By Danny Clark
Have you ever seen a movement that you really want to be able to perform, but just can’t figure out how to get there yourself? Maybe the movement is something like MovNat’s infamous Pop Up, which often looks daunting, and you know you don’t yet have the strength to do it or feel you’ll get injured even trying. Or, maybe you gave the movement a shot and it just felt unattainable. Don’t give up! In this article, you’ll learn how to level up any movement skill using two principles that will help you unlock new movement abilities.
Principle #1 – Progression
Progression is the process of gradually moving toward a more advanced state. For a movement goal, progression begins by figuring out what steps need to be taken in order to get you all the way. Progression is like a trail map, outlining your path toward success.
A simple movement progression looks like this:
[Step 1 Movement] → [Step 2 Movement] → [Step 3 Movement] → Movement Goal
For example, in the Pop Up there are a number of steps that could lead to being able to achieve the full skill. Here’s an example progression:
[Side Hang] → [Foot Pinch] → [Elbow Swing Up] → [Pull Up] → [Forearm Pull Up] → Pop Up
The progression above leads to the required skill and strength needed in order to access the Pop Up. Another way to use progression is to manipulate certain variables such as the training surface. For example, moving from balancing on a 2×4 on the ground to an elevated, narrower surface can help levels up one’s balancing abilities.
The idea here is that you break up the currently unattainable movement skill into easier movement skill steps, serving as “mile markers” that lead you toward the movement goal. The first step is usually a movement skill you can already do, and each next step is a movement skill that is currently unattainable or is extremely challenging. Once you spend enough time mastering the step you are in, you “level up” to the next step and begin practicing it in various ways until you’ve mastered the new step. And this process continues until you reach the summit: achieving your target movement.
In this way, breaking down challenging movements into manageable steps and mapping out your journey makes the whole leveling up process less daunting and more achievable. Progression can give you the vision and confidence you need to navigate seemingly impassable terrain, allowing you to experience and celebrate success as you achieve each step within your greater goal.
Principle #2 – Programming
The magic of movement progress is further created by programming. Having a progression map is an essential first step as it gives you a clear path toward achieving your goal. Programming is what gives you the actual physical practice structure to move through each step of your goal. For this reason, programming is the second principle for designing and executing your success.
In order to get from one step to the next, ask yourself: How often will you practice the movement skill step you are currently on? How many times will you repeat the movement skill step during your practice? With how much distance, intensity, and on what surface will you practice each repetition? These are the kinds of questions that the art of programming helps you decide.
There’s an entire science behind programming, but for the purposes of this article we can use simple rules to make it more simple:
Rule #1: 80% effort
You should be working at about 80% of your capacity for each step. So, in our Pop Up example, let’s say you are on the [Elbow Swing Up] step but you cannot make the transition to the [Pull Up]. You would figure out how many Elbow Swing Ups you can do in a row. Let’s say you can do 3 in a row on each side.
3 repetitions x .8 (80%) = 2.4 repetitions
Rounded to the nearest whole number is 2 repetitions
Therefore, you’d practice the Elbow Swing Up for 2 repetitions per side when you practice it.
If you can’t yet do a full Elbow Swing Up, you could practice 80% of the full movement – meaning you don’t put out full effort toward achieving the skill each time you attempt it. Instead, you focus on using excellent technique and getting as close as you can to the completing the full movement with 80% effort.
The 80% effort rule allows you to practice with a quantity of effort that allows for (1) optimal technique when practicing the movement and (2) optimal stimulation of your body and mind to develop the force you need to execute the movement.
Rule #2: 2-3 rounds
Rounds or “sets” refers to the number of times that you put out 80% effort in a given practice session. So, in our example, each time you practice the Elbow Swing Up, you’d do 2-3 sets of 80% effort per side. The rest between sets is up to you; generally you should give yourself enough rest so that you feel stronger for each set.
Rule #3: Every 3-5 days
This rule describes how often you should practice. In our example, practicing the Elbow Swing Up as described above every 3-5 days would allow your body to get the optimal “dose” of stimulation and recovery needed to change.
Note that the ranges presented in each rule give you the flexibility to adjust your practice based on the results. For example, if once every 5 days you practiced 2 sets of Elbow Swing Ups at 80% effort per side, you’d likely be able to make the transition to 1 Pull Up after a few weeks. A general best practice is to check every 4 weeks, then take a week off. If you weren’t successful for this 4 week training cycle, you would just find your new maximum number of repetitions for Swing Ups (maybe now it’s 4 or 5 per side), make the 80% calculation, and start over again with your new numbers until you can make the transition to the next step.
Programming can make movement skills you couldn’t previously perform magically become unlocked and accessible, without burning yourself out and/or discouraging yourself with constant failure. Through a bit of trial and error (and patience), you will learn an enormous amount about your body and what it needs to make the essential steps required for your greater movement goal.
Next Steps: Take Action
Understanding the basics of progression and programming will give you the tools you need to begin your process of leveling up. Your journey can begin with a blank sheet of paper, and by following the guidelines and examples outlined in this article, it’s possible to become your own architect of achievement.
For those that want some guidance, we’ve made the Level Up E-Course, which includes tutorials, progressions, and program builders, for unlocking more challenging Natural Movement skills.