWAYS work or make sense.

I’ve failed enough times, whether it be an injury or lack of progress, to entertain another approach.

Before I chase progression in volume or load, I chase mastery of the movement.

Meatheads out there talk shit about this concept. They’ll balk at the idea of messing with “functional movements”. They’ll say “Just get under the bar and lift heavy, it’ll sort itself out”.

And I get it.  If some efficiency in movement is there, it can “sort itself out”. If not, you may be in a heap of trouble.

I’m not asking you to commit to this concept. I’m asking you to entertain it. Try for yourself. You might find when you master a movement and THEN load up the bar, you lift heavier shit.

In this post, I’m going to share with you what I believe is the best way to progress movement and exercise is.  You’ll learn:

  • Different methods of progression and regression that you can use
  • When to progress and when to regress
  • How progression and regressions fit into a system

Change the Angle

Change the angle entails moving the position of your hands or feet to make an exercise more or less challenging.

This type of progression is limited to mostly bodyweight based work.  And the truth is, you actually are just increasing load in a different way.

Here are the patterns and exercises the work well with a change of angle progression.

  • Horizontal Pushing – Push-Ups
  • Horizontal Pulling – Bodyweight rows
  • Hinging – Bridging
Push Up Exercise Progression
Elevating the hands is a regression. Elevating the feet is a progression.

 

Change The Depth

Changing the depth of the movement is pretty self-explanatory. Instead of taking an exercise through its full range of motion or full depth, you are limiting it.

If you have joint mobility and stability hang-ups that prevent you from doing an exercise properly, this is a great alternative. It allows them to still perform an essential pattern but keeps them away from compensation and poor form.

The idea is to take things as deep as possible while still maintaining form. Progress comes by chasing more depth each time you do the exercise, eventually landing at the ideal point.

Here are the patterns and exercises that work well with a change of depth. Examples follow

  • Split Stance – Split Squat
  • Single Leg – Step Up
  • Squat – Squat
  • Hinge – RDL
Squat Change of Depth Exercise Progression
Squatting to a high box is a regression. Squatting deep is a progression. I have no idea why I’m making that sour ass face.

Change the Developmental Position

This is where things get a bit more complicated.

Progression through developmental position is the use of different exercise positions that gradually decrease the stability provided by the floor. Basically, when more parts of your body are in contact with the floor, it’s a regression. When fewer parts of your body are in contact with the floor, it’s a progression.

Using developmental positioning helps in two ways

  • Your body doesn’t have to provide as much stability in the regressed positions as the floor aids in providing it
  • The positions are self-limiting.  They prevent you from compensating in other areas of your body to create movement in another.

Often times these are used in upper body exercise progressions, but with a bit of thinking outside the box they can work for lower body as well.

Here are the patterns and exercises that work well with change of developmental position. Examples follow

  • Vertical Pushing – Overhead Press
  • Vertical Pulling – Overhead Pulldown
  • Horizontal Pushing – Band or Cable Chest Press
  • Horizontal Pulling – Band or Cable Row

Overhead Press Developmental Position Progression

Change the Position of the Load

Changing the position of the load is adjusting where the weight or resistance is placed in an exercise to add or take away a stability demand.

By altering where you hold the load, you change the center of gravity and your body has to make adjustments to keep you upright. Depending on where the weight is held, adjustments may have to be made in the sagittal (front to back), frontal (side to side), transverse (rotationally) planes.

This type of progression allows you to weed out symmetry issues in those planes of motion listed. Doing so creates an excellent foundation and gets you ready to load up that exercise.

Taking things a step further, positioning of load can also fall into 4 categories; Ipsilateral, contralateral, homolateral and bilateral. Ipsilateral is loading the same leg and arm.  Contralateral is loading the opposite leg and arm. Homolateral is loading both legs and a single arm or loading both arms and a single leg. Bilateral is loading both legs and both arms, which we commonly associate with barbell training. Keep in mind, these are pretty simplistic definitions. Pictures below help to better describe.

Although I use a change of load with almost all my patterns and exercises, here are some that have the most options. Examples follow.

  • Split Stance – Split Squat
  • Vertical Pressing – Overhead Press
  • Single Leg – Single Leg RDL

 

Split Squat Load Position Exercise Progression
This is a split squat or lunge progression using a change of load position. This top is an example of contralateral loading while the bottom is ipsilateral.

When to Regress Or Progress?

Learning when to use these progress can be a bit challenging.

I think this is what really separates great trainers from good. Having a trained eye for when it’s time to move on. The longer you linger at a certain point, the less quickly you’ll make progress. But, progress too fast and you may end up stuck and be forced to go backward. Striking the perfect balance is really an art.

What we are looking for is finding the “neural edge”.  This is the breaking point for when your brain is likely to piece things together and build out better movement as opposed to compensate and reinforce poor movement.

Here are some things that may provide clues on when it’s time to progress.

  • Breathing – Comfortable inhale and exhale during exercise
  • Stability or Control – Performing the exercise at a controlled tempo with minimal to no “shaky” points
  • Form – Maintaining ideal positioning throughout the exercise. Neutral neck, shoulders, hips and no collapse of the foot are considered an ideal position in almost all exercises.

If you are missing or lacking any of these, it may be a clue that you need to stay put or regress.

A System for Exercise Progression and Regression

Over time, I’ve developed a systemized approach to tackling exercise progression and regression.

It’s not the end all, be all, but it’s a great starting point. At the very least, it’ll give you some ideas on how to organize your own approach to training.

I take every exercise through 5 different phases.

  1. Regressed Pattern – I use a regressed version of the exercise. I try to pick something that can be performed even with mobility and stability restrictions at the ankle, hip, and shoulders.  I use a change of depth, change of angle and low-level developmental positions in this phase.
  2. Pattern – I try to do the pattern in a full range of motion with a light load. I’ll try to eliminate any depth or angle restrictions I used in the first phase. I may still use lower developmental positions.
  3. Symmetry in Pattern – I’ll try to establish symmetry in the pattern, whether it be in the frontal, sagittal or transverse planes. I heavily use a change of load position in this phase and will often couple it with lower or medium developmental positions.
  4. Progressed Pattern – I’ll use a progressed version of the exercise. This may be a gateway to phase 5 and I’ll often use a variation that cuts down on the stability demands and allows heavier loading of the exercise. I try to eliminate any change of depth or angle restrictions here. I also start working towards the higher developmental positions
  5. Final Pattern – This is the final version of the exercise that I’m looking to get too. This is where you’ll see more barbell work. Higher level developmental positions are used almost exclusively.

To get an idea of what this looks like, here is what the first 4 phases of my squat progression could look like.

Squat Progression

 

  1. Depth-limited goblet or bodyweight squat – I’ll only use this phase if the individual is limited in there mobility or stability.
  2. Full goblet or bodyweight squat – I’ll spend a bit of time here to establish the basic squat pattern
  3. Offset front squat – I’ll change the load position to help create symmetry in the squat.
  4. Front squat – I’ll start loading the squat up with two KBs or DBs
  5. Barbell Front or Back Squat – My final progression, which isn’t pictured, is to start doing loaded barbell squats.

Not everyone will need to go through all these phases, but it’s ideal if you understand them and have them available. A typical beginner may need to spend considerable time in phases 1 and 2, whereas an intermediate trainee could skip both those phases.

Conclusion

I’m hoping you got some value from this post. To sum it all up, here are the big takeaways

  • Progress movement, not just load and volume
  • Progression and regression can come in many forms
    • Change of depth
    • Change of angle
    • Change of developmental position
    • Change of load position
  • Knowing when to regress and progress is important
  • Having a system of progression and regression is essential when designing your training programs or others