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Intensity Progressions For Optimal Pain-Free Performance

Feb 11, 2020
 By Ben Eisenmenger 
Provide your athletes with the right training stimulus and keep them injury free by understanding how to apply the right intensity using appropriate exercise selection.

Beyond Developmental Progressions

As a professional fitness coach, it's important to be armed with a variety of progressions to meet any client or athlete where they are in their movement and fitness. Using progressions and regressions will keep them progressing or help them find better pain-free fitness. 

Advanced coaches understand how to use developmental positions to put the client or athlete in the position that allows them to perform best. This typically starts from supine (laying on the back) and progresses ultimately to standing. The level of difficulty is determined by the amount of external support that is given. 

For example, a quadruped position has 6 points of contact (2 hands, 2 knees, 2 feet) vs half-kneeling only has 3 points of contact (2 feet, one knee) vs standing only has 2 (2 feet). If the athlete struggles to control their posture or breathing during the standing version, revert to a position that provides more external support. 

 Sample Developmental Position Progression
  1. Supine/Prone
  2. Quadruped (all 4s)
  3. Tall kneeling
  4. Half kneeling
  5. Split Stance (front and side)
  6. Standing
  7. Single Leg
  8. Hanging/Jumping

This system is great for helping new trainees and those who are coming off an injury or have a history of pain, but what about the athlete that doesn't have any glaring limitations or pain? Going through the postural progressions may be smart, but if the goal is to improve fitness, maximize strength, or just want to mash in the gym, then you will probably fall short and see that person walk out the door.

Load Your Athletes Appropriately

However, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It wouldn't be smart as a coach to pick the movements that will provide the most workout tonnage just to keep the athlete happy and seeing results. Instead of only using the developmental positions to progress an athlete, using intensity progressions will help set up a safe program that still delivers results.

The intensity progression is using exercises in an order that applies the least weight for a pattern to the most weight. This can involve using one arm exercises, alternating, eccentrics, isometrics, etc. Start the program with the lighter version of the pattern to practice breathing mechanics and general movement capacity, then apply these skills as the heavier progressions are added to the program.

Let's use the bench press as an example. The bench press is the granddaddy of horizontal pushing exercises. The most weight can be applied to the upper body in the bench press, so it is the final progression of this pattern. Providing a young, healthy lifter with bench press in the program will instantly put the most weight on the shoulders and will make it hard to finish an extended training block stronger and healthy. 

Starting with a lighter horizontal push like dumbbell bench press, one-arm floor press, or pause bench will bring the weight down just enough to keep the shoulder fresh and allow the other elements of the pattern to be practiced. For example, 3 x 8 bench press with 200lbs is 4,800lbs of work, but 3 x 8 pause DB bench press with 80lb dumbbells (really hard!) is only 3,840lbs of work. This still provides a challenge to the athlete, while not immediately applying the most tonnage. Use this time with the dumbbells to practice shoulder position, breathing strategies, and a controlled pace. This is the point of using regressions; don't load it up and try to go super Saiyan!

 Sample Horizontal Press Progression
  1. Push up
  2. Weighted/Incline Push up
  3. One Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
  4. Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press
  5. Dumbbell Bench Press
  6. Incline/Floor Bench Press
  7. Pause or 1 ½ Rep Bench Press
  8. Bench Press

*I use these progressions on all my people, committing a couple of extra months to the final movements or moves that are most challenging to them, then start over with heavier weights. Doing this from block to block can provide a year or more of training direction. Simple programming is repeatable programming!

 Modulate Intensity

The intensity progression can be used in reverse on movements that are not the primary focus of a program, too. If the focus is to improve an athlete’s deadlift, then loading up the squat pattern throughout may stall the results or cause injury. Let's say the athlete has been consistently performing low bar back squat, which allows for the most weight to be used in the squat pattern. As the program works towards heavier weights on the deadlift, it would be smart to regress the squat pattern to a lighter version to allow the focus to stay on the deadlift. Transition to exercises like front squats, Zercher squats, 2KB squats, etc. to keep the body and nervous system fresh and ready to smash new deadlift records.

Here is an example of the squat progressions and a sample 10 week deadlift block with regressing squat intensity:

 Sample Squat Progression
  1. Body weight  squat
  2. Goblet Squat
  3. Double Kettlebell Front Squat
  4. Zercher Squat
  5. Front Squat
  6. High Bar or Safety Bar Squat
  7. Pause or Box Back Squats
  8. Low Bar Back Squat
 Sample 10 Week Deadlift Block     
Week Squat Focused Day Deadlift Focused Day
1 1. Back Squat 4 x 8 1. Trap Bar Deadlift 4 x 8
  2. Sumo Deadlifts 3 x 6 2. Romanian Deadlifts 3 x 6 @ 501
  3. Split Squat 3 x 8e 3. SSB Step Ups 3 x 10
  4. Tempo Goblet Squat 3 x 60s @ 303 4. Farmer's Carry 4 x 50 ft
2 1. Back Squat 5 x 8 1. Trap Bar Deadlift 5 x 8
  2. Sumo Deadlifts 4 x 6 2. Romanian Deadlifts 3 x 6 @ 501
 . 3. Split Squat 3 x 8-10 3. SSB Step Ups 3 x 10
  4. Tempo Goblet Squat 4 x 60s @ 303 4. Farmer's Carry 5 x 50 ft
3 1. Back Squat 5 x 6 1. Trap Bar Deadlift 5 x 6
  2. Sumo Deadlifts 4 x 6 2. Romanian Deadlifts 3 x 6 @ 501
  3. Split Squats 3 x 10 3. SSB Step Ups 3 x 8
  4. Tempo Goblet Squat 5 x 60s @ 303 4. Farmer's Carry 6 x 50 ft
4 1. Front Squats 4 x 5 1. Deadlift 4 x 5 @ 75%
  2. Block Deadlifts 3 x 6 2. Leg Press 3 x 6 w/3s Pause
  3. SSB Lunges 3 x 8 3. SSB Step Ups 3 x 6e
  4. Yoke Carries 5 x 50 ft 4. Heavy Kettlebell Swings: 8 reps every minute on the minute x 8
5 1. Front Squat 4 x 5 1. Deadlifts 4 x 5+ @ 75%
  2. Block Deadlifts 3 x 6+ 2. Leg Press 3 x 6 w/3s Pause
  3. SSB Lunges 3 x 6-8e 3. SSB Step Ups 3 x 6e
  4. Yoke Carries 5 x 50 ft 4. Heavy Kettlebell Swings: 8 reps every minute on the minute x 10
6 1. Front Squat 4 x 3 1. Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 80%
  2. Block Deadlifts: 1x5RM 2. Leg Press 3 x 6 w/3s Pause
  3. SSB Lunges 3 x 6e 3. SSB Step Ups 3 x 6e
  4. Yoke Carries 5 x 50 ft 4. Heavy Kettlebell Swings: 6 reps every minute on the minute x 8
7 1. Double Kettlebell Front Squats 4 x 3-5 1. Deadlift 1 x 3 @ 85%, 3 x 3 @ 75%
  2. Deficit Deadlifts 3 x 3 (80% of DL day) 2. Leg Press w/Bands 3 x 5
  3. Single Leg Leg Press 3 x 8e 3. Double Kettlebell Step Ups 3 x 6e
  4. Box or Belt Squat w/Bands 5 x 3 (fast) 4. Glute Ham Raises 2 x 8
8 1. Double Kettlebell Front Squats 5 x 3 1. Deadlifts 1 x 2 @ 90%, 3 x 2 @ 80%
  2. Deficit Deadlifts 3 x 2 (80% of DL day) 2. Leg Press w/Bands 3 x 5
  3. Single Leg Leg Press 3 x 8e 3. Double Kettlebell Step Ups 3 x 5e
  4. Box or Belt Squat w/Bands 5 x 2 (fast) 4. Glute Ham Raises 2 x 8
9 1. Double Kettlebell Pause Squats  1. Deadlifts 3 x 1 @ 95%
  2. Pause Deadlifts  2 x 3 (70% of DL day) 2. Leg Press 2 x 5
  3. Single Leg Leg Press 3 x 6e 3. Goblet Step Ups 3 x 5e
  4. Seated Box Jumps 5 x 3 4. Glute Ham Raises 1 x max reps
10 1. Double Kettlebell Pause Squat 4 x 3 1. Deadlift: Establish new 1RM
  2. Pause Deadlifts 2 x 2 (75% of DL day) 2. Celebrate your PR by consuming a mass amount of calories! 
  3. Seated Box Jumps 4 x 3  

The program above illustrates the opposing intensity of squats and deadlift. It can also be noted the assistance work phases into exercises that create less stress on the spine and nervous system. Bringing the intensity down on everything besides deadlift, the main goal, will allow for max performance on testing day.

Use the Right Exercise at the Right Time

It is important to progress/regress to exercises that are appropriately challenging for the athlete in the right times of the training blocks. The developmental progressions are fantastic for navigating a novice lifter through the early part of training and especially for anyone dealing with pain. However , throwing light loaded postural progressions at a healthy athlete isn't going to provide the stimulus to elicit change.

When pain is not a problem and the athlete is ready to go, try the intensity progression instead to keep the gains coming. Choose the exercises that fit the program goals and allow for safe progression of load and positional demands.

 

About the Author

Ben Eisenmenger

Be Strong KY

CPT, SFG II

Ben Eisenmenger is the owner of Be Strong KY gym and coaching service in Northern Kentucky, where he resides with his wife and three children. Ben uses a blend of barbell, Kettlebell, strongman, and unconventional methods to help everyone train smarter, feel better, and get stronger. He regularly competes in strongman and Kettlebell competitions at a national and global level. An experienced coach of over 10 years, Ben offers coaching and programs that can be found at www.bestrongky.com.

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