How-To: Scale Exercises (Progressions and Regressions)

Well hello, hello!  We’re truly in the 101 level of fitness – this is important, because any time you want to build a strong structure, you need to start with a solid foundation.  So as tempting as it may be to skip over the “boring” basics, getting a handle on these elements is going to set you up so well for your future fitness success.  I know personally that it can be really tempting to grab the latest and greatest workouts endorsed by your favourite fitness influencers or celebrities, but what if those programs don’t meet your current fitness level?  There’s a chance that the workouts are too easy for you OR too hard.  I want to introduce ways to modify the level of an exercise, either making it easier (this is regressing the exercise) or harder (this is progressing the exercise).  And guess what?  My tips do NOT mention decreasing or increasing the amount of weight OR the number of reps (you’ve got those approaches in the bag, I bet!).  Let’s bring on the basics of exercise scaling!  As always, you can check out my Instagram video series on this topic, or see my videos on Facebook.  Looking for more information or tailored advice specific to you?  Contact me via e-mail any time to arrange a complimentary chat!

Plane of Movement

The first area is the plane of movement. At the easier end of the spectrum is movement in the sagittal plane (i.e. moving forward, like walking in a straight line). Then we have the frontal plane, moving side to side. Imagine side shuffles. Then we have the transverse plane, where rotation occurs. Finally, the most challenging is combining transitions of movement across multiple planes.  An “around-the-world lunge” combines movement in multiple planes with forward and reverse lunges occurring in the sagittal plane and side lunges occurring in the frontal plane.  Adding a torso twist to the lunge adds movement in the transverse plane.  Be aware that making these changes and transitions will require good joint stability.  Taking time to build up the stability and range of motion of joints is important – the former refers to “structural tolerance” (how well your body’s structure can accommodate the demands exercise places on it) and can be improved by incorporating exercises to specifically strengthen these structures with appropriate load and progression over time – and the latter refers to flexibility, which can be improved by a consistent stretching routine (see my discussion on flexibility as one of the primary components of fitness).

Surface Stability

The second area for exercise scaling is the stability of the surface on which you are performing the exercise.  Consider a totally flat, stable surface for your exercise, like a gym floor.  Imagine performing a body weight only squat on this surface.  Then consider an uneven terrain, like a lawn. Next would be something like a Bosu ball and finally something like a wobble board.  Each surface would require recruitment of more stabilizing muscles in addition to the major working muscles for the squat itself.  You might also need to increase your mental focus to stay balanced, working on secondary components of fitness in terms of mental capability and balance. No change in load, but the exercise gets harder!


Similar to surface stability, the third area is your stance. Consider a fully supported position like a “quadruped” where all four limbs are supported. Next, a tripod, as in a seated shoulder press with both feet on the floor. Then standing on two feet to perform the press, and finally balancing on one foot.  In each, you have to engage synergistic stabilizing muscles to maintain balance, making the exercise harder without changing the weight/load.


Resistive Equipment

The fourth area is the type of resistive equipment used. Start with gravity-assisted devices to make the exercise easier (regression), like an assisted dip or pull-up machine.  Tubing (resistance bands) can also be away to take some of the body’s weight when performing an exercise and these portable, lightweight devices are great for stretching and strengthening exercises.  Then consider body weight-only exercises. Next you can add load with a barbell, a single fixed lever.  Dumbbells require greater control than a barbell for the same total load because you have to maintain control over two independent weights instead of just one, and kettlebells are more challenging still due to their shape/centre of gravity. Then cable devices and finally suspension trainers where you are required to stabilize your body in space in addition to the movements of the active working muscles.



Generally, for cardiorespiratory exercises like running, a faster tempo will make the exercise harder.  However, for resistance exercises, you can often increase the difficulty by slowing the tempo down.  Consider taking longer in the eccentric phase of an exercise (this is the phase of an exercise where the muscle lengthens vs. the concentric phase where the muscle shortens with a contraction to move the weight), as you return the weight to the starting position (for example, lowering the weight after a biceps curl). Taking more time here can really make you “feel the burn.” Also, inserting a pause between the eccentric and concentric phases of an exercise can increase difficulty level and also reduce the likelihood that momentum is assisting the movement (consider adding a pause at the bottom of a squat or at the top and bottom of a biceps curl, to reduce arm swinging).

Now you are a pro on ways to custom-tailor workouts to YOUR current fitness level using exercise scaling.  You are now your own best personal trainer!  Please let me know if you’d like to learn more about any area or if you’d like to work with me to design a workout that is going to be custom designed for YOUR best self.

Have a fit day!


2 thoughts on “How-To: Scale Exercises (Progressions and Regressions)

  1. Pingback: Five Essential Elements of Efficient and Effective Program Design – The Golden Graham Girl

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s