Progression and Strategic Variation

*As Published in Personal Fitness Professional, 2004

As the fitness industry continues to expand, bringing more and more Personal Trainers in to the industry, it becomes imperative to those of us already in the business continually sharpen and hone our skills in order to stay ahead and on top. Acquiring new skills, increasing knowledge, and finding new tools to work with clients will keep us in demand and ensure long-tem success with clients. Possessing the tools to safely and effectively progress your clients and develop workouts that yield results without injury while achieving their goals will ensure your position in this industry for years to come. Two critical variables to consider with any exercise program are appropriate progression and strategic variation. If incorporated and monitored correctly, they will maximize results, reduce the risk of injury and offer endless possibilities in terms of workout design and challenge.

These two variables are actually critical to the thought process learned, taught, and mastered by those who have taken the Resistance Training Specialist® courses offered by Tom Purvis. Not only is the RTS process the furthest thing from protocol, it embarks on a journey of thought to effectively employ knowledge with objective Biomechanical Analysis creating endless possibilities of exercise strategies. What evolves is a dynamic and strategic set of priorities that enable you to make the decisions necessary regarding progression and variation.

Understanding Progression

Most professional fitness instructors know that before embarking on any type of exercise program, assessing the client to gain knowledge of their current physical condition, abilities, and limitations is imperative. Taking a detailed look, not only at the current industry accepted protocol, but beyond, to other essential areas including orthopedic integrity, available joint ranges of motion, and neuromuscular integrity are wise to gain a glimpse at the inner workings of the body. Traditionally, assessments are treated as necessary steps to complete before beginning an exercise program, but really, it is a reoccurring process of continual analysis and evaluation on every rep of every set, not just a beginning tool to get things in motion. Assessments should be accurate and objective providing a path of thought toward exercise selection. Deciding where to begin, and what exercises to instruct must come from this assessment and is purely tailored to the individual and should not be subjected to standardization. Of course certain patterns of movement need to be explored in order to develop exercises, but what needs to be stressed is that any loading of a movement that is not controlled, or where a joint is not structurally sound, is inappropriate.
Patterns of compensation during a particular movement, or a movement that is not symmetrical side to side should be a sign that something is wrong. To stop, and step back to analyze what is occurring biomechanically before continuing, or intensifying, is the sign of a responsible fitness professional.

The word progression, or to progress is defined as,” to move forward, proceed to develop a higher, better, or more advanced stage. Gradual betterment or progressive development.” Relating this to exercise, this would indicate that to move to a more advanced stage, one would accomplish, or better the skill of the current task at hand. This is the nature of development, and the concept of progression as viewed by the fitness professional. Deciding when and how to progress is a matter of careful professional judgment and must be evaluated solely on an individual basis. Progression should be considered advancement from ones current ability taking the goal in to account realizing mastery of the assigned task is based purely under the dictatorship of control, which is the true measure of performance.

Glen Killian, RTSM, in Dallas, an accomplished and superb Fitness Instructor and educator in his own right, coined the term MicroProgression™. In his words:
“The idea of MicroProgression™ is to create the smallest possible next step in whatever area you are trying to progress be it mechanical or physiological. To truly apply the concept, one would demonstrate proficiency at each of these small or ‘micro’ steps before progressing to the next. This process does not necessarily take weeks, months, or years to get from point A to point B. MicroProgression™ from start to goal might be accomplished within a single workout depending the rate at which one acquires skill.”

A good way to consider these steps are mini goals on a gradual continuum of achieving, altering, and mastering the smallest possible challenges before progressing to exercises that involve vast ranges of motion, intense neurological challenges and recruitment that may crossing different planes. Laying the foundation and allowing for improvement in both tissue integrity and motor pattern performance is always imperative before intensifying the movement or challenge. Learning basic skills is always the key to mastery whether it is exercise, music, skiing, or golf. The goal of being able to perform a complex motion should begin by breaking the movement down in to its simplest components to see if indeed all related muscleclature is providing optimum force production so that when integrated there is assurance of equal contribution with no compensation.

Possible elements to consider when assessing control and when to progress could include:

  • Maintenance or stabilization of bodily position while motion is occurring
  • Correct performance of dynamic stabilizers throughout the range.
    • Are the rotator cuff muscles capable of maintaining the plane of motion in a press?
  • Control over the path of motion of the resistance and related body parts involved
  • Sequence of events, fluidity of muscular control, integration of movers (handoff)
  • Deltoid, tricep, pectoralis during a press
  • Intention. Muscle vs. Force (intrinsic vs. extrinsic factors of intention)
  • Is the attempt being made to simply move the load (motion intention) or is the focus on force production
  • Comparison of the stabilizing, non-stabilizing, and dynamic stabilizing components
  • Onset of fatigue
  • When? At what point during the range,

Analysis of these elements may bring the trainer to conclude that it is indeed time to intensify or modify the exercise, or regress, breaking the movement into its isolated components, train, and then reintegrate.

One issue that seems to plague the industry today stems from the fact that many a trainer is having their client start with exercises so far down the progressive continuum that the options to progress are limited. Many proponents of so-called functional training negate or simply do not understand that in order to create efficiency in movement, a foundation must be created ensuring that all muscles involved are not only active and firing, but fire in the correct order and sequence. Visually, the range of movement may be completed, but with hidden compensation. I have found in many instances that without proper progression when a particular movement is broken down into its isolated components the muscleclature is weak, and related joints are instable. Many have said that isolated movements are not functional. Not only is this statement not true, but as you can see, isolation training, or as I prefer to call it,: foundation training, is essential in terms creating the necessary stability to provide mobility. As described by Greg Roskopf of Muscle activation Techniques™, Function is: “The scope, spectrum, range or threshold through which control is exhibited over proper mechanics.” Responsibility should lie with the instructor to take the client through the necessary steps to create a solid foundation that leads up to an integrated movement before adding unstable surfaces that are more neurologically challenging.

Understanding Strategic Variation™

Strategy is defined as,” a careful plan or method of devising and employing plans toward a goal.” In exercise, this plan of action has a multitude of ingredients at its disposal when you consider all of the internal and external manipulative variables. There is no one correct way to vary an exercise, but when you take these ingredients, account for individual characteristics, current level of ability, and the goal, the recipe for success is imminent. Strategic Variation™ is a key element in progression that not only provides options, but ensures its success. The two are not separate, but are intimately related and should work together by complimenting each other in order to succeed in achieving ones goals. Moving beyond just changing the grip, load, or angle of the bench by altering certain mechanical components and challenging the neuromuscular unit is a great way to unite science and creativity.

There are countless ways to create Strategic Variation™ with exercises but some points to consider or explore could include the following:

Alter mechanical wear
Changing the angle of the application or direction of resistance.
A change as little as 5 degrees of a bench or cable has a huge effect on joint wear. Think of it as rotating your car tires.
Does a pulldown always have to be performed strictly in the frontal plane? A ‘shoulder’ raise in the frontal and sagittal planes only?
Presses with a cable unit from varying distances
Alter the motor pattern
Unilateral, alternating, simultaneous alternating, rep duration
Alter the contractile range, the load, and direction of resistance
Who says that every rep of every set has to be ‘full-range’?
Using a heavier load through a shortened range, or a lighter load for a ‘fuller’ range is an option.
Cables, Bowflex™, and resistance tubing make the possibilities endless
Based on the individual and the goal!
Alter the set duration, number of reps, sets, tempo, rest interval, frequency of stimulation
Alter the level of passive stabilization components
Form seated with back support, to seated with no back support, to standing, to an unstable foundation
Using a stability ball for support or as an anchor
Seated leg curls without the thigh pad
Change the moving ends. (reverse action)
Bench press vs. Push up, Pulldown vs. Pullup, crunch vs. reverse crunch
Alter the mode of resistance
Barbell, dumbbell, tubing, cables, pneumatic, compressed air, etc.
Add multiple directions for the same movement
Use two forms of resistance for the same movement. (add tubing to a leg press or a db curl)

Although the client is usually unaware of the minute changes and decisions you make for their workouts, your plan of action and the accomplishments they make along the way have a huge impact on progressing to the next level. Providing safe and effective workouts with obtainable and measurable goals ensure their success and your job security. Using the tools of Progression and Strategic Variation™ provide constant and relentless challenge to the nervous system which forces the body to react both structurally and functionally. The result is an efficient body that is stable yet mobile, flexible yet sturdy, and functional yet precise.

MicroProgression™and Strategic Variation™ are trademarks of the Resistance Training Specialist® program.

One Response to “Progression and Strategic Variation”

  1. Dave H.... Says:

    This is a great article and a serious insight into managing time with a client properly and using your mind to create the exercises and programs unique to each client. I feel honored to have taken my MAT internship with Glenn Killian….

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