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The Smart Program Design Series: Incorporating Variety & Making Progression Seamless

The Smart Program Design Series: Incorporating Variety & Making Progression Seamless

Part 1 – Stances & Setups

By Sarah Rippel, Author of The Ultimate Group Training System & Build ‘N Burn



If you are finding yourself banging your head against the wall in an attempt to come up with ways to keep your clients engaged, first off, STOP assuming they need constant variety! I have spoken with numerous trainers who had the belief that their clients needed each and every workout to be different. The common fear amongst these trainers is that their clients would get bored & possibly quit training. This assumption needs to go bye-bye & my goal with this series is to help you get rid of it!


Here’s a nifty fact: you can modify the stance/set-up of virtually any exercise to create variety & progress your clients seamlessly from “easier” to “harder.”


Take this scenario: your client has been kicking ass at kettlebell 1-arm presses in half-kneeling. You have been having them perform the press on the same side as the forward leg. Now it’s time to move them forward, and you are thinking of having them learn how to press in a standing position. Once they begin their first set, you notice they are having trouble pressing the KB overhead without alignment between their rib cage and pelvis. This was not an issue when they performed presses in half-kneeling. You realize you may need to take things back a few steps to ensure they are able to maintain this alignment & continue to build strength with good positioning.


Let’s outline a progression for the KB 1-arm press. The main factor that is manipulated in this progression is stability via stances/set-ups. Starting in a more stable position just makes sense if the goal is overall body control, alignment, & building a solid foundation for strength to be built for the long haul! A factor to consider with regard to this specific exercise is that the 1-arm press is a unilateral movement; therefore, it is inherently less stable than a 2-arm press in terms of its impact on the body. There will be more of a challenge to the frontal plane because of this!


Sample Progression: KB 1-Arm OHP

  1. KB 1-Arm Z Press with Hips Elevated – for those who are unable to fully straighten their knees, elevate the hips by sitting on something that is 2-6 inches, such as a SandDune or a stack of bumper plates. Flex the quads HARD and pull toes to shins! Options are a straddle sit position or with legs straight out in front. It is important that the legs can be fully extended in either position!

  2. KB 1-Arm Z Press – performing this variation on the floor requires full extension of the legs. If the movement cannot be performed without compensation through the spine (usually rounding of the low back), either go back to hips elevated OR move on to another variation.

  3. KB 1-Arm Press in Half-Kneeling (“forward” side) – perform the press on the same side as the forward leg first, as it is a more stable position.

  4. KB 1-Arm Press in Half-Kneeling (“down” side) – perform the press on the same side as the leg that is down. I tend to spend more time with clients here compared to the previous step! Why? I feel it ties in with cross-body patterning, as the press is performed on the side opposite of the forward leg. This cross-body patterning is inherently functional to human movement, as it is found in crawling and the gait cycle. Through this, we tie the shoulder and lat to the opposite side hip & glute, with the thoracolumbar fascia serving as the connection!

  5. KB 1-Arm Press – Seated on Bench – here we are moving on to another seated position but one that will allow for heavier loading.

  6. KB 1-Arm Press – Standing – the goal here is for the press to be performed without compensation “downstream.” In other words, if a solid press can be done without extension from the lumbar spine &/or losing alignment between rib cage and pelvis, rock on!

  7. KB 1-Arm Press – Feet Together – bringing the feet together is a way to modify the symmetrical standing position while introducing a challenge to the muscles that resist unwanted frontal plane motion! We are narrowing the base of support here, so the concept of “rooting” the feet may become even more obvious, as well as engagement of the glutes. I have found this position to be super-effective at helping people understand just how impactful these factors are in creating overall stability!

  8. KB 1-Arm Press – Sprinter/Staggered Stand (“back” leg side) –moving on to an asymmetrical stance further challenges the frontal plane stabilizers. This position may be advantageous long-term for those who have a history of low back pain. The asymmetrical nature of the stance neutralizes the pelvis & in turn, can reduce extension at the lumbar spine. In addition, we have the impact of connecting the shoulder and lat with the opposite-side hip/glute through the thoracolumbar fascia. This is what cross-body loading is all about!


Keep in mind that where a person “resides” within this progression is going to be specific to them, and they may spend more time in one variation than others. Furthermore, they may be able to skip a step and move on to the next variation. In addition, there are other nuances to this progression that could be included, and you may have some of your own you feel are appropriate for the client. Once a person has mastered a progression such as this one, they may go back to the “easier” stances/set-ups & repeat with heavier loading. Another option is to use the “easier” stances in warm-up circuits. It is up to you to help them navigate the course!


Another thing to keep in mind is that this progression focuses just on the 1-arm press. If we really want to go down the rabbit hole, we can incorporate 2-arm, alternating-arm “bottom up” or seesaw, alternating-arm “top down” variations in the mix! Consider the fact that these are also forms of progression as well as variety. Being able to move seamlessly from one variation to the next gives your clients the ability to “connect” the variations & prevents huge jumps in difficulty, thus reducing the learning curve! Win-win!

When introducing a new or more challenging position, keep in mind that although the exercise itself is the same, the stance/set-up isn’t. These may seem like small changes, but to some people they may be a big progression. When moving from a more stable position to one that creates a challenge in the frontal & transverse planes, a familiar exercise may feel completely different! To keep the learning curve at the right level, it may make sense to incorporate the new position into a workout in small doses. In other words, it may be best to have a client perform their first set using the new stance/set-up and then the remaining sets in the more familiar one.


For example:

KB 1-Arm Overhead Press in Standing with Feet Together – 1 set x 8-10 reps/side

KB 1-Arm Overhead Press in Standing – 2-3 sets x 8-10 reps/side


It is important to note that if one is desiring to load up a movement as heavy as possible, the setup should be the most stable one possible.


With regard to our KB Overhead Press example above, the best options would be seated on a bench, standing, or for some, standing with feet together. The kneeling positions do have their place, but for heavier loading it is usually best to go with more traditional set-ups. 

It bears mention that having a blend of bilateral and unilateral exercises is important in any program for the average able-bodied person! Basic bilateral movements allow you to add sufficient load to make strength gains, while unilateral exercises promote overall balance. Just as you wouldn’t want to do a ton of bench pressing while abstaining from horizontal and vertical pulling movements, it’s wise to perform unilateral exercises to complement heavier barbell work.


So, there you have it – if you were finding yourself focusing solely on loading as a means of progression, hopefully I have given you some ideas! Being able to provide your clients an ongoing stimulus through challenging the body’s ability to engage and stabilize is huge! In addition, it will keep them interested & encouraged as they are able to experience progression for the long haul.



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Other articles by Sarah Rippel:

SGT Workout Breakdown- Program 4  Part 1

The Conditioning Based Warm-Up: 10 Minute EMOM

SGT Workout Breakdown Program 4 – Part 2

Metabolic Circuit Revamp V1.0

Unconventional Cardio: Strongman Conditioning Circuits

Density Training for Metabolic Conditioning & Strength Work

Using Cluster Sets To Spice Up Strength Programming

Wall Ball Conditioning Workouts+4 Tips to Improve Wall Ball Technique(Videos)

Using a Tempo Focus with Build ‘N Burn Workouts

Speed Ladder + Static Core Continuous 30-Second Circuit Version 2.0

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