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Progression, Regression or Modification?

by Meaghan posted March 5, 2013

One of the difficulties many new trainers face is figuring out how to select the most appropriate exercises for a given person’s goals and contraindications while still creating a progressive program. And given all the different fitness modalities we now have available for training, it’s no wonder there’s so much confusion. Without a solid understanding of biomechanics and kinesiology, and the ability to think critically about how a given piece of equipment or technique variation changes these things, selecting exercises becomes a crap shoot.

Not good. That’s why it’s so important for personal trainers to understand things like moment arms, lines of force and injury mechanisms when planning programs for today’s clientele with today’s equipment.

For example, let’s take an exercise that a lot of trainers seem to like: Medicine ball walking lunges with rotation.


Before I go any further, I want to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Eric Cressey in that “there are no contraindicated exercises, only contraindicated lifters.” Well, except for maybe upright rows…Those are pretty much contraindicated for everyone – at least everyone with a skeleton.

But I digress.

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with the walking lunge with medicine ball rotation; it’s just that it happens to be a very complex exercise for a number of reasons, and tends to get used as fancy “variation” of a lunge to “spice up” workouts when in fact it’s actually a pretty advanced progression.

Let’s start with the lunge. Even a “basic” forward lunge is actually a pretty advanced exercise when we consider forces and knee mechanics. As the foot hits the ground, we have to put the breaks on to decelerate the forward momentum of the body, stop, and then change direction as we push back up to stand. And underneath the surface, the distal end of the femur is pushed forward into the back of the patella, potentially causing shear (or “gliding”) force.

In the reverse lunge, however, the femur moves away from the patella. The working leg also stays fixed, whereas in the forward lunge, it moves. This actually makes the reverse lunge a regression, and an important exercise to master before moving to the forward lunge. I talk more about that HERE. The walking lunge is even more advanced because of the increasing momentum with each step.

For someone with worn cartilage on the back of the knee (a condition known as chondromalacia that could eventually lead to arthritis), however, the reverse lunge is the more appropriate variation (if the lunge is going to be trained at all, that is). So, in some instances it serves as regression, while in others it may be the more appropriate variation and the last step in the lunge progression – preceded by mastery of the less dynamic split squat.

Now let’s look at what the addition of trunk rotation does to the walking lunge. First, it creates a rotational force (known as “torsion”). While training to resist torsion is important, if the exercise we choose is too advanced and we wind up creating too much torsion instead, chances for injury increase. And when you then hold a weighted medicine ball in your hands with outstretched arms, the torque that we need to resist also increases. Now add in the most recent “cool” modality for the exercise: The ViPR.


A longer lever with more weight distributed away from our center – the axis of rotation here – produces even greater torque. What typically results is an inability to maintain stability and resist these increasing forces, and we see rotation start to occur at the knee as well. And while the knee has a few small degrees of available rotation, it is predominantly a hinge joint – which means it’s really only supposed to flex and extend.

The trunk really isn’t supposed to rotate a lot either – at least not from the lumbar spine. The medicine ball (or ViPR) walking lunge with rotation ideally trains thoracic rotation, but if the client doesn’t lunge to 90 degrees to lock out the lumbar spine and/or has crappy posture, core stability and/or T-spine movement, this ain’t gonna happen.

I think you get the point by now: Make sure you know what is and isn’t appropriate for the person in front of you, and follow your progressions before adding in fancy variations just to keep things interesting. Most clients care much more about safety and results.

Some modalities serve as great variations for exercises, however, without necessarily being progressions or regressions. Take resistance bands, for example. Elastic resistance provides a unique stimulus because the tension increases throughout the range of motion. We call this “variable” or “accommodating” resistance. So with a chest press, for example, the triceps receive more load than the muscles that horizontally flex the shoulder:


This isn’t so when the same exercise is performed with cables. The band is a better option for someone who specifically wants bigger or stronger triceps, and a safer modification of a press when there’s an injury at the shoulder. You can read more about that HERE.

The bottom line here is that modalities and exercise variations can serve as progressions, regressions or simply modifications for a specific goal or contraindication; it just depends on how you look at it and what you’re working toward. The point is that you do look at it, and you do know what you’re working toward. That’s what programming is, and that’s our job as personal trainers. It requires continual goal setting and assessments, and careful analysis of the effects of forces. If you understand your ABCs and remember the WHY behind the WHAT, appropriate exercise selection and program design become much easier.

Filed under: exercise instruction, exercise programs, workout tips

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