A Common Sense Guide To Exercise Selection & Progression

For anybody outside of the coaching space (and many within it), programming takes on an air of mystery.  It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the big, wide world of movement:

  • Should I front squat or back squat?
  • That guy on Instagram is doing handstand presses...I should too, right?
  • What about crawling...that's good too, isn't it?

There's no need for confusion and overwhelm.  Let's start with the basics.

Put The Program In Perspective

If we don't put logical boundaries on what's acceptable within our program, then we're bound to spiral out of control into CrossFit-esque "anything goes" style randomization.

Ask yourself first: Where am I now?

What's your baseline?  Take an honest assessment of your current strength, mobility, and technical baseline.  Get clear on what it is you're working with currently.

Next: Where do I want to be?

Where do you want to end up?  What new capacity do you want your body to have?  Deadlift triple bodyweight?  Drop into the splits?  Do a backflip?  Get up and down from the floor with ease?  

It's trite but true: if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.  Get clear on where you want to end up, and your relevant exercise options narrow considerably.

Next up: Does this exercise move me closer toward those goals?

The body gets good at what it does most often.  If you want to improve your deadlift, there's only a certain amount of carryover you'll get from pull ups.  And vice versa.  The law of specificity reigns supreme here.  If you want to press into a handstand, endlessly kicking into the wall might get you closer, but you'll have to do quite a bit of pressing at some point too.

Choosing Your Movements

Ok, so now you know where you are, where you want to be, and what the relevant exercises are.  Let's see if your body can handle those exercises.

First: Do my joints work the way they need to?

If you want to practice handstands, you better be sure your wrists can move into 90° of extension and your shoulders can reach all the way overhead.  If you want to squat, your ankles need adequate dorsiflexion, and hips need to be able to flex too.

A safe way to check your prerequisites is to see if your joints can actively move into the range of motion you need to access.  Can you actively extend your wrist 90°?  Can you actively flex your ankle?  If not, you don't control that range of motion.  And when you don't control that range of motion, you do not pass "Go" without setting yourself up for injury.

Next: Can my joints handle load in this position?

If you're going to be adding load to your joints, let's do a safety check.  Can they maintain and ramp up an isometric contraction within this position?  That is: can they resist movement?  If they can resist an external force and maintain position, you'll be good to go for loading them up.

Then: Can I handle the eccentric (negative) portion of the movement?

In terms of safe loading our progression is isometric-->eccentric-->concentric.  In this case once you know that your joints can maintain position with an isometric load, let's see if they can slowly move through the eccentric portion.  This would be slowly lowering into a squat.  Or slowly descending in your pushup.  If you can control it on the way down, then you can practice on the way up too. 

Purposeful Progressions

When it comes to progressing a movement, there's a lot of fuss made over sets/reps, tempo training, and endless variations.  Let's make it simple.

First: Master volume.

The simplest route to make progress is to increase training volume.  If you can do 8 clean repetitions, can you do 12?  15?  For some goals (absolute strength) this might not be as applicable, but higher repetitions of a movement will help train connective tissue to keep up with muscular strength gains.

Next: Increase intensity.

The next variable to explore is intensity.  Begin by reducing volume and increasing intensity.  This could be adding external weight, or changing the angle of the movement (particularly for bodyweight strength skills).  External weight often follows a linear progression.  Changing your angles will take some getting used to, and it can be quite humbling.

Finally: Address complexity.

We spend a whole lotta time in linear movements, facing forward for endless repetitions.  But life isn't lived in straight lines.  The next variable to tinker with is complexity (this often increases intensity by default).  Can your squat shift into a deck squat?  A Cossack?  A pistol?  Does shifting your stance change the movement?  How about training on different terrain?  There's a lot of wiggle room here.

That's It (sort of).

Hopefully this pulls back the curtain on the "mysterious" art of programming.  If you can answer these questions and consider these variables, you'll find it significantly easier to craft a safe and successful program.

This is by no means an exhaustive look at programming.  We could certainly get into technical nitty-gritty, but these concepts are the foundation of intelligent program design.  

Of course we can't forget the old saying: any coach who designs his own program has a fool for a client.  You can make a lot of progress sifting through program details on your own, but there really is no substitute for working with a knowledgable coach.  A good coach will help you bring awareness to current limitations, identify appropriate movement interventions, and streamline the exercise selection progress.

Good luck, and get to it!