Regression Strategies: Are your workouts too advanced for your clients?

By: Scott Lucett, MS, NASM-CPT, PES, CES

Trainers beware, you’re being watched! Not just by gym members, but by fellow Health and Fitness Professionals as well.

My daily routine includes me heading to the local gym at 5:15 in the morning to get my workout in. Although I’m very focused during my own workout, I can’t help but assess how other trainers in the gym are training their clients. Now, I don’t know if it’s because the trainers are still tired due to the early morning session and they are not completely focused yet, but it amazes me how some trainers (not all) take their clients through exercises that are obviously too advanced for their physical capabilities and even worse…don’t do anything about it! Do they not see the excessive lumbar extension crushing the client’s lumbar discs while performing a prone iso ab? Do they not see that having their client squatting on two dyna discs may not be a good idea since their knees are almost touching during decent? What is the thought process for having the 250 man perform straight legged throws (oh yes, the ones with the person lying on their back with their legs in the air while the trainer throws their legs towards the ground while the client “tries” to decelerate the force)? Don’t you think his hip flexors and low back are under enough stress?

Although I (and I know a lot of other trainers) have always known the importance of assessments, individualized starting points and progression, I’m deducing from my early morning trainer assessments that there is still a lot of disconnect between trainers and these foundational principles. Although these trainers are paying attention to their clients performing the exercise, they are not paying attention to whether the client is performing the exercise CORRECTLY, thus putting their client at risk for injury. I find myself biting my tongue to keep from asking questions such as “why did you choose that exercise for this individual?” or “did you perform an assessment on this client?” Trainers must be experts on exercise technique and what I like to call the Art of Exercise Regression. Sure, it’s really easy to make exercises more difficult. Most educational programs and products in the industry provide a ton of progression strategies, but how do you progressively make exercises easier for the client? It’s tougher than it looks. Obviously, the ideal scenario is to have a good idea about one’s physical capabilities after your assessment and thus start them with exercises that match those capabilities, but the situation will arise where an exercise you choose may be too difficult. No problem! The question then need to ask is – what are you going to do about it? Do you know how to make the exercise easier to ensure it can be performed correctly while still providing a challenge to the client and achieve the adaptation you were looking for? A couple of areas to always keep in the back of your mind that will automatically make almost all exercises easier include:

  1. Decreasing how much one must work against gravity – shorten one’s lever in relationship to gravity or position their body so gravity does not have the upper hand. For example, if one is having a hard time performing a push ups in the standard position (on toes – long lever) have them perform them on their knees. This automatically shortens the lever by changing the fulcrum (feet to knees). This decreases the amount of load and stability requirements in relation to gravity. Or, have them place their hands on a bench with their feet on the ground. This decreases ones lever in relation to gravity by increasing the height of the fulcrum (length of one’s arms plus the height of the bench).
  2. Make the environment more stable – the more stable the environment, the easier it is for one to perform the given task without having to deal with all the other sensory challenges that come with training in unstable environments.

What are your regression systems? How do you know when an exercise needs to be regressed? How does that make the client feel? Do they feel they failed? How do you communicate the regression strategy to your client?

Also, as fellow professionals, how do you address the issue of fellow trainers in your gyms exposing clients to exercises that are clearly too difficult for their client? This can be very touchy for many trainers. What are some communication strategies that have worked for you? What type of additional education would be helpful?