Two subjects confuse most people: equipment access and results. These misunderstandings are intertwined. Results rely on consistent strategic progression. Progression has little to do with available equipment. And consistency usually decreases as we rely on more access or more equipment. In this past year, we've facilitated thousands of hours of virtual appointments and seen that some of the people whose programs were predominantly or exclusively in-home had the best results. Consistency reigns supreme. Relying on limited equipment makes for greater consistency. Greater consistency means one can compound the progression effect better.
Let me clarify. There are five modes of progression for a single rep of any given exercise: range of motion, instability, explosiveness, pause (in mechanically disadvantageous portions of a movement), and the last one is resistance. The third and fourth are ends of the tempo spectrum. Strength coaches study these modes of progression intently, never getting hung up on equipment. Dan John once said he was his absolute best as a trainer when he only had one single 16kg kettlebell. That’s not because the kettlebell is inherently superior to all equipment or that there’s something magical about 16 kilograms. It’s because as we LIMIT the equipment we must think more precisely about how to appropriately regress or progress movements.
Keep in mind that this is just the single rep. We aren’t even referencing energy systems or workload. If you create more demand in multiple energy systems and/or increase workload, that too is a progression even if resistance is reduced. Exercise “work” can be peripherally defined similar to the physics definition. Work = force X distance. In twenty reps the distance travelled is four times that of five reps (that is, if range is equal). Thus, the workload continues to progress from five to twenty reps (re: physics) all the way up to a 3/4 drop in resistance. Granted, if your range of motion is also greater, technically 20 reps at 1/4 the resistance would be MORE work performed than 5 reps at 4 times the resistance, and the stimulus is GREATER with a 75% reduction in bar weight.
In physiology, however, we have more at play than simply F X D, because with greater range of motion, not only do we increase distance, we also decrease mechanical advantage both at the lever ratios (your femur is "longer", that is, farther from the fulcrum, from an engineering perspective, when in a deep squat versus a partial squat) AND at the lengthening of muscle fiber cross connections (the more the muscle is lengthened or "stretched" the less capacity it has). This is also where we discover that “resistance” is not the same thing as “weight.” The resistance you experience and effective force you must produce at 95 degrees of knee flexion is more than at 85 degrees even though the weight on the bar is the same. Just below parallel versus just above parallel are practically different exercises altogether.
All that said, it’s pretty easy to envision a half squat with 500lbs for 5 reps on a stable surface and stable setup with no pause or explosiveness as actually a huge REgression from a 45lb squat at full range of motion for 20 reps with pause at 90 degrees and a hop at the top. READ THAT AGAIN. Five partial reps with 500lbs is less work, less stimulus, and less application toward human movement than twenty reps with a pause and jump with JUST THE BAR AND NO ADDED WEIGHT. If we make the surface less stable or stagger the stance, the progression may actually be too large to handle for a seasoned athlete who regularly squats 500lbs. In fact, I've seen exactly this. One of my first movement assessments as a new coach in 04/05 was with an advanced athlete who regularly squatted over 500lbs. When I ran him through a circuit WITHOUT ANY WEIGHTS, including an unloaded squat progression-regression sequence, he collapsed at two minutes into the assessment, got up after a few seconds, and went to the restroom to puke.
A 400lb squat at the same tempo on the same surface at the same angle of depth for the same number of reps is indeed a progression from a 300lb squat with all the same variables. But if any other variable is enhanced dramatically, resistance can go DOWN a lot and the progression is still immense.
What happens with most people is they get distracted by vast facilities and a broad array of equipment, never taking the time to understand HOW TO PROGRESS. Ask veteran trainers or long-seasoned strength coaches, and they can provide ample examples of people who kept using heavier weights and more equipment WHILE GETTING WORSE.
Top athletes in the world who make consistent progress have about 5 exercises they frequently train and return to. Most importantly, they’re consistent. The best of the best do not bog themselves down with 700 variations. And they may train for 20 years, day in and out, with nothing but an Olympic barbell.
Contrast that against many influencers. The ones who’ve looked exactly the same for the past 2 years, 5 years, 10 years are continuously uploading hundreds of different routines and exercises. Zero proof of concept. No evidence of improved strength or skills. No substantial athletic PRs for months or years or maybe ever.
What I’ve seen since moving to a private space is that 10-to-1 those who train here consistently have performance improvements which absolutely crush the results of gym goers at big facilities. Since expanding more and more into the virtual coaching, I see a linear correlation between program simplicity and outrageous improvements.
The fewer the items, the more intense the effort and focus can be. The more controlled the variables in the modes of progression, the more assured we are of results. This rule has no exception. A guy who once benched 185lbs for 6 reps and now does 225 for 8 may have done nothing other than shorten his range of motion, increase the stability of his setup, and increase the tempo so that he experiences less time under tension. This could be a massive REgression. Add incline, decline, hammer strength, cables, pulleys, and other variants, and he may actually be throwing away his pressing force production capacity each week. Meanwhile, a client who has NO EQUIPMENT can explode with ability when strategically implementing modes of progression. If she started with partial range of motion wall pushups for 20 reps and is now at the floor doing full range of motion single arm SLOWER for 5, we know she is producing more force. We know it’s a PR. We know it will elicit more progress. No gym necessary. No equipment necessary. No distractions.