Never Stop Lifting: How to Use Progressions and Regressions to Make Any Program Work for You

Regressing lifts might be one of my superpowers. I’ve written many times about the numerous physical challenges I experience and have to work around in order to keep lifting part of my world. And when my body was bigger, and my fitness levels were nearly nonexistent, most strength training programming was way over my current skill level to achieve. But the only way we build fitness is to work within our current abilities and build from there. So, I learned to adjust programming to work on the same skills but within my current fitness level. Here’s a few common challenges and how I make a program work for me:

If a movement doesn’t feel good to do yet:
Reduce the range of motion
Do it with support by holding onto a chair, shelf or other stable surface
Substitute between bilateral (two arm/leg) and unilateral (single arm/leg) movements
Reduce the weight or do bodyweight
Slow it down and do tempo or pause reps

If a movement requires more flexibility/mobility than you can do yet:
Reduce the range of motion
Try a different style of the same movement (like goblet squat vs. back squat)
Try doing the movement later in the workout after your body has warmed up

If you aren’t strong enough for the movement yet:
Do it bodyweight
Instead of barbell use dumbbells
Substitute another movement you can currently do that uses the same muscle groups
Do fewer reps and/or sets

Having an understanding of the target muscles of a movement is key here. When I can’t do a movement, say pull-ups (which are still elusive for me), I would search online for other movements that work the same muscles, in this case of the back and shoulders. Lat pulldowns with cables or resistance bands became my usual substitution. Within those, I could play with different grips, sitting versus kneeling, single arm and other variations to keep it interesting and to help me progress. I don’t think you need to know everything all at once. Start with the exercises as prescribed, and when it’s not working for you, take it one exercise at a time and look up alternatives to give a try.

A comfortable understanding of progressions can go the other way, too, when you’re ready to challenge yourself more. Take any of the advice and invert it–for example, increasing the range of motion, like doing deficit push-ups, or switching to unilateral moves like pistol squats when you need a more challenging squat movement. As you increase your familiarity with these sorts of strategies, you can challenge yourself even with fairly limited equipment. During the early days of the COVID lockdowns, I found myself making do with a pair of 20-pound dumbbells and some resistance bands, and I still got meaningful workouts done!

I think the most important element to any of this is having a mindset that working where you’re currently at is good enough and still meaningful work. You have to work at your current abilities to build to a stronger one. If you’re having to cut back for a while, doing something will maintain more of your strength than doing nothing. Continuing to do something when you are injured, or under more stress than usual, or have other setbacks will serve you better than stopping entirely and hoping to get back into again down the line. Do something. Reinforce your identity as a person who lifts weights, who can be flexible and do the work, regardless of the challenges you’re currently facing. Keep it on your weekly calendar to the extent that you can and know that you are doing what you need to do more later when you’re able. Learn to be consistent with your lifting, whatever the current challenges, and you can have superpowers, too.

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