It often seems like everyone is looking for the quick fix or the magic pill for instant results. As coaches, it’s our duty to educate our clients and steer them away from this kind of instant-gratification mentality, focusing instead on the importance of safe and effective movements that will help them reach their goals.
There’s no lack of interesting and different (some might even say “crazy”) exercises on social media and YouTube. Yet, many are not necessary, other than for occasional novelty or variety, or for entertainment value — and some are downright unsafe for some people trying them at home. For many of these exercises that break from the basics, the return on investment is often not worth it, if the return a person is looking for is something other than the experience of something new and different.
“The basics” stand up to the test of time as some of the most effective movements for building strength and mobility.
Although it’s great to play with movements that break up monotony and add a little extra challenge once in a while, I always come back to the basic movement patterns involved in most physical activities in our daily lives.
Four basic movement patterns always present in my training programs include pulling, pushing, squatting, and hingeing. These movements are important and effective, and I always have them in my proverbial toolbox, along with many progressions and regressions to make them suitable for all fitness levels.
Push and Pull
Pulling and pushing are two movements that target every major muscle group in the upper body, and including both in your training programs promotes muscular balance and addresses asymmetries that can lead to injury. Examples of exercises that train these movements include the bench press (horizontal pushing), the overhead or shoulder press (vertical pushing), the bent-over row (horizontal pulling), and the pull-up (vertical pulling).
Most of the muscles used in pulling movements make up the posterior chain, or “the backside” of your body. Neglecting these prime movers can negatively affect posture and result in back pain. While most people think strictly of upper body exercises when thinking of pushing and pulling movements, there are many that also train the lower body, like a sled pull or sled push; and the deadlift is a combination of a pull and a hinge.
Squat and Hinge
Squatting and hinging are two movement patterns that target the major muscles of the lower body and are necessary for many functions of everyday life. The hip hinge is extremely crucial for maintaining a strong posterior chain. Poor hip hinge technique leads to compensation in the lumbar and thoracic spine. This movement must be mastered slowly and in a controlled manner using exercises like the deadlift, before moving on to more ballistic exercises like the kettlebell swing.
A great coach will have a strong understanding of how to use progressions and regressions for these basic movements to meet each client where they are and work with them to get them where they want to be, safely and effectively.
In this article you will learn some of my favorite progressions and regressions for the pull, push, squat, and hinge, and see some examples of how to modify these basic movements to meet a client’s level and address their goals.
Please be sure to watch the video below for a walk-through of some of these variations, and then review the notes below the video:
Pull: Regressions and Progressions
- Pull-Up: Start with hollow hold on the ground, then move on to hollow hang, flexed-arm hang, weighted hang. Progressions to pull-ups can include performing more repetitions at bodyweight, or adding weight to the exercise.
- Row: Start with bent-over row with light weight or resistance band in supported, staggered, or athletic stance with a slight hinge at the hips, then move to high-incline inverted row (using barbell on a rack, a Smith machine bar, suspension straps, or rings). Progressions include: bent-over row with heavier weight in a hinge stance, inverted row at a deeper incline, inverted row with body parallel with the floor, inverted row with feet elevated (decline).
- Rope Pulls: Dragging on the ground or pulling from overhead, looped over a pull-up bar.
Push: Regressions and Progressions
- Push-Up: Start with incline push-up against a wall, move down to a countertop or desk height, then down to a bench or box, or adjust a barbell on a rack at different heights to work from a higher (easier) position to lower positions as strength increases. Planks on a bench or on the floor are also a good regression to build push-up strength. To progress push-ups, increase repetitions or sets, or advance to one-arm or one-arm/one-leg push-ups.
- Bench Press: Start with light weight either with an unloaded barbell or dumbbells, and progress by increasing the weight or by performing unilateral bench press with a dumbbell. Adjusting the incline (incline, flat, or decline) can also be used to regress or progress a bench press.
- Floor Press: This is another way to train a push, similar to a bench press but performed on the floor. Start unilaterally, with one light kettlebell or dumbbell, and progress to a heavier load or to double kettlebells or dumbbells.
- Turkish Get-Up: performed with a Kettlebell or Dumbbell
- Overhead Pressing: Start with a rack hold or a rack carry/walk, move to overhead hold or overhead carry/walk, then seated military press (bilateral). Progress further by performing unilateral overhead press, push press, or jerk.
Squat: Regressions and Progressions
- Squat: Start with bodyweight squat, and progress in this order: goblet squat, rack squat (one side), double kettlebell/dumbbell front squat, barbell front or back squats. The squat can also be progressed to an overhead squat if there is adequate shoulder mobility.
- Lunge: Start with bodyweight and progress to loaded. Work from split stance, to reverse lunge to forward lunge, to walking lunge. Progress further by performing the lunge in an elevated split stance or rear-foot elevated (Bulgarian).
- Pistol Squat: Start by using assistance such as holding on to suspension straps or by performing the movement within comfortable range of motion from a raised surface. Progress to using light counterweight from the floor without assistance, and finally to bodyweight and heavier load.
Hinge: Regressions and Progressions
- Deadlift: Start with bodyweight hip hinge to pattern the movement, and progress to light kettlebell deadlift, then to a deadlift with an unloaded barbell. Progress to conventional and sumo barbell deadlift, and to suitcase deadlift with dumbbells or kettlebells.
- Good Mornings: start with bodyweight, and progress by increasing the weight.
- Single-Leg Deadlift: start unweighted and progress by increasing the weight first with dumbbells or kettlebells, then with a barbell
- Kettlebell Swing: Start with two-handed start/stop or dead stop swing (Step 3 in this article), and progress to a standard hardstyle swing. Progress further by increasing the weight for the standard swing, performing single-hand swings, or swinging two bells.
While the movements above are a good starting point, I recommend (particularly if you are a new trainer) that you make a full list of movement patterns along with the exercises that fit each pattern and all their progressions and regressions. Over time, as you practice and make the appropriate adjustments in context with your clients, you will master the art of regressing and progressing exercises to meet your clients where they are.
Using Regressions and Progressions in Semi-Private and Group Training
Understanding how to regress and progress an exercise will be incredibly beneficial if you instruct semi-private or group sessions where you’re working with people of varying fitness levels at once. You will be able to quickly assess each person and demonstrate the required adjustment appropriate for their level. Without this understanding, your clients could feel intimidated and may lose motivation and self-confidence.
Here is an example using regression and progression options in a group setting for a beginner, an intermediate, and an advanced client:
Participants have the following options based on their level of readiness and ability:
Plank or Elevated Push-Up
Ring Rows or Inverted Rows at a High Incline
Two-Handed Kettlebell Swing
Double Kettlebell Front Squat
One-Arm Push-Up (at appropriate incline or on the floor depending on ability)
Pull-Up or Weighted-Pull-Up
Double Kettlebell Swing
Always strive to help your clients reach their goals safely and create positive environments with skills that challenge them but allow them to succeed and make progress.
This thought from physical therapist and developer of the Functional Movement System (FMS), Gray Cook, has long stayed with me: “Never put fitness on top of dysfunction.”
In my teaching, I strive to ingrain the idea of “Pattern, Practice, Perfect” prior to loading someone. Take time with your clients to develop and practice these foundational movement patterns. The better they become at the basics, the safer they will be as you advance them to new and more challenging progressions. By building a better foundation, they’ll not only build strength, they’ll also have a greater possibility of staying injury-free.
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