Progression and the Hierarchy of Needs

Good programming is essential but is still secondary to an understanding of quality movement and intelligent progression.

Recently I came across a fascinating piece detailing Peyton Manning’s work ethic and unparalleled focus while training under Tommy Moffitt at the University of Tennessee. His training folder was not just a plan he followed. He interacted with each and every rep prescribed, intensely detailing the performance of each set, and using the margins for additional evaluation and self-recommendation.

Manning’s obsessive attention to detail even before his pro career began is illustrative of the qualitative approach that is the most important factor the success of any athlete, and indeed any workout. The foremost principle my athletes learn is that it is not what you do, but how you do it.

Lay the Foundations of Proper Movement

Good programming is essential but is still secondary to an understanding of quality movement and intelligent progression. Before I free my athletes to progress themselves, they receive a long indoctrination into my philosophy on progression and the hierarchy of needs.

I begin with fundamental movement patterns and isometric hold circuits. For example, they’ll perform four rounds of the following circuit, adding 5 seconds each week:

  • Counterbalance squat holds
  • Push up position plank (PUPP)
  • 1-leg glute bridge holds (switch leg each round: R, L, R, L)
  • Lying external rotation superman squeeze
  • Split squat (switch forward leg each round: L, R, L, R)
  • Side plank (switch sides each round)
  • Hop in place to land x5 (practice landing soft with chest over knees over toes)

From here, I progress to light weight, controlled tempo sets of fundamental movements like the kettlebell goblet squat, the kettlebell RDL, the push-up, and the inverted row. These holds and the emphasis on slow negatives create the stability that cures many movement issues that may look like mobility problems. They create deep kinesthetic awareness of where the body is in each moment, and how small shifts of emphasis can make a huge difference.

This approach also creates an understanding of how intensity can shift with a position. For example, elevating the hands for the push up makes it less intense, while elevating the feet can raise the intensity. Time under tension is also a great way to shift intensity without a change in load. Slow negatives and isometric pauses make things much harder.

The Hierarchy of Training Needs

All training is progression. This principle is the backbone of every program, every workout, every exercise, and every rep. If you are on a program, trust the developer of that program. A principled, effective plan is not that hard to find. Once you have that plan or that coach, it’s time to commit to manic, focused execution of the details. This is a greater indicator of future success than any fancy exercise or programming genius. The basic principles of training and fundamental movements are what get results. Cut the fluff and dial in the focus.

These details are best understood within my framework for progression and hierarchy of needs. This lesson precedes all autonomously guided programs for my athletes. It is the most important lesson for the success of any training program. When you understand and can execute according to this hierarchy of needs, all training results are magnified. Remember, it’s not what you do; it’s how you do it.

Priority 1: Execute the Movement Perfectly 

  • If you cannot, regress the movement until you can

Priority 2: Execute the Prescribed Tempo

  • Each rep has three phases: eccentric (lowering, or muscles lengthening), isometric (hold or midpoint), and concentric (raising or muscles shortening).
  • If there is no tempo, assume a 2-1-* (2 second eccentric, 1 second isometric pause, max speed concentric). For pulls, assume a *-1-2 tempo.
  • Concentric speed is important! If it slows down, then regress.
  • If you cannot execute the tempo, then regress.

Priority 3: Increase Intensity

  • When you can execute priorities 1 and 2 and do two extra reps on the final set, you can progress intensity. Poorly executed reps do not count.

General Methods of Progressing Intensity:

  • Reduce stability: 1-legged push ups or BOSU ball push ups
  • Change the angle: Taking hands from an elevated box down to the floor for push ups
  • Add load: Adding a 10lb plate to your back for push ups, or 10lb to a barbell front squat

General Methods of Regression:

  • Increase Stability: Wider feet on a push up
  • Change the angle: Take hands from a 12in box to an 18in box for push ups
  • Reduce load: Take a plate off your back for push ups, or reduce front squat load by 10lb

The Qualitative Approach for Training and Life

The goal in writing a workout is to find the perfect training intensity for each set. This ensures maximal benefit from the training, with minimal risk. We want that “Goldilocks intensity”—just right. While I may program three sets of five reps, my athletes know that their goal is to achieve two extra perfect reps on the final set. If the athlete executed seven perfect reps on the third set, they would move up 10lb the next week. In this way, my system works like a modified rep range system.

This system also demands far greater focus from partners. It’s an expectation that partners hold each other accountable to push for extra reps when execution is good, and to not count reps that aren’t executed properly. Each athlete is expected to understand this philosophy, coach it to others, and enforce it to support their partner. If I do my job, I’ll hear athletes repeating my axioms to their partners:

Jimmy: “You never sacrifice form for weight.”

Johnny: “Thanks… Coach Trotter” (full of sarcasm)

Without a qualitative approach and disciplined interaction between what you achieved last time and what you do this time, progress will be limited. Athletes who drag through sessions in an unfocused, uninspired manner will often ask me what else they can do. I could suggest additional exercises or mobility work, but rather than additional work, what they really need is a deeper focus and more intentional, qualitative approach to what I’ve already given them.

Understanding this qualitative approach not only amplifies the impact of training but creates mental toughness and teaches the focus necessary to succeed in any endeavor. Harnessing your attention and intention in each moment is what allows mentally strong performance. Athletes must focus on what they can control, and pick the right performance key in each moment. They should absorb feedback, but then return to this focus one play at a time, one sprint at a time, and one step at a time. When you understand this training approach, you have acquired a template to tackling challenges in the gym, and in the rest of life, as well.