Programming with Purpose – Variations

As fitness professionals, we have just seconds to figure out what our clients are able to do and the options they may need. You never know who is going to show up or what state they are going to be in. The golden rule to being a successful fitpro is you HAVE to be able to adapt at a moment’s notice and be able to offer different variations.

We need to program progressions in order to get fitter. Progression is not just about volume and load. Adding more sets, weight, and reps isn’t always the answer. When you are designing programs that involve strength or bodyweight exercises you have a whole host of opportunities. By understanding how to vary the factors of an exercise, you will be able to make sure your clients can keep moving. And by giving them options, they can choose the level that is right for them and keep them coming back.

If you cannot meet the needs of your clients, they WILL leave, because not everyone can do what we are asking of them.

What the Research Shows Us

It’s all about the bell curve. Statistics show us that typically 68.2% of our clients will be able to do a base move with proper form. About 27.2% of them will need either a progression or a regression. Around 2.15% of our clients will still need even more of a challenge to achieve the appropriate stress response required to gain fitness, and 2.15% of them won’t be able to do even a regressed move properly

Some adjustments are instinctive. Too hard, use lighter weights. Or, if it’s too easy they’ll grab the heavier weight. Adjusting load can be done across most exercise modalities but if the resistance selection and equipment are limited or restricted, or if injuries are present, variation options must be provided.

Foundational Movement Patterns

Developing sound foundational movement patterns and challenging clients through various training methods is the single most effective way to develop strength, build muscle, and prevent injuries.

Each muscle has its set functions. Occasionally movements are innovated or popularized but for the most part, nothing is new. Almost everything you do every day is athletic in nature and consists of one or a combination of these movements.

These are Six Foundational Movement Patterns humans are able to perform:

  • Push: Concentric contraction which moves weight away from body: push up, chest press, overhead, triceps dips
  • Pull: Concentric contraction which moves weight toward body: pull ups, row variations, biceps curls, military crawl
  • Squat: includes lunge variations and jumps. This includes single leg work.
  • Hinge: Involves hip flexion and extension. May or may not involve knee flexion and extension
  • Loaded carry: includes farmers, waiters, rack, and press walk
  • Rotation: the ability to rotate or stabilize and avoid rotation is key to our lifestyles.

Knowing these are all the ways that the human body can move, how can we make enough valuable exercises so people are interested, challenged, and keep coming back? We add variations.

Methods of variation provide you with unlimited options and choices to change or adjust foundational movement patterns. A progression is advancing a movement to increase the technical difficulty in order to elicit a higher training response. A regression is a movement that allows the participant to get a similar training response while training in a way that is appropriate to their developmental level or current readiness.

Methods of Variation

Here are seven methods of variation to ensure your exercises and options are effective, efficient, and relevant to every able-bodied person that comes to train with you.

Lever Length






Focal points

By understanding and utilizing any of these 7 methods of variation, you have the opportunity to instantly create dozens of exercises based on a single exercise or movement. The idea is to get you to start thinking critically about what works, what doesn’t, and how you can change it. Our next few blogs will focus on these variations to help you understand how you can program with ease.

Our role is to eventually take our clients beyond what we are able to do for them. We need to teach them to be their own advocate. How to move not just for today but for the rest of their lives. We need to be able to empower our clients to make exercise choices and variations that will ultimately make our job that much easier as they will learn to self-select the exercise option that is right for them at that moment.

About the Author

Karyn Silenzi delivers continuing education to companies and fitness professionals on a global scale. As a PRO TRAINER for canfitpro, Karyn provides fitness certification training for personal trainers and fitness instructors. She is also a LIV North Master Trainer for Canadian markets, and a North America Master Trainer for Team ICG and Life Fitness Academy.

Karyn is an international presenter, author, and podcast host, She is also the Fitness Director at Edgemont Athletic in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.


If this topic interests you, then please check out Fitness Education Online’s Senior Fitness Certification.

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