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Take the Next Step: How to Create an Effective Exercise Progression

By Billy Polson

Recently I've presented a series of pieces designed to get RealJock guys to rethink their workout programs. First, I invited you to discover your bodies strengths and weaknesses by identifying your body's basic movement patterns. Next, I described all of the variables involved in designing a program that will efficiently meet your goals and target all of the types of muscle fibers. Now, I'd like to continue this series by taking a look at correct methods for individual exercise progression. You want to be on an upward trajectory with your workouts, but you can't do that without a plan for how and when to take a step forward. So let's make sure your workouts are continuing to increase your body's strength and functionality without allowing you to plateau.

Every basic exercise and movement has an order of progression (and, at times, regression) that you should follow to make sure you are: (1) doing exercises with perfect form and only when your stabilizer muscles are adequately prepared for the movement, and (2) increasing the difficulty of movements in order to continually challenge your body towards acheiving increased levels of strength, coordination and functionality. To create (or remove) difficulty, think about changing your degree of stability in the exercise. The more unstable the environment, the more difficult the exercise will be.

With this idea of stability in mind, here are two variables to think about for creating an exercise progression or regression are:

  1. Base of support: You can progressively change your base of support, challenging your body to perform the movement with a different feel of stability. For example, begin by doing an exercise lying down or seated, where you have the most support. Then challenge yourself by doing the same exercise standing, either with feet square or staggered. Finally, you may place one or even both feet on a BOSU to create a fully unstable environment.
  2. Bilateral vs unilateral movement: We tend to think of working both arms at once (bilateral movement). But you can give a workout a real punch by taking that movement unilateral, working one arm at a time. The important thing would be to think of this in a progression, beginning with a barbell bench press, then moving to a dumbbell bench press, and finally progressing to a single dumbbell bench press.
Below, I have created progressions for the movements for each muscle group. I'm going to walk you through from the easiest form of the movement up through the tougher versions. It's up to you to determine where your strength level lies within those progressions. To figure this out, I recommend starting at the lowest progression and working your way up the chain. When you reach a movement that you are unable to complete with proper form, drop back a level and work on the previous exercise until you build your strength with that movement and are able to attempt the next level.

Here are the exercises, grouped by movement type and listed from easiest to hardest:

With dumbbells or a barbell: Machine supine bench press < Smith  machine bench press on flat bench < Flat bench barbell chest press < Flat bench dumbbell chest press < Stability ball dumbbell chest press < Flat bench single dumbbell chest press < Stability ball single dumbbell chest press

With a cable machine: Standing double arm cable chest press < Standing single-arm cable chest press < Standing double arm cable chest press on single leg < Standing single-arm cable chest press on single leg

Cable seated row (with back support)< Cable seated row (without back support) < Standing barbell bent-over row < Standing dumbbell bent-over row < Smith machine inverted rows < Standing dumbbell bent-over rows (alternate arms) < Standing single dumbbell bent over rows (complete set with a single arm) < Single arm smith machine inverted rows

Floor hip bridges < Stability ball hip bridges < Sled leg press < Body-weight squats < Dumbbell squats (weights at sides) < Barbell back squats < Barbell front squats < Single-arm dumbbell squats (one weight at shoulder level) < Single leg floor hip bridges < Single-leg body weight squats

These are only examples, of course, and you may want to skip some exercises in this progression, or add others to extend the development curve. And you can definitely create your own progressions. Remember, for any exercise, you will make it more difficult by making the environment in which you do it more unstable, either by changing your base of support or by moving unilaterally. Continue to introduce new variations to create progressions, and you should stay off that dreaded plateau!

About Billy Polson: Billy Polson is co-founder of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Billy is a certified Exercise Coach through the Paul Chek Institute as well as a Certified Personal Trainer through The National Academy of Sports Medicine. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want Billy and Diakadi co-founder Mike Clausen to answer? Send an email to