By Neal Prokop, Sport Performance Specialist

In the previous post, Designing and Refining Exercise Programs, we discussed the ten main categories of exercises, and how to manipulate the volume, intensity, frequency, and rest to elicit muscular adaptations such as endurance, hypertrophy, strength, and power.  Although there were only ten categories of exercises, there are several ways to progress and regress exercises, giving you hundreds of exercises and modifications to choose from.  This ensures that your workouts and programs are individualized, age appropriate, and based on what one can properly execute in the weight room.


Add or Reduce an Objective Reference

This is arguably one of the most common type of progression/regression we use, especially when working with young athletes. A reference connects the athlete’s body to the external environment, providing feedback or a ‘home base’ every-rep. Like a goalie’s goal-crease in hockey, a reference lets the athlete know where they’re positioned at a particular point in time. When athletes need help executing the movement pattern or exercise, you can add a reference, and once they display the movement correctly, you can progress the exercise by removing the reference.  


An example could be using a dowel to teach a hip hinge, telling the athlete that they need to maintain three points of contact: the head, upperback, and tailbone. If athletes round their back, they lose one of the reference points. 



Another reference could be a pad placed under the knee of a split squat. Telling the athlete that they must ‘lightly tap the pad’ with their knee provides a reference that ensures adequate range of motion. 



On a single leg romanian deadlift with press into wall, an athlete pushes their back leg into the wall ensuring that their is no external rotation in the hip as they reach down.



A fourth example could be a box squat variation. Telling the athlete ‘to lightly touch’ the box ensures athletes achieve the proper depth in a controlled manner.  



And finally, a fifth example could be a plank with an anti-rotational focus. Placing a pylon on the lower back provides the athlete with a reference that let’s them know if they’re rotating at the hips. The cone falling off their back provides feedback that they didn’t resist the rotation.




Add or Reduce a Movement Constraint

We’ll often start teaching a new exercise with a movement constraint, allowing us to focus on a particular portion of the movement or ensuring we like the movement before adding additional range of motion on either end. A physical movement constraint only lets the athlete work within a range of motion that we’re comfortable with.  


The most common movement constraint we use is a barbell or dumbbell floor press. This is a regression for the bench press exercise; however, the floor provides a physical constraint that keeps the athlete within our intended range of motion.  In the video below, the floor achieves two main objectives. 1) It allows the athlete to work shoulder stabilization muscles and proprioception but keeps the athlete out of a potentially vulnerable position at the bottom of the lift, and 2) it forces the athlete to control the weights on the way down. Failure to do so causes the elbow to hit the ground hard, and certainly nobody wants that!



Another common movement constraint is the rack-pull or elevated deadlift. By elevating the start/end position on the deadlift or rack-pull, we can focus on the hinge and keep the athlete out of a vulnerable position until the movement is learned correctly. Novice lifters often lose their form at the end range of motion. By adding the constraint, we ensure the athletes don’t enter that range until we’re comfortable.



Change the Base of Support 

Changing the base of support is a common way to progress and regress exercises and instantaneously provides you with an abundance of exercises to choose from. The most common stances include a split stance, standing stance (wide or narrow), half-kneeling stance, and kneeling stance. A wider stance provides a stronger base of support, and a lower center of gravity will also allow for greater stability. If you think of a baby or young toddler learning and progressing to a run or jump, they start supine or prone, progress to quadruped (crawling), will try to half-kneel and kneel, and then finally they’ll develop the balance and stability necessary for standing, squatting, walking, running, and jumping.


This highlights the theoretical progression, but where it can get complicated is the idea that a kneeling or half-kneeling exercise is always a regression from a standing exercise because the athlete’s center of gravity is lower. While this should be the case in most exercises, it doesn’t always feel like the case. This happens for a few reasons. 1) In standing movements, athletes will often make subtle compensations for poor trunk stability with slight adjustments in the pelvis and lumbar spine. As such, movements in the half-kneeling and kneeling position helps prevent these compensations, requiring trunk stability. The other reason kneeling exercises can often feel more difficult in a kneeling position is because the base of support is fixed at hip width, or narrower, whereas when standing, athletes will often complete the exercise at a stance wider than hip width. 


Remember that to have distal stability, we need to have proximal stability. In other words, we need relative stability through the trunk in order to make good use of our range of motion at proximal joints such as the hips and shoulder.


Here are a few half-kneeling and kneeling exercises to try.




Another exercise that fits within the base-of-support realm is a stability ball hamstring curl. Outstretched arms provide a greater base of support, whereas arms in tight require greater stability. 


Add a Neuromuscular Cue or Prompt

A neuromuscular cue prompts the body and engages or activates particular muscles.  The most common example is a mini-band over the knees during a squat. The resistance of the mini-band forces the athletes to activate and engage their hip-adductor muscles and screw their feet into ground.  This helps to reduce knee valgus and puts the athlete in a stronger position when squatting.  To progress the exercise, simply remove the band.




Bilateral stance is typically easier than a split stance, which is typically easier than a single leg stance.  


Direction and Degree of Movement

A stationary movement, such as a split squat or lateral squat, should be much easier than a movement requiring motion, such as a lateral lunge or forward/reverse lunge.  Furthermore, a movement should be easier forwards, whereas a backwards or lateral movement requires spatial awareness and body control as the athlete can’t see their foot placement. 


Lever Length

Lengthening the ‘load arm’ or shortening the ‘effort arm’ requires significantly more strength.  Think of the last time you carried a heavy bag of groceries — it’s a lot easier to carry them in tight as opposed to holding your arms out (a.k.a. increasing the ‘load arm’). While changing the lever length won’t apply to all exercises, you’ll notice athletes will subtly cheat in an effort to ‘lift more weight.’ A common example where you might see athletes shorten their lever length might be during a shoulder fly or a pallof-press.  In this case, the athletes load should be reduced, and the degree of movement increased. 



Adjust Velocity/Tempo/Rest

Providing the load is consistent. Increasing the time under tension and slowing down the tempo makes the exercise more challenging from one standpoint. Shortening the rest will make movements more metabolically difficult. Doing the movement with an emphasis on speed and maximal velocity, also known as an ‘intended movement’, can also make the exercise more difficult compared to just ‘going through the motions’.  Low speeds and high speeds can be ways to progress the exercise. Just remember that for coaches, ‘speed often hides need.” Before getting the athlete to execute movements at high speeds, ensure their technique is appropriate.   


Progress Load Systematically

The most common way to progress or regress exercises is simply to adjust the weight the athlete is lifting. More weight is a progression.


Adjust Volume

And finally, another common way to progress or regress exercises is to adjust the number of sets and reps the athletes will do of a particular exercise. More sets and repetitions of the movement (providing the weight is consistent), increases the volume, which makes completion of the series more challenging. 


And there you have it! A list of ways to progress and regress exercises. To summarize:

Add or Reduce References

Add or Remove a Constraint

Change the Base of Support

Add a Neuromuscular Prompt

Adjust the Stance

Change the Direction or Degree of Movement

Change the Lever Length

Adjust Velocity/Tempo/Rest

Progress Load Systematically

Adjust the Volume


 Enjoy your training!