What do you do when an exercise is too hard?

From time to time, an exercise may be too difficult to perform with good technique. As former Master SFG Dave Whitley was famous for saying “I don’t care how quickly, how heavy, or how many times you can do something poorly.”

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Choosing HOW to make an exercise easier can have some important consequences on your training results (or lack thereof!). In personal trainer parlance, this is called “regression.” This post will break down the two primary ways to regress an exercise, and explain why we prefer Skill-Based Regression to Weight-Based Regression. First, let’s go over what each of these are.

Weight-Based Regression
Regressing an exercise based on weight is probably the most obvious way to make an exercise easier. For example, if someone is having trouble with an exercise while using 100 pounds, perhaps they might be more successful with 80 pounds. Another instance of this type of regression would be the use of bands on bodyweight movements. One might use a band for assistance (to lighten the load) on pull-ups, dips, or similar exercises, as in the photo below.


Skill-Based Regression

Skill-based regression means using an exercise that is similar, but easier, to the goal exercise. It may be simpler, more stable, or less dynamic than the original exercise. For example, if one was unable to perform a ring-dip, a push-up could be an effective way to build strength in the relevant musculature. When the trainee has mastered the pushup—building strength in the motion of pushing while keeping a stable trunk—he might be ready to try the ring dip again.

Another example is the kettlebell swing vs. the kettlebell deadlift. Both involve the same “hip hinge” motion. However, the swing takes places dynamically, and therefore allows less room for error.

So which is better?
Like so many questions in fitness, the answer to this is “it depends.” At Catalyst, our first choice is usually to regress based on skill first. Building a broad base of skills develops movement competency, and ensures that we have mastered the prerequisites before moving on to more advanced exercises. Focusing on skills rather than weight also helps to develop mindfulness in the way we perform an exercise, and encourages better technique. Taking some weight off the bar and continuing to do something poorly rarely serves a client’s goals. Breaking an exercise down into its component parts, and mastering those before progressing, is usually a better strategy.

Still, sometimes things are just too heavy and need to be made lighter. Knowing the difference comes with experience.

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