a guiding principle for exercise progression
I spend a good deal of my time and energy learning to help personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches better help their students. I recently wrote an article for trainers that has a message everyone who does not have a coach can learn from.
Below, I lay out a principle that can help guide your exercise decisions. Putting this concept into your programming will not only help you become more fit and resilient, it can help prevent injuries in the gym as well as out in the real world.
Making progress in fitness requires 2 things: overload and progression. Overload refers to the notion that if your body is already accustomed to an activity, it does not require a change in fitness. If we are not accustomed to the challenge, however, we experience overload and our body adapts by making changes in its form and function. These changes in form or function are generally what we seek in training to improve or maintain fitness.
Progression, the other key to fitness, refers to the need to continually increase the demand of the exercise if further change is desired. Some years ago I shared a conversation with a member that startled me. An 88 year old man, who is a regular at the club listened patiently while I went on about progression. He floored me when he said: “Son, when you get to be my age, not regressing is all the progressions you’ll ever need”. How right he was!
It is well known that after our mid 30’s, we begin losing muscle mass (3%-5% per decade) and (without training) general fitness and work capacity. So, unless you’re happy with where you’re already at, and are not worried about changing your body, you’ll need to progress in some way.
It’s nice to have some guidelines for knowing how/when to progress. I believe that the best trainers gauge whether or not to add weight to a movement, add reps to a set or add any degree of difficulty to a movement by using a central concept that puts the quality of movement at the center of every decision about progression. If the exercise is done safely and with “mastery”, we can consider progressing. This principle of “movement quality first” is depicted in the graphic below:
Applying this principle of movement quality first can make our decision about progressive changes in an exercise program very easy. “Can you maintain a great movement pattern after adding weight to the chest press?” “Yes!” “Great. Go ahead and try some more reps (or weight, or whatever)”… “You can’t keep great form and control?” “Go back to patterning and strengthening the movement before taking on more.” By passing a new exercise progression through the principle laid out above, we can make a safer and better decision about applying a new idea into our training.
My honest hope here is that we can all safely and effectively use exercise to improve our quality of life. Progressing safely (or not regressing!) is one of the biggest keys to getting the most out of exercise. I believe that using this principle will help you get the most out of the exercises and progressions of those that you choose.