Progressing Movement

As promised, it’s time to begin our discussion on progression. In upcoming articles I’ll go into more detail on how to specifically progress the hip hinge, squat, push, and pull movements. For now I just want to give you a primer on progression and why it’s so important.


The Basics

Progression is how we build skills from the ground up, mastering the basics to earn advancement. This helps limit the amount of novel information you have to juggle, allowing you to focus on improving a couple of important cues at a time. Failure to progress properly can result in errors becoming ingrained into your motor programming, which is pretty much the opposite of what we are trying to achieve.

In the context of human movement, progression isn’t about finding exercises that are easy to do; it’s about operating at the edge of your ability (as Gray Cook is known to say). This means that you should be able to perform the movement correctly, but only just barely. You must make the distinction between challenging exercise (consistently yields improvement) and difficult exercise (consistently yields failure). A very real hierarchy of challenge exists in human movement, and your respect for this hierarchy is going to have a huge bearing on your athletic longevity.


Movement Skill and Movement Capacity

There are a couple different elements of movement that we can progress in training: skill and capacity.  Movement capacity refers to your conditioning – how much strength, speed, and endurance you can effectively put behind your movement. Movement skill refers to your ability to effectively assume, stabilize, and move between the various positions involved in a movement.

Here’s the deal: you need to have adequate skill in a movement before you try to enhance your capacity, meaning you should be able to perform the unloaded version consistently well. When you begin challenging movements using speed and loading, hidden errors will suddenly jump to center stage. This grants fresh insight into your personal movement issues, and thereby something that you can work on to improve as an athlete (and you’re all athletes to some degree, remember). If you have movement problems that are apparent in a simple, unloaded movement, not only does that represent untapped performance, but it’s also a red-flag for future injury.

Of course, your performance as an athlete is going to be jointly influenced by both your skill and capacity for movement. In fact, being able to perform a movement well under imposed demands represents a higher level of proficiency all in its own. These two things should be developed in parallel; as proficiency increases so too should the demand of the training conditions.


How Much Progression is Necessary?

The short answer is as much as is necessary for you.

Your minimum progression goal should be to achieve the movement skill and capacity necessary to support your daily activities, whether that means lacrosse practice five times weekly or carrying the groceries up your front steps. It is not always necessary to progress your athletic skill farther. If you have arrived at a level of movement competency that you are satisfied with, and just want to maintain that and improve your fitness at that level, that is certainly your prerogative; but make sure that you are prepared to handle life’s physical challenges. (That said it doesn’t hurt to be a little over-prepared).


Recognizing Movement Complexity

As I mentioned previously, there is a challenge hierarchy in human movement. In order to be able to select exercises that are appropriate for you, and will therefore give you the best training results, you need to develop the ability to judge the demands of an exercise.

Kelly Starrett of San Francisco Crossfit (whom you may know from the MobilityWOD) has a system for classifying movement based on the positions, transitions, and connection involved in a movement. Rather than butchering his work, I will recommend you check out this video. You can find more information on the topic in his new book, Becoming a Supple Leopard.

Here are some general tips for judging the challenge level of a movement:

–          Having fewer points of contact makes stabilizing a movement more challenging, and may require more strength (a single leg squat, or pistol, is much harder than a standard squat).

–          The more upright you are, the greater the demand on the torso (a front squat requires greater trunk stability than a back squat).

–          Movements that require explosiveness are more difficult than their controlled, connected counterparts (a clap push-up is more advanced than a standard push-up).


Recognizing Your Own Level

It’s time for a slice of humble pie. This is the part where you have to take a step back and try your best to objectively judge your own athletic skill.

Be brutally honest with yourself here, because all too often training injuries can be traced back to big-headedness and athletes (or coaches) misjudging their strengths and weaknesses. If your deadlift looks like trash, you have bigger problems than how much weight is on the bar. If you are not completely aware of what constitutes a good squat, maybe it’s not quite time to start that intense plyometric program.

Now we need to talk about regression, taking exercises back a step to make them more appropriate for you. This typically involves eliminating some confounding aspect of the movement to limit the number of cues you have to focus on. If you find yourself constantly over-extending on your deadlift, despite genuine attempts to brace properly, it would probably benefit you to regress back to some bridging or quadruped drills to learn how to control your pelvis and spine without the added complexity of the standing position (not to mention the 315lbs you decided to load on the bar).

Regression isn’t always necessary, of course. Many athletes are going to have the awareness to integrate cues well and learn movement at its fully functional level; but in cases where an individual demonstrates a severe positional shortcoming (whether it is a mobility, stability, or patterning problem), regressed versions of movements provide a more controlled corrective environment to begin retraining movement at a fundamental level. Regressions are also appropriate for the severely deconditioned individual or someone who lacks fundamental movement skills and can’t quite grasp the movement cues they are being given.



Progression is something that takes patience and discipline, as well as awareness of and respect for the skill hierarchy in human movement. Think critically about your exercise choices and consider the level of skill required to perform them properly. Be honest with yourself when assessing your own level of ability and make exercise choices that support that assessment; this is the quickest and safest way to achieve next level. Success in athletics is not just about pushing yourself; it’s about knowing exactly where and how hard to push.

Next time I’ll go over some progression and regression ideas for hip hinging movements (the “deadlift” category).

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