The Ladder Approach to Program Design

Kevin Mullins | 15 Jul 2019

One could argue that a personal trainer’s greatest task is to deliver a safe workout session. Sure, our clients are paying us for results, and yes, they absolutely should enjoy their time with you. But no other priority should be higher on your list than ensuring that your training sessions goes, from beginning to end, safely.

There is one major consideration a fitness professional must have when training someone. This is, of course, outside of avoiding pure stupidity (no need to mention anything specifically, but there are countless viral videos of trainers who’ve hurt their clients doing ridiculous and completely unjustified things). This “one thing” is the very crux of what makes a training session “personal”.

It is customization. It is uniqueness. Very simply, it is the act of designing programs that work the specific wants, needs, and capabilities of each client you are working with. Every successful fitness professional knows that one-size-fits-all only works in clothing with elastic bands.

Exercise Selection

One aspect of program design is exercise selection. More specifically, it is selecting the specific exercises in a given movement pattern that is most appropriate for your client. Selecting those exercises involves picking the most trainable modality for your client.

Trainability – Does a client possess the skill to perform the exercise safely in a manner that allows you to apply a specific fitness stimulus*?

*(in a way that will cause them to get stronger, leaner, bigger, more explosive, etc.)

A highly trainable exercise is the most challenging exercise for which the client shows the structural and neuromuscular aptitude necessary to complete the movement safely.

Meanwhile, an exercise with low trainability is either one that:

A.) No longer creates a challenge to the client because they’ve maxed out load, tempo, volume, or some other test of success.
B.) Is TOO challenging to a client and creates a gap between capability and the exercise demands that can only be bridged with assistance or some level of compensation.

Finding the right exercise for a client often involves some level of trial and error. All exercises exist along a continuum of a given movement pattern.

Exercises Are Just Expressions of Movements

Each movement pattern, such as the squat, exists along a continuum of complexity and intensity. Lying supine (on your back) and tucking your knees to your chest while your hands are behind your head is the same exact position you’d find yourself in standing tall and performing an air squat.

The only difference?

A lack of gravity often allows the hips to dip into flexion with better success.

Your client who is coming back from a hip surgery will benefit greatly from grooving their squatting pattern while lying on their backs. They can emphasize abduction of the femurs, dorsi-flexion of the ankles, and fully engaging their core and posterior chain without the stress of load (gravity). For this reason, the supine squat is in fact an exercise.

But that squat doesn’t do much for your powerlifting client who is three weeks out from their next meet. Nor does it help your client who is looking to lose some weight in time for the wedding.

That powerlifter will likely have tons of hours spent under the bar in a back squat, the pinnacle of the squat pyramid, so they are safe there. Meanwhile, the weight loss client may not benefit so much from back squatting as they would a goblet squat with a slower tempo.

Thus, you’d program each of these three clients onto a different part of the spectrum, or ladder, to ensure that they are receiving the most trainable exercise for them and their goals.

The Ladder Approach

Imagine a ladder laying against the side of a building. Each individual rung begets the next. To safely climb the ladder, it is encouraged that you take the time to step on each rung until you reach your desired height.

Now, imagine a ladder that runs perfectly vertical towards the heavens. It is unlimited. Some of us might climb until we can’t even breathe, while others will be more than happy to get a few rungs up and enjoy the view.

This philosophy must be embraced by you, the fitness professional, before constructing your movement ladders, if you are to ensure that you do what is best for all your clients. Not every client will want to back squat, barbell deadlift, bench press, power clean, or sprint. All should squat, hinge, push, pull, press, be powerful, and develop their gait.

At some point you’ll discover the perfect version of a pattern that works for your client. It honors their bony structures, doesn’t cause a fear response in the brain, and doesn’t require constant re-teaching of form. You can make it heavier, lighter, faster, slower, add secondary vectors, and whatever else you can think of – but you’ll leave its progression on the ladder right there.

Other clients are capable of everything and you’ll find yourself using different variations at different times to accomplish different goals. It is knowing this difference that usually separates the great from the good.

Rules of the Ladder

Your base movement patterns are squat, hinge, lunge, rotation, horizontal push, horizontal pull, vertical push, vertical pull, anti-motion, and gait. For each of these patterns you should develop a ladder of exercises that serve as progressions and regressions of the core pattern.

I coach all my students to build a ladder of 7 exercises that fall under a given movement pattern. Doing so allows for you to have a low rung (the basement), a middle rung (the main floor) and a high rung (the roof), while having 2 up progressions and 2 down regressions.

  • We start by selecting our main floor, or middle rung, because it is the one exercise in a movement pattern that most clients you meet can do with some level of safety. For the squat pattern, many would agree that is the loaded goblet squat. It isn’t the easiest, but it isn’t the hardest, and most people can do it without dramatic consequence (and it also can be made quite hard).
  • Our lower rung, the basement, is the safest, but least challenging, variation of the pattern. Earlier we established that the supine squat is absolutely in this spot.
  • Our top rung, the roof (often called a pinnacle exercise), is the barbell back squat. For many reasons that would make this article too long, you must trust that this exercise places the greatest demand on the body due to bar position, load, bony anatomy, skill acquisition and potential fear-complex in the brain.

With that said, our 3 cornerstone exercises are established, and we must now fill the gaps between. The key with your progressions and regressions is to focus on variables, such as technique, skill, and the force vectors being placed on the body. You can add load to anything just as you can add repetitions, sets, total volume, density, and beyond. Our advancements on the ladder focus on the difficulty of a movement PRIOR to adding any traditional intensity variables.

Below are two separate example ladders that I personally use regarding the squat and push patterns.


  1. Supine Squats
  2. Bear Squats
  3. Bodyweight “air” Squats
  4. Loaded Goblet Squats
  5. Front Rack Squats (DB or KB)
  6. Barbell Front Squats
  7. (PEAK LOADED) Barbell Back Squats
    (PEAK UNLOADED) Squat Jumps


  1. Supine Unloaded Press
  2. Elevated Push Ups (with accentuated protraction and retraction)
  3. Push Ups
  4. Loaded Push Ups
  5. Dumbbell Bench Press
  6. Plate Presses (balance)
  7. (PEAK LOADED) Barbell Bench Press
    (PEAK UNLOADED) Plyometric Push Ups


As you make use of your ladders, it is important to note the types of clients you see at those positions. Having some level of ideal progression strategies built on research and your own experience is very beneficial to your ability to deliver results and keep your clients happy.

Take the time to write your own ladders and create the perfect roadmaps for which your clients can use to achieve their results, avoid injuries, and enjoy their experience with you.

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Kevin Mullins

About the author: Kevin Mullins

Kevin Mullins, CSCS is the Director of Product Development for The St. James in Springfield, VA. The author of Day by Day: The Personal Trainer's Blueprint to Achieving Ultimate Success is a former EQUINOX Master Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Group Fitness coach. He has presented for the NSCA, SCW Mania, and contributes content to PTontheNet, other websites, and his own page:

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