You may have heard the term “Micro-progression” utilized before when it comes to subtly advancing an exercise. You may have also just sub-consciously dismissed the notion and brushed it off since current exercises were accomplishing exactly what you wanted at the time, or you embraced the concept because you were stuck in your training program when all other variables seemed to be in order.
However, regardless of where you currently are in your training program, at some point, you are going to encounter micro-progressions either by intent or default. This is especially true if you are years into the iron game and your metrics are advanced according to standards. You can alter sets, reps, volume, and tempo’s, and the only thing you might not have thought to really put much stock into and tinker with was your exercise selection. In this case and others, you may need to do so to help stay motivated and on par with your pre-established training goals.
What are Micro-Progressions?
So what is a micro-progression exactly? A micro-progression could be defined as any slight or small adjustment to a movement that lends to a competitive advantage in accomplishing your training goal or building that movement.
Examples include; moving from a half-kneeling or kneeling position with your military presses to a standing variation to further challenge and test co-contraction abilities of your entire core and raise your center of gravity which adds intensity by nature. Another example would include removing elevation in your deadlift to enhance range of motion and add intensity to your deadlift to prepare and test the lower back area and too, hopefully return or begin standardized deadlifting. There are countless examples of subtle micro-progressions, and they all have the potential to improve the skill of any level of lifter regardless of experience, skill, or training goal.
Micro-progressions ultimately can be categorized into three distinct categories along the exercise continuum. Category number one would be any “pre-requisite” exercise.
MICRO-PROGRESSION OPTION #1
Exercises that can serve as a test or beginning level drill to assess both the readiness of standardized or advanced movements to come later on, gauge the health of the target involved musculature and movement patterning capacity, and/or provide an adequate training stimulus to the lifter in question before other exercises are necessary to accomplish his/her given goal.
*Scap exercises to prepare for overhead work
*Lateral band walks, goblet squats, and assisted walk to prep barbell squatting
*Single leg deadlift w/RNT for hip stability, strength, and control purposes
*Suitcase Deadlifts or Sumo Squats
*Assisted Chinups or Pullups or Lat Pulldowns
*Modified Inverted Rows
*Pushup progression or Floor Pressing
For example, if you have a raw newbie come in and start squatting, there technically isn’t a need to prescribe standard straight bar squats and deadlifts to the program to yield a superior result.
Several squat and deadlift variations would work almost regardless of the training goal (i.e., fat loss, muscle building, general health, etc.). You could also make a strong argument for some preliminary preparatory-based movements. Goblet variations and hex bar drills can satisfy muscular development, groove proper technique, reduce injury risk, build both types of coordination, improve general conditioning, and more than standardized movements would do. This same scenario above would apply to all of your classic movements, such as bench pressing, military pressing, rowing, pulling, squatting, and deadlifting, which everyone should be doing at this point in their program on some level.
MICRO-PROGRESSION OPTION #2
Traditional exercises that serve as a progression when pre-requisite exercises have been adequately performed and no longer provide a sufficient enough challenge to allow further improvements in physical functioning.
*Barbell Squats or Deadlifts
*Bodyweight Chinups or Pullups
Standardized drills are how most trainers, coaches, and enthusiasts would elect to program because it has been where most attention has been given culturally. There is nothing wrong with beginning a program with standard movements, especially if the lifter has experience with them before. However, you definitely shouldn’t overlook the prerequisites since they are still effective and preparatory in nature. For example, if you are an aspiring bench presser but you lack in anterior upper body size, strength, and coordination, you would more than likely be far better off working with dumbells. This is because activation levels in the chest can be higher, you will hone coordination due to “The Bilateral Deficit” phenomenon, and you can still develop considerable strength in the upper body. Not to mention you will have leverage benefits that can impact the shoulder favorably and reduce injury risk as long as you are focused and your form is on point working with dumbells.
Quite frankly, intermediate-level standardized exercises can allow for progressive overload and adaptation indefinitely. You can always circle back to when you have met and revisited prerequisites and need to back off of advanced movements or need a change in your routine for both psychological and physical purposes. Whatever they may be.
The highest level of movement to master will enable development and really challenge the lifter’s ability to perform to the highest degree possible.
*1-3 RM Barbell Squats or Deadlifts or Bar Variations (Buffalo, Cambered, etc.)
*1-3 RM Bench Press
*1-3 RM Military Press
*Loaded Chinups or Pullups with different implements (Bar, Rings, TRX)
*Loaded Inverted Rows with different implements (Bar, Rings, TRX)
Advanced exercises can help maximize development in all target muscle groups and take coordination and technical demands to the next level to allow for further gains. The room for variation and overload is very high and changes in weight, training tool and body position can really affect leverages and create unique training environments that intensify so many elements of the lift and take things to the next level.
Please be warned that these movements are technically reserved for advanced-level athletes and lifters who have effectively exhausted development in the two previous categories and are ready to improve from advanced movements to further develop standardized movements or arrive closer to their genetic ceiling.