Determining Levels and Progression in Metabolic Conditioning


Determining Levels and Progression

It is essential, as a trainer, that it is always kept in mind while training that there will be many different levels of clients to be trained. A trainer will be working with beginners, intermediate and advanced clients. Therefore, the approach used in training will need to be adjusted to each type of client.  The goal as a trainer and coach is to ensure that clients are always moving through models of progression, getting stronger and fit as time moves on.

If progression is lacking in a program, not only will results not be seen, but also highly likely that the client would become bored and may discontinue the program entirely. Progression will help to avoid this. In the traditional sense, progression refers to progressively overloading the body’s systems, while increasing the training stimulus over time. This causes fitness adaptations to occur as the client continually becomes stronger.

It is important to always take into account where the client currently is and what progression models would be of choice to use. Initially, they should start at a progression level that is fairly easy to perform. They should then slowly work up from that original level. Caution should also be used in starting too soon into a progression that is more intense than a client can tolerate can potentially lead to injury, overtraining, and burnout.

When progression is utilized in a correct manner, it will help to promote long-term benefits as well as safety in the training environment. There are many ways to modify the progression that is being given. This can be done by adding more load or resistance to a given exercise program. This is a great way to help a client gain more strength and build muscle.

Increased weight load will not always be a viable option, and the trainer may need to consider alternative ways of adding more difficulty to the exercise program. Other methods include changing the level of exercises being performed (making the exercises harder to complete), altering the tempo of the exercise, changing the combination of movements to make it more challenging and intense, or by adding more exercises overall to the workout protocol.

By using these tips and tricks, a trainer should find that there are an endless number of ways that they can build intensity into the workout programs being prescribed to their clients. Some coaches may also choose to increase the overall frequency of their training sessions, which alone will create more overall intensity in the program.

This section will focus on looking at the many factors that determine how to progress a client through each workout given to them. The progression is based on their overall fitness level and should be introduced in a systematic and gradual manner.

Remember, there only needs to be one element changed in the training routine. Sometimes a trainer may change more than one, however, it usually will be just one factor that gets altered.

Looking at the main factors that can provide progression:

Factors That Determine Exercise Progression

  1. Load
  2. Stability/Balance
  3. Tempo
  4. Range of Motion/Level Change
  5. Combo Movements
  6. Exercise Complexity/Skill
  7. Randomization
  8. Number of Exercises
  9. Timed Intervals/Rest Periods

Looking at each of these items a little more closely:

#1: Load

There are a couple of ways that one can determine progression when it comes to load. First, realize that there is absolute loading as well as relative loading.

When discussing ‘absolute loading’, one is talking about an increase or decrease in the amount of weight being used. For instance, a trainer might increase the load by five pounds, ten pounds, or fifteen pounds. This clearly will make the exercise more challenging for the client, challenging them on the strength front.

Generally, for upper body lifts, smaller increments in the progression is recommended.  Using 2.5 pounds (if available) is a good starting point and can be slowly built upon over time.  Most people are unable to jump a full ten pounds on upper body movements initially, as this is a significant change and would not be conducive to their strength levels.  On lower body lifts, a 10-pound jump may be more appropriate, as these are larger muscle groups and can handle the heavier loading pattern.

As a trainer, if you are primarily focused on building strength and looking to increase load as often as possible, you will still want to take the loading increments as small as possible, regardless of the exercise the client is doing. This is what will help them maximize their strength and get their body adapted to lifting the heavier load on a regular basis.

On the other hand, referring to ‘relative loading’, this is in reference to an increase in the way an exercise is being performed, which leads to more total weight being lifted. A push-up is an excellent example. For instance, a beginner might do a push-up with the knees down on the ground, as this reduces the total amount of body weight being pressed up. It makes the exercise easier. To advance, the knees are lifted and the full push-up is performed.

From there, they may progress to any number of more advanced push-up exercises. Wall push-ups, hand elevated push-ups, feet elevated push-ups, and even the handstand push-up, can be done. Each of these is going to require a slightly different total weight load on the muscles, meaning a change in stimulus and intensity is applied.

It may not be possible to increase relative loading for all exercises, so often it’ll be either relative or absolute loading increases being applied.

Keep in mind that constantly focusing on loading as the sole means of progression with a workout can lead to a faster burnout in the athlete/client, than other methods of progression.  Be sure to monitor the athlete/client closely when using this. If they start to look slow and sluggish, it may be a sign they are becoming over-trained and would benefit from having more time off.

#2: Stability and Balance

The next method of progression is through stability and balance training. This is an excellent focus for training athletes, as any improvements they gain are often going to directly transfer over to their sport of choice.

When focusing on this method of progression, the trainer looks for ways to change the position the client is in and to make a move more difficult.  For instance, consider the lunge. If the client is performing a walking lunge with dumbbells down by their side, try having them place a barbell across their back instead. This will alter the overall stability required in the movement and slightly change the loading pattern. As a result, they will get more glute activation and thus, progress with the exercise.

The change created may also come from a change in the overall base of support being utilized.  For instance, rather than doing a stationary lunge, consider having the client move into a split squat with one foot elevated behind them.  Now they are balancing on that single leg, thus making the exercise more challenging and calling into play more total stabilization muscles.

The use of equipment may help make these progressions easier. For instance, a wobble board or a Bosu ball can both be utilized to destabilize an individual and force their muscles into working harder as they execute each exercise.

Doing something as simple as reducing their base of support while they perform an exercise can add progression to an otherwise basic move. For example, if they are doing lateral raises, have them do lateral raises on a single leg. Now they need to balance while still moving that weight up to the sides of their body, increasing the intensity.

Another example would be a four-point plank versus a three-point plank versus a two-point plank. As you take away balance points that are in contact with the ground, the exercise becomes more and more intense.

Likewise, moving a body part can also provide a similar challenge. For example, having the client cross their hands over their chest while doing a squat for a relatively challenging exercise. To make it even more challenging, they might put their hands at the side of their head, doing a prisoner squat. For more of a challenge, they might lift their hands up to the top of their head, doing an overhead squat, which is the most challenging squat they can do before adding weights. In this example, the closer their arms are to their base of support (the center of their body), the easier the exercise becomes.

Generally, it is advised not to have a client attempt balance and stability progressions until they have had at least a few months of training. They should be completely comfortable with the basic training movements before implementing these changes, otherwise, an injury may result.

#3: Tempo

Temp is the next way in which to build a natural progression into a workout routine.  This refers to the speed at which the exercise is executed. If a client wants to work on the overall power generation capacity, the tempo is likely the progression factor to be the most concerned.

There are two basic ways that one can progress by altering tempo in any given exercise. They can either increase the speed of the movement being performed, which in essence will work on the overall power capacity of the individual, or they can focus on decreasing the speed of the movement, which is going to target muscular endurance.

Both methods will produce great results, although they will produce very different results. This is one example that clearly illustrates just how important it is to consider the athlete or client in question when determining their method of progression.

Some clients would benefit far more from slowing the exercise down while others would benefit more from speeding the exercise up. This is not to say you cannot include both for variety sake, and for the ‘general fitness’ client this can be a very wise move. But consider that if the client is an athlete who participates in speed and power sports, clearly increasing the tempo is going to be more sport-specific.

To illustrate this principle at work, consider the squat. If the goal is to focus on increasing the tempo, think about having the client do a regular squat and from there move into a speed squat. Next, they would then do a drop squat and then finally progress to a jump squat.

On the other hand, if the need is to decrease the speed, use the push-up as an example.  The client might do a standard push-up and then do a pushup with a brief hold at the bottom.  As they get stronger, have the client slowly increase this hold time until they are held for five seconds at the bottom and taking five seconds to raise their body back up.

Utilizing tempo progressions does tend to take a bit more time and effort for the trainer to plan and implement, but when done correctly, it can have significant results.

#4: Range Of Motion/Level Changes

The next manner of adding progression to a workout program is through range of motion and level changes. This is most often going to be used with beginners who are starting out and may often not be able to complete an exercise as-is.

For example, the beginner who cannot perform a push-up and the goal is to get them strong enough that they can confidently complete one whole push-up without assistance. The progression might be first having them do just a ¼ push-up with the knees down. From there, they move into a ½ push-up with the knees down, then a full push-up with the knees down. Then they do a half push-up with the knees elevated and finally, they transition to the full push-up done in standard form.

This principle can also be used to bring on a high overall state of fatigue during an exercise, adding progression to a more advanced trainee. For instance, take 21’s. The client performs 7 bottom half curls, 7 top half curls, and then 7 full curls. This will really help the build-up of lactic acid in the muscle tissue, which will eventually train your client to withstand this better.

The same principle can be applied for squats as well as lunges. Just about any exercise done can utilize half reps for added intensity. Do keep in mind, that often it is best to do these when they are not performing the heaviest compound lifts in the program. Use half reps when doing lighter work. They may still be doing compound movements, but they are not the clients’ full-out sets, where the heaviest weight possible is being lifted.

#5: Combo Movements

Combination movements are always a fun addition to any workout program to add more challenge and to keep things interesting.

With these movements, you’ll be combining multiple movements into one fluid movement pattern without stopping in between. Think of them like a superset only rather than doing all reps of one exercise and then going on to the next exercise, you are doing one rep of one exercise and then one rep of the other exercise and then repeating.

For example, you might do a squat to a clean to a press. Or, you might perform a squat to a lateral squat to a jump squat. Another example would be a barbell deadlift into a barbell row.

You can easily transition from each of these movements into the next, so it’s easy to make that transition without a problem.

These are a great progression model for increasing your overall cardio output as the heart rate will typically be kept up throughout the protocol. Similar to a superset, they provide excellent metabolic conditioning benefits and will help you take your training to the next level.

#6: Exercise Complexity/Skill

When looking at the factor of progression involving exercise complexity and skill, it would be important to consider how a few variables can be changed to increase the coordination and sequencing requirements of a particular exercise. This will involve the actual skill of movement or the skill required to use a specific tool to complete a similar exercise. Essentially, it is a gradual progression from one exercise to another that involves a similar movement pattern.

For example, a client may start with doing bodyweight get-ups and from there transition to dumbbell get-ups.  They would then move into kettlebell get-ups and finally do sandbag get-ups.  With each of these progressions, the tool that was being used to complete each exercise became progressively harder, thus adding more intensity to the workout routine.

Another example of this would be starting with bodyweight squats and then moving into dumbbell squats, and then finally into barbell squats. The barbell squat is what is going to allow them to perform a maximum level of loading on the muscles, thus will provide the greatest overall challenge possible.

#7: Randomization – Coach DOS and Chaos Speed Training

Randomization is an excellent progression technique to use when it is sensed that a client may be becoming bored with their workout routine and not fully engaging themselves and giving maximum effort. With this, the trainer might have them randomly move in multiple directions, having them change directions at it is called out. This way, they don’t know what to expect or what’s coming at them and as a result, have to “stay on their toes,” so to speak throughout the entire session.

This technique tends to work very well with athletes when they are going about their sporting performance. With this, they are never going to know what is coming next.  They need to be ready to react to whatever comes their way and randomization can assist with this.

Having the client perform random sequences of exercises or random variations of the same exercise can also be tried.  This method of progression will involve the trainer working more as a coach, as they will have to be constantly calling out these changes, so both the trainer and client will be engaged during the session.

#8 Timed Intervals

Another great way to add progression to a client’s routine is to use timed intervals.

This has been discussed at length previously, so it is anticipated there is a good understanding of what timed intervals are. To add a model of progression to these, the trainer can simply increase the overall interval times being utilized making the overall workout routine more intense.

Some general interval guidelines include:

  • Beginners: 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest
  • Intermediate: 45 seconds of work followed by 15 seconds of rest
  • Advanced – 50 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest

These are just guidelines, and should not be taken as absolute, but it gives a general idea of how to structure intervals and have clients progress through them. Keep in mind that the actual exercise in question may also influence the overall progression model with intervals being utilized.

#9: Number of Exercises

The last way that in which to build progression into a program is through the total number of exercises in the circuit being performed. Beginners will often respond better to a lower number of exercises in the circuit while more advanced trainees can handle more exercises total, which will make for a longer overall circuit.

In the beginning, it’s best to have trainees focus on just a limited number of exercises and work on getting very good at those before they start adding in too many exercise variations. The trainer needs to avoid too much to focus on, or they may struggle to stay up on what is being taught and maintain good form.

As a general guideline, beginners can manage 2-4 exercises in a circuit.  Intermediate trainees can handle 4-6 exercises in a circuit. More advanced trainees can handle 8-10 exercises per circuit.

The type of metabolic workout being performed will largely determine the actual exercises being utilized, as well as how many are utilized. Realize that these numbers are by no means set in stone. For instance, if an advanced client is doing 3-4 very intense exercises and repeating that circuit 10 times, this may be far more challenging than performing 8-10 exercises that are easier in nature and doing it just 4 times through.

Always look at the big picture and determine their exercise count from there.

Getting Started

There you have the many different factors that go into determining how to apply progression with clients. Typically one would not use all of these factors at once, but rather, use just one or two at a time, allowing the client to adapt to the exercise being given before moving onto the next progression model.

Switching it up over time will ensure the client’s body keeps guessing as to what is coming up next and also ensures that they are not getting bored with the ‘routine’.

Variety is key when training clients, as this is what keeps them engaged and moving forward. Hopefully, now you have a much better idea on what can be done for clients to help ensure they are making the progress they desire.

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