Exercise Progression & Rehab Programs

A year or so ago, I put on a CPD evening for our part time staff at the football club discussing exercises and the clinical reasoning behind developing a program (needless to say I got talking about the use of clams for a quite a while – clam blog). In this presentation, I started drawing my reasoning process onto powerpoint using some coloured blocks to help visualise the theory that I was trying to describe.

The theoretical model was recently published in Physical Therapy in Sport and I thought I would use this blog to try and discuss it in a less formal way than the writing style allowed in publication.


The model (here) is designed to be fluid and adapted to any individual by any level of clinician. Let me quickly introduce the components:

A theoretical model to describe progressions and regressions for exercise rehabilitation (Blanchard & Glasgow 2014)


  • The triangular blocks (1) represent the fundamental exercise, the core ingredient that will remain throughout the progression. The arrows running up the side of the triangles represent an ongoing progression throughout the rehab process such as speed, duration, repetition etc. So basically, something that can’t be affected by the stimuli that are added or removed. If you add an unstable surface to an exercise, you can still progress by increasing the duration.
  • The coloured blocks represent a stimulus that will help the exercise progress. This can be one of two things;
  1. Internal – something that the patient has to focus on intrinsically. A decreased base of support for example, where the patient must focus on the balance element of an exercise.
  2. External – the addition of something to the exercise that takes the patients focus away from the movement or action they are performing – adding a ball to a running drill, or a verbal command that initiates a change in direction.

The blocks are interchangeable and can be added / removed at the clinicians discretion.

  • Adding a new block, which will progress the exercise, is accompanied by a regression of the “gradient” on the blue triangle. Creating a step-like progression across the model. As you progress with an internal or external stimulus, its important to bring the difficulty levels back down, so reducing repetitions or speed or duration. This allows the pateints to adjust to the new stimuli without fear of re-injury or task failure. When teaching a child to ride a bike with stabilisers, you don’t take them off and ask them to cycle at the same speed you did with them on. For that reason, you wouldn’t get someone going from 30 reps of a hamstring bridge straight into 30 reps on a single leg bridge as a progression. You would decrease base support and reduce reps to allow adaptation.
  • Adding a “block” doesn’t mean you have to add something to the exercise. The block represents a step up in their progression. So progressing from two legs to single legs is technically “taking away base of support” but is an addition to the ongoing progression.


Lets use an example, recently I started designing a program for a teenage footballer with a proximal adductor strain. New to professional football with no history of conditioning.

In the sub-acute stage, once intial pain had settled, we began looking at his movement patterns and stability and noticed a huge imbalance with his left sided control through sagittal and transverse planes compared to his right. He is left footed, so his plant leg (right) is used to supporting his body weight.

His body awareness and “physical literacy” was so poor we had to regress him right back to basics. The following represents a small proportion of a larger exercise program. I’m not usually an advocate of planks in a multidirectional sport like football, but in this case, his single plane control was so poor that I swallowed my pride and began with basic planks.


When I say basic, we reverted to short lever planks with the knees on the floor – this was the only was we could get him to control the relationship between his trunk and pelvis. Looking at the model, this short lever plank would be the singular blue triangle at the start (1). We built up the duration of the hold from 30 seconds to 90 seconds over time. This would be the arrow running up the gradient of the triangle.


The addition of the first block (2) was to increase the length of the lever so that he now has to hold a traditional plank. In doing so, we dropped from 90s hold back down to 30 seconds and over time, built up to 90s. (These are just arbitrary times, based on no real evidence).


The next block we added was a rotational element (3), but to ensure the progression wasn’t too sharp, I removed the long lever and returned to a short lever position. I then asked the player to move a light 1.25kg weight from his left side, with his right hand and place it on his right side. Then with his left hand etc etc. The purpose of this was to introduce a transverse task to a sagittal plane activity – as the arm moves from the ground and across the body, the player has to control the rotation through his trunk and avoid rotation at the pelvis. Instead of duration, we built up repetitions over time.


Now that we were confident he could hold a plank, and control rotation in a short lever plank, we could combine the two blocks as the next progression. Now in a long lever plank with a rotational element.


The next progression was to add an unstable surface (4). To do this, the player performed a plank with his thighs on a gym ball. This in itself was quite easy so we instantly added a rotational component with an unstable surface, gym ball pelvic rotations (see video here). So now on the model, we have the basic “plank” triangle at the top, a block underneath to symbolise the long lever, another block to symbolise rotational control and a third block to symbolise an unstable surface.


“The length of time required by an individual to master a task has

been described as a linear function that begins quite rapidly with

the introduction of a new task and then plateaus or slows over time

as practice continues (Gentile, 1998).”



This is a very simplistic example of how the model works, but hopefully it demonstrates the fluidity that is intended with it and how the blocks are interchangeable and can work independently or as part of a more complex progression. Every program you write will be individual and the progressions will be different, therefor every model will look different. Some will continue longer than others, some may be shorter than the one I’ve described here. Some will end up with taller columns due to the number of progressions. The width of one column compared to its neighbour may be different size due to the length of time it takes for the patient to master. And so on and so on. If I continued, hopefully I could have ended up with the player doing this:

But whats the use of that defending a counter attack?


Like many conversations I begin or poor jokes I tell, this may be one of those things that only makes sense in my head, but I would love to hear if it makes sense to others – if you think it works and examples of doing so.


Yours in Sport





2 thoughts on “Exercise Progression & Rehab Programs

  1. […] Designing rehabilitation programmes for athletes with long term injuries is a professional passion of mine. In 2014, with the help of Phil Glasgow, I published a theoretical model to outline the optimal progression of a single exercise (here). A pretty simple model, that described the opportunity to regress a variable of an exercise knowing that you have progressed the demand of the exercise in a different, but logical way. In effect saying its ok to reduce something knowing that the aims and goals are moving towards the bigger picture. I attempt to explain this model here in my blog: Plinths and platforms. […]


  2. […] Bilateral – we are more likely to be looking at an irritation or inflammation of the pubic symphysis or structures that cross and influence the pubic joint (think: rectus abdominus). Consider activities that may induce shearing or rotation of the pubic zone and initially try to avoid these, along with exercises that do the same and wait for irritation to calm down. Exercises from this point can be progressively controlled with this rotational/shear focus in mind (more here; exercise progression blog). […]


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