In the simplest terms, progression and regression are opposites; if we progress an exercise, we make it harder, while if we regress it, we make it easier. It’s programming 101, but it’s only partially true. There's a difference between making things harder and making things better.
In reality, the relationship between exercise progression and regression is—and should be—dynamic, each one affecting the other. We’ll get to exactly how these two training variables interact in a bit, but first it’s worth summarizing how we traditionally understand and organize human movement.
And The Categories Are...
One of the simplest and most common ways to categorize exercise is to break things down into movement patterns. There are a number of ways to skin this particular cat, but here’s one example of how we might classify a given exercise:
Lower Body Push (Squat/Knee-Dominant)
Lower Body Pull (Hinge/Hip-Dominant)
Upper Body Vertical Push
Upper Body Vertical Pull
Upper Body Horizontal Push
Upper Body Horizontal Pull
Some movements are a pretty neat fit, while others could fit several categories (see: Turkish Get Up). Allowing for this, it’s a nice, simple way for us to ensure balance in a training plan, and lets us integrate new exercises in an intelligent manner.
Using the categories above (or any variation on them) gives us a good starting point. We can distinguish between Split Squats and Dumbbell Rows, Kettlebell Swings and Sled Drags—but what do we do within each category? How do we separate a Single Leg Deadlift from a Power Clean, or a Cable Row from a Barbell Row? The traditional answer is to put each exercise on a spectrum, ranging from easiest to hardest.
This all seems pretty tidy, and it’s about as far as the traditional model of progression and regression can take us. But it begs a few important questions.
Give and Take
The spectrum model may be best described as a blunt object; it’s not particularly subtle or refined. With it we can easily distinguish between a Bodyweight Squat and a Bulgarian Split Squat, but what about a Hang Clean and a Single Leg Deadlift? Which is the progression, and which the regression? The reality is that the traditional model all but ignores the client’s goals, and may be—at least partially—to blame for the growing tendency for trainers to blindly give their clients more and more complicated exercises with no thought as to where they’re going with things. (It’s also worth noting that “this is gonna look awesome on Instagram” is not a particularly valid reason for programming a particular exercise.)
Training plans are built on adaptation, and we have limited adaptive resources at our disposal. We can’t get bigger, stronger, leaner, faster, and more mobile in equal measure. At some point we need to pay the physiological piper. Adaptation comes at a cost, and exercise progression mirrors this.
There's a classic example of this relationship in strength and conditioning: as intensity increases, volume decreases. It's one of the fundamental tenets of linear periodization. To illustrate the point, here’s a simple example:
Deadlift, 3x10 @ 375#
Total volume: 11,250#
Deadlift, 5x5 @ 425#
Total volume: 10,625#
Even with the increased number of sets, the total volume of work performed in the second example declines. Intensity and volume are simply training variables, no different than complexity, stability, density, speed, or tempo.
When one variable progresses, others regress. Increased complexity leads to decreased intensity, volume, power, and speed (among others). It’s the cost of doing business, and it’s unavoidable. Failing to recognize this relationship and account for it will limit your client's ability to adapt and expose them to increased injury risk.
Any and all progressions should serve the client's goals. Sometimes progress is as simple as adding weight to the bar or pushing out an extra rep or two (intensity/volume), and sometimes it means lightening the load and replacing a bilateral exercise with a unilateral one (instability). Progressions should drive progress, and progress is dependent upon the goal.