Exercise Progressions: Are You Asking the Right Questions?
If you’re using the calendar to progress clients, it’s time to think about digging deeper into the how and why of progressions. Understanding the phases of learning and the neural continuum can help you make better-informed decisions, which can help clients progress safely and effectively (and have fun).
Clients must eventually progress. Progressing is how we prevent plateaus and continue working toward goals. It is common for personal trainers and general fitness enthusiasts to put a simple time frame on all progressions. For example, someone may work on strength training or conditioning for 4-6 weeks and then move on to something else. Significant research has gone into this practice, and certain standards have been established. For example, Harre (1982) and Stone et al. (2007) suggested that it takes 4 weeks, on average, to develop stabilization. They also found that it takes 6 weeks, on average, to develop a base necessary for competitive performance and 6 weeks to elevate sports-specific fitness and skills. NASM suggests that each phase of the Optimum Performance Training™ (OPT™) model be progressed after 4-6 weeks, which is relevant, accurate and effective.
This blog is not intended to debate this or to try to convince you otherwise. But progressions happen on a deeper level within those weeks in each phase. Here, we will discuss the “micro-progressions” that often go overlooked throughout those weeks, and we will offer 3 questions to help you recognize when and how clients can be progressed safely and effectively. We’ll get to those questions at the end of the article…but first, a little background is in order to truly understand progressions.
Progressions: Where It Began and How It Works
Progressions in exercise stem from periodization, which was popularized by Eastern Europeans in the 1950s. Periodization consists of manipulating training variables during specific periods to provide variation in volume and intensity. These variables are: the exercise order, selection, sets, reps, intensity and rest period. Periodization has been successfully used for many years by all types of athletes to attain peak performance. Interestingly, it is suggested that the length of time peak performance is maintained has to do with how an athlete gets there (Stone et al. 2007). Those who follow a more logical sequence of progressions—systematically progressing in complexity, stability and intensity—will maintain peak performance for a longer period of time.
Periodization was further supported in 1956 by Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye with the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), which describes the body’s response to both emotional and physical stress. Although GAS was somewhat misunderstood, it did help lay the foundation for explaining how periodization assists with safely progressing a training program.
The three-phase GAS model, as described in Selye’s book The Stress of Life, includes the alarm stage, resistance stage and exhaustion stage. The alarm stage refers to the initial “shock” response to a stressor. In training, performance temporarily decreases during this stage, and the client may have soreness, but it tends to dissipate quickly. The second phase is the resistance stage, in which the body begins making the necessary biochemical, structural and physiological adjustments in order to adapt to the training. In this stage, performance returns and may increase, often termed “super compensation.” The last phase of GAS, the exhaustion stage, occurs when too much stress is placed on the body or when a stressor is maintained for too long. Here, the client typically begins to see negative results, along with increased fatigue, and even disturbed sleep in many cases.
When one uses periodization—that is, proper exercise progressions—the client can advance, alternating from the alarm stage to the resistance stage (back-and-forth as necessary to reach a goal) without ever getting into overtraining, or the exhaustion stage. Exercise progressions should be based on four key factors:
- Goals: Will the progression get the client closer to their goal?
- Assessments: Are the progressions aligned with the assessments and will they improve the overhead squat assessment?
- Reality: Is the progression appropriate for this client?
- Phases of Learning: Few training plans take into consideration the phases of learning when designing programs.
Since the first three should be easy for you to answer, let’s consider the fourth item in greater depth. (It’s also the first of your three questions to ask before progressing a client.)
Progressing Through the Phases of Learning
Learning, in general, is complex. Learning to move factors in even more variables. Most of our movement is shaped by our environment. Being adaptive organisms, we eventually move in ways in which the environment demands. This, of course, is learned because it is practiced and repeated daily for years, in most cases. While this is beneficial from an evolutionary perspective, our current environment isn’t typically creating the most ideal movement patterns. For example, clients who sit in a desk chair or vehicle for hours on end have likely adapted, but not in ways that are ideal for their physical well-being. As fitness professionals, we are responsible for not only coaching in a manner that helps clients achieve specific goals, but we are also RE-teaching people how to move.
Learning movement occurs in three phases: cognitive, associative and autonomous.
The cognitive phase is where most clients begin. Here, the movement is often shaky, is naturally slower, and takes considerable concentration. This phase is frequently associated with neural fatigue, and the new movements are learned over time because of repetition. A key in this phase is not progressing too quickly and focusing on proper form. The goal is make movements—such as a squat, lunge, or pushup—a habit, which will allow for safe advancement through the NASM OPT model. Clients should eventually just “get it.”
The associative phase is when the movements become smoother, more efficient and more economical. Here, the foundational patterns have been learned, with only subtle adjustments necessary. This is where most training should happen. Exercises is this phase can be progressed much more quickly to always challenge the client, but never in a manner that leads to failure. (Here, we don’t mean failure in the sense of muscular fatigue, but failure meaning the client can’t successfully execute the exercise with proper form and control.)
The last phase is the autonomous phase, where the movements become effortless. Here is where the client “gets it.” This is often characterized by the client who has way too much of a conversation during a workout, which indicates there is little to no concentration involved. This phase is where many athletes or those acquiring a specific skill aspire to be, but for the general fitness client, the autonomous phase means it is time to progress. When it is indeed time to progress, I suggest you think beyond the variables of simple load and intensity. Increasing weight does have its place, but first consider stability and complexity.
Progressing in Stability and Complexity
We have all heard about stabilization and its importance with regard to injury prevention and overall performance. Stability is the degree to which someone can keep their center of gravity fixed over their base of support. This is both static and dynamic and must play a role in progressions. Internal and external stability have an inverse relationship. External stability can be provided by standing on a stable surface or by using a fixed machine, in some cases. As the client is developing neuromuscular control, they will begin to increase internal stability, which will allow a decrease in external stability, aka stability progression. That is, they will be able to be progressed to a similar exercise in which their base is unstable.
Complexity of exercise is the type and number of body segments in motion simultaneously. As a client learns, a movement change can be made to make the exercise more complicated, such as alternating arms or adding lower body movements. These progressions seem simple, and for many it is a smooth transition, but this is incredibly complex to the nervous system. It now must use a different strategy to coordinate control and stabilize the body through each movement. Consider total-body exercises, for example. These are an excellent way to burn more calories, get more work done in a shorter period of time, and have a lot of fun. However, to a new exerciser, the degree of complexity that comes along with this is very high. Not only is the participant learning how to control a new movement while stabilizing, they now have to coordinate total-body mechanics in something like a squat to row! Again, seems easy but it is demanding to the nervous system.
Progressions and the Neural Continuum
Armed with this new progression knowledge, how do we categorize and design a program with the proper progressions? Fortunately, all the tough work for these simple progressions in stability and complexity has been done. It is called the neural continuum (and can be found in NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training, table 12.13). This continuum is designed to modify the stability and complexity to improve neuromuscular efficiency, stabilization and functional strength.
When to Progress: The 2-for-2 Rule
To help everything make more sense (and to better explain when to progress), we are going to use an example and include the neural continuum. Let’s say Bob is performing a standing cable chest press. According to the continuum, Bob should begin by standing on the floor, with both legs planted, and both arms working at the same time. This is stable, the center of gravity is not moving much in reference to the base of support, and both arms are moving at the same time, in the same direction and at the same speed, so there is not a high level of complexity. The 2-for-2 Rule suggests that if a client can perform 2 extra repetitions on 2 sets with perfect form, then they should be progressed.
To progress Bob, we are going to begin by making changes to the variables on the right of the chart. Therefore, Bob will perform the chest press by still standing on the floor on both legs, but now with arms alternating. As you will notice, Bob will briefly go back to the cognitive phase by slowing down and concentrating. If Bob is an experienced exerciser, he will quickly move back into the associative phase, maybe even within a set or two. Again, when Bob satisfies the 2-for-2 Rule, we progress him according to the chart. Now, Bob is standing on the floor with both legs planted and performing a single-arm chest press.
Once Bob makes it through the upper body progressions, then we may begin changing the lower body, which begins to significantly alter stability (e.g., a single-leg stance is huge change to the base of support). After all the lower body progressions are made, then we may begin changing the surface which he is standing on.
A few important notes:
We want to be careful not to change more than one variable at a time. When we make a major change (moving from two legs to a single-leg stance, for example), the other variables will go back to basic. Bob’s single-leg chest press will begin on a stable surface with both arms moving at the same time. Bob’s first progression here will be to stay at a single-leg stance, but to move to arms alternating, thus continuing to satisfy and follow the neural continuum.
Not ALL clients will have to follow ALL the progressions in the neural continuum. For example, Bob may never stand on a Dyna Disc for his chest press, and that is perfectly acceptable. Those progressions are available if someone needs them, but not 100% mandatory.
Many of these will be progressed through very quickly. It is not uncommon for me to take a client through several of the upper body progressions within their very first exercise session! Remember the phases of learning: If Bob can do it while he is explaining the details of the weekend barbecue, then it may be a waste of his time and he needs to move on to the next challenge.
3 Questions to Ask Before Progressing
All of this explanation and research, together, can be synthesized into 3 questions to ask before progressing a client:
- What phase of learning are they in?
- Have they satisfied the 2-for-2 Rule?
- What does the neural continuum suggest next?
Program design is one of the more challenging yet rewarding aspects of personal training. Learning how and when to make proper progressions may take some time and practice, but it will make each training session much more rewarding. Progressions should be used as a way to help your client reach their goals, improve overall movement patterns, and have some fun. Spend time practicing with the neural continuum on yourself, and learn how it feels to make the small, yet demanding, changes in complexity and stability. Remember that many of our clients are learning movement for the first time since they were an infant. I often equate this with learning a new language (which I have never been able to do): It takes practice! Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code calls it “deep practice.” Movements should be practiced with concentration, repetition and perfect form to truly make a difference. When you’re progressing a client remember the 2-for-2 Rule and always challenge them, but allow each movement to be within their grasp…within their control.
Coyle, D. 2009. The Talent Code. New York: Random House.
Harre, D. 1982. Principles of Sports Training. Berlin: Sportverlag.
NASM. 2013. NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Selye, H. 1956. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill
Stone, M.H., Stone, M & Sands, W.A. 2007. Principles and Practices of Resistance Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.