Progression <------> Regression

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As trainers and coaches, I think we often get too carried away with our programming to the point where we’re more concerned with impressing our clients with bells and whistles than actually getting them healthier.

I was at a commercial gym not too long ago, and I watched – in horror – a trainer take his female client through a session that included alternating BOSU ball jumps (jumping from one BOSU to another), pretty much the worst kettlebell swings this side of a Jillian Michaels video, TRX stuff (that admittedly wasn’t that bad), and some kind of hybrid push-up/monkey humping a football thingamajig that I have no clue what to call it.

All told, I’d say that probably 90% of the program was far too advanced for that particular client.  If she were my client, I would have regressed every single exercise.

And there’s no shame in that.

Not surprisingly, we’re so adamant on progressing clients – making them feel like they’re working hard, about to pass out in a pool of their own sweat – that we often fail to realize that regressing IS progressing.

To no fault of our own, we attend seminars, watch dvds, read books and manuals, spend hours on youtube, and it stands to reason that we want to try new things with our clients.  Why wouldn’t we?  But I think many (not all) trainers and coaches would be wise to take a step back, and recognize that not everyone can (or should) be performing kettlebell cleans and snatches on day one.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make certain exercises harder or more challenging – that’s just crazy talk.  What I am saying, however, is that we shouldn’t get into the mindset that we HAVE to make exercises harder or more challenging just for the hell of it.

Without question, we want to be cognizant of progressive overload and what have you, but if you have a client that looks like Quasimodo when he or she performs a conventional deadlift, it’s generally a sign that you need to take a step (or two) back.  Not add more weight.

Regressing them to say, a trap bar deadlift, where they’re center of gravity shifts more to the center and they’re able to maintain proper thoracic extension would be much more beneficial to them than trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.   It’s about setting them up for success, not beating them to a pulp.

Similarly, if someone has a bum shoulder and benching with a full ROM aggravates it, regressing him or her to a board press or maybe something like a loaded push-up variation would be the way to go.

Again, there’s no shame in REGRESSING clients.  If anything, it shows you have their best interests in mind.   As a matter fact, and using myself as an example, I’d be willing to bet that I end up tweaking 10% of the programs I write at some point or another.  Things happen – but most often, I’ll miss the mark or just simply over-estimate someone’s capabilities, and as a result I’ll have to re-asses and make some changes to the program.

I mean, it could be something as simple as takng some weight off the bar.

I can’t tell you how many times I watch someone warm-up, only to turn around and then turn back again to see them with 300 lbs on their back looking like they’re going to break in half.

In the end, if something looks like crap, or worse, causes pain – it only makes sense to use common sense and regress.  In a way:  regression IS progression.

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  • As there is a progression and regression to each exercises, there is a progression and regression in the flow (intensity, volume, exercise selection, ROM, etc.) in the workout.

    Great article Tony.

  • Tony Gentilcore

    Exactly Smitty – I didn't get into too much detail, but it stands to reason that intensity, volume (sets/reps), ROM, etc (everything you noted) definitely come into play.

    What I find that really gets my goat is when trainers just go a head and “progress” exercises just for the sake of making something harder – regardless of whether or not it looks like poop. Idiots.

    Not you, but just sayin……..;o)

  • I think I read or heard Mike Boyle saying something along the lines of: “If you wouldn't film it, and put it on your website as an exercise example, you need to regress it.” I like that saying.

    Same goes for programming. When I write a program I like to imagine that it will be seen by a peer, or a mentor. If I wouldn't feel confident in them looking it over I need to take the time to fix it.

  • Ian

    AMEN.

  • Nock

    I wanted to laugh so bad until I saw him hit the rack with his face…..ohhhhhh man that must have hurt.

  • Nock

    oh yeah great article Tony…..:D

  • Mike

    Going off what you said about guys loading up 300lbs without warming up to working sets, yesterday I saw something similar at the gym, but also got some insightful audio as well. Here is what ensued after bench pressing 135 15 times, and then loading it up to 275.

    Broski #1: “You're not gonna hit 225 bro?!?!”

    Broski #2: “Nah”

    Result: Epic Fail. Classic stuff.

  • Bob

    Of course, the vast majority of trainers in a globo gym think thoracic extension is what you see when Thor swings his mighty hammer. Ego is best left out of the gym, both for those working out and their trainers.

  • Mike A

    like a monkey humping a football, huh?

    great post, TG

  • I think this advice goes double when you're training yourself. I was at the gym the other day (working on Phase 3 of Show and Go) and realized that I need to regress a number of the exercises I'm doing. I have gotten too caught up in the “add weight every week” thing and my form on a variety of exercises is fraying around the edges. Time to back off a bit and focus on doing things right.

  • Oh Tony you are so smart!

    Though your damn website won't let me put the period in my last name. Jerk.

  • R Smith

    I've learned to appreciate my favorite new word, autoregulaton, in this regard.

  • Gwen

    Very valid points. I would rather do the training the correct way than do it with bad form. Pushing/pulling weight is cool and all until you break form and look like a jackass.

  • Barry

    I was “regressing” yesterday even before I saw your article. My worst fear is that you will show up at my Garage Gym (not likely…I know but you are welcome when you come to Dallas) and start scratching out your eyes after seeing my Squat Depth. From now on it is ATG (at least as far down as the 47 year old “A” will go) and I don't care if I have to drop back to just a bar! You are NOT going to laugh at me!

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Greg: couldn't agree more! It amazes me what some (well-known) coaches put up on their youtube pages sometimes.

    @ Rafe: Believe me when I say this, the HARDEST person to train is yourself. You're your own worst client. Everything we tell our clients, seemingly, doesn't apply to us. Weird how that works, huh?

    @ Barry: HA. Man, people must think I'm the worst gym snob. I swear, I'm not!!!!

  • MD

    Progression and a regression to a standing shoulder DB overhead press? Same exercise using dumbbells. I can not change to a machine for regression either. For progression, can increase weight but what else can be done without changing the exercise.