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Foundational, progressive, and pinnacle exercises

Jamie Jamieson completing an Olympic snatch in competition
Jamie Jamieson completing an Olympic snatch in competition
Jamie Jamieson -

We’ve all heard that we have to walk before we run, but it doesn’t stop there. In any sort of comprehensive exercise regimen, whether weight training, gymnastic routines or endurance work, more complex exercises always build on the more foundational movements.

Any exercise can be put in one of three categories: foundational, progressive or pinnacle. Knowing which is which can help you prioritize where you put your time and effort, based on what you want to accomplish in your training!

One reminder: “pinnacle” does not mean “best”, nor does “foundational” mean “easy”. Instead, these categories will help you determine what movements you need to master before moving on to other exercises.

Foundational exercises are those that cannot be made any simpler without changing the basic structure, and that in turn are used to build upon in other exercises. A classic example of this is the bodyweight squat (also known as the air squat, or just the squat). The squat does not build on anything else, and countless other exercises build on it.

Other foundational exercises are the shoulder press, pushup, pullup, box jump and deadlift. Each of these is used as the basis for other exercises, and none of them can be broken down any farther without losing the main movement.

Progressive exercises are those that build on the foundation of one or more other movements, and that provide the basis for further exercises. The barbell push press adds an explosive hip drive to the barbell shoulder press to allow the lifter to drive heavier weights overhead. Once the lifter gains proficiency in the push press, he or she can build on that to learn the push jerk, power jerk, and Olympic jerk.

Some other progressive movements are the front squat and overhead squat, the power clean, kipping pullups and ring dips.

Pinnacle exercises build on other exercises, but don’t form the foundation for any other exercises. The Olympic snatch is a great example of a pinnacle exercise; the lifter must be proficient in a number of other exercises, including the overhead squat (which in turn builds on the air squat) and the deadlift, while no other exercise uses the snatch as its basis.

Other pinnacle exercises include the muscle-up, the clean-and-jerk, the double-under and handstand walks.

There are of course exercises that cannot be broken down any further, and they have nothing that builds directly on them. The Turkish Getup is an example of an exercise that is both foundational and a pinnacle exercise.

This leaves out two categories of exercises: remedial exercises, which allow the exerciser to build toward a foundational exercise (negative, or eccentric pushups are a great example of that), and hybrid complexes, which combine multiple individual exercises, but don’t qualify as their own exercise. While someone might decide to build a hybrid complex that transitions from a dumbbell squat to a walking lunge to a shoulder press, each of those continues as its own exercise, rather than the sum becoming a different exercise entirely.

In a progression from a foundational exercise, the key is to determine when you as the trainee have become proficient enough in a movement to gain the benefits from moving on to the next step. The same holds true when moving from one progressive movement to the next exercise that builds on it.

As an example, if you want to learn to perform the classic Olympic lifts – the snatch and the clean-and-jerk – it is counter-productive to start with these pinnacle movements before becoming proficient in the movements on which they’re built. The clean is built on the barbell front squat, which in turn is built on the air squat. It also builds on the pulling movement of the deadlift, and the explosive hip drive of the kettlebell swing. While this doesn’t mean that you need to be a world-caliber lifter in any of these lifts, it does mean that you should be able to hold form and know where your body needs to be positioned in these movements before moving on.

The same holds true for gymnastics; any gymnastic routine can be considered a hybrid exercise combination, for example, a still-ring routine might consist of any number of inversions, levers, and so on, and will often start with a movement called a muscle-up, in which the gymnast starts from a hanging position and pulls himself into a supported position above the rings. It would be fruitless to begin working on one of these routines before gaining proficiency and strength in a standard pullup and dip, and dips themselves should be considered a progressive movement building on pushups.

One final thought: while there is a logical conclusion to what may be the farthest an exercise progression may go, not everyone will have the need or desire to go to that point. A great example is in jumping rope. For most people, the double-under (in which the rope passes under the feet twice at each jump) is a pinnacle exercise, and nothing else will build on that. For jump rope specialists, such as the crew at JumpNRope in Louisville, the double-under not only has its place in hybrid jump rope routines, but can be a progression exercise building toward triple-unders or more.

One of the primary goals in exercise is consistent progression, but moving to complex exercises before you’re ready can actually hinder progress. By knowing what exercises build on which, you can ensure you progress up the ladder as efficiently as possible.

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