When (and How) to Regress Your Workout

In case you missed it, I wrote a guest post for Cranky Fitness on 5 Things You Should be Doing in the Gym (and 5 Things That Waste Your Time) a couple of weeks ago. I love writing these kinds of posts because I feel like there’s so much misinformation and people get overwhelmed about what they should be doing to maximize their workout in the gym.

One of the commenters mentioned squats – how she used to love doing them, but had some knee problems that had stopped her from continuing, despite having been close to ATG (ass to grass!) when she was still squatting. I replied with a few tips: to get back to basics and try some body-weight stand ups from a bench in front of a mirror, possibly with a thera-band above the knees to ensure they’re tracking straight.

Now, if it was me and I developed some pain when running or lifting weights, this would be advice I’d give myself and actually take – but that’s probably because I’ve had an injury before that sidelined me for a long period of time from doing anything, so I know how dire it can be to work through pain and suffer the consequences. While the commenter seemed to take my advice well, I couldn’t help but think it’s one thing to be told you should regress significantly in your workout, but it’s easier said than done to as to actually swallow your pride and feel like you’re starting from scratch.

When (and how) You Should Regress Your Workout. Personal trainer insight on when (and why) it's a good idea to regress your workout and get back to basics.

So, that comment led to an idea for a blog post – I thought I’d give you guys some personal trainer insight and write about when (and how) to regress your workout and get back to basics.

You are experiencing pain of any kind.

I’m not talking about the, ‘I did walking lunges yesterday and today it’s hard to sit down,’ kind of pain. Experiencing real pain during a workout – like a sharp, shooting sensation, or one movement that consistently makes you wince – is not normal and shouldn’t be ignored. When a movement legitimately hurts you during a workout, stop doing that movement at all until you can work out what the problem is.

How should you regress? First of all, if you are in pain, just STOP whatever movement causes the pain. I can’t emphasize that enough. Pushing through pain is a really bad idea, because you can make a mild or moderate injury severe by continuing without adjustment. Second, see a doctor, specifically a sports orthopedist if possible. That way you can find out the probable cause of the pain and the doctor can recommend exercises you can do to work around the injury until you’re healed.

You can feel a niggling sensation at times in your daily life that makes you suspect a potential injury.

Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (aka runner’s knee) is a good example of this – a pain behind the kneecap you may or may not feel while actually running, but it bothers you when you’re sitting, walking up and down stairs, or anytime you’ve been resting for a while and suddenly start moving again. You generally know when there’s something not right with a part of your body, whether you want to admit it or not.

How should you regress? Again, even with mild symptoms of pain, I would recommend to a client (and to you!) that you should see a doctor first. Once again, if your injury (or injury-to-be) is diagnosed, it’s way easier to then tackle exercises and regressions of exercises that will rebuild strength while you’re healing. Even your regular doctor will usually have some physical therapy-style exercises to suggest for most sports-type injuries if you don’t feel it’s severe enough to go to a sports doctor or specialist.

You have symptoms of overtraining.

This is sometimes hard to recognize in yourself, because overtraining symptoms can manifest in emotional ways as well as physical. If you’re unusually tired, less excited about working out than you used to be, feeling depressed or overwhelmed at the thought of a workout, not making any progress or your results are not improving, or even declining, you may be overtraining.

How should you regress? Give yourself at least a couple of days of total rest from planned exercise. Then, evaluate your training plan, or your usual workout if you’re not following a set plan, and spend a week or so doing less – way less – than you would usually. I promise, you won’t lose all your fitness or strength in a week. Get some more sleep, focus on eating healthy, spend time with people you love. If you are overtraining, you’ll be stunned at how quickly you feel better after even a relatively short period of rest and cutting back. Then, the important thing is to not go right back to your original training that your body was crying uncle about – ease yourself back to a heavier workload, slowly.

You are beginning a generic training program or workout that’s not written specifically for your goals. 

I totally get it that for many people the idea of working with a personal trainer or a coach is a luxury. But launching into any kind of workout that’s one-size-fits-all is a recipe for disaster if you’re not completely honest about your limitations or ability level.

How should you regress? Listen to your body. If something is incredibly difficult for you; if you’re not sure you have the form right on an exercise; if you feel uncomfortable or in pain during a workout, then you know it’s time to back off. If you don’t have access or finances to work with a trainer even for a single session to evaluate how to regress, you can get creative. Go to a group fitness class at your gym and ask the instructor at the end of class if they have suggestions for modifications to an exercise you’ve tried and failed. (Most instructors build in a little extra time in case participants need to chat or ask questions after the workout). See if you can find a trainer who offers online training for less than you’d have to pay in person. And while sometimes an internet search is not the best place to start, if you google ‘regression for a jumping split squat’ for example, and you get a couple of hits from reputable sources, that can be a good place to start.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle to listening to your body and adjusting your workout to get back to basics can be your own ego. Let it go – remember that pushing through pain or discomfort could lead to a serious situation in which you won’t be able to work out at all. Really let that sink in – wouldn’t you prefer to do some more basic forms of exercise now than be totally out of commission for exercise at all?

One of the downsides to times you find yourself in need of regression is that you may have to relinquish a goal – sometimes a goal you’ve sacrificed to work towards. It can be one of the hardest decisions for any athlete, regardless of whether you’re elite, competitive or recreational. While I loved every moment of running my first marathon, being sidelined by an ITB injury, then going ahead with the race despite missing some key training, found me with a post-race injury that led to being unable to run for a LONG time afterward. To go from being in peak fitness to not being able to walk, let alone run, was a recipe for depression. Or, if not actual depression, a pretty bad pity party.

Who else has suffered what was probably an avoidable injury? Do you think you’d make the same mistakes again?

How much do you pay attention to your body during your workouts?

Have you ever had to give up a goal?


  1. Such great advice here! Regressing is the hardest thing to do, especially when you feel like you’ve been progressing. But sometimes it’s necessary. I’ve become much better at this over the past couple of years. If I have any running niggle, I step it back for a couple of days and usually, that does the trick!
    misszippy recently posted…Two half marathons/one week apartMy Profile

  2. Yes to all the questions! I have given up a goal and I have pushed through when I shouldn’t have.
    Thankfully over the years I’ve gotten a little better at backing off when I get these signs from my body.
    Great post, Carly!!
    Kim recently posted…Too Many Rewards?My Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      Thanks Kim! I feel like runners are a group of people who definitely learn the same lessons over and over again because we can be so stubborn/optimistic/hopeful about running through injury!

  3. Oh yes, I’ve had to learn the hard way a few times. And this cycle I hit some signs of over training for the first time ever. Definitely soaking up an easy couple of weeks right now!
    Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted…Boston Marathon RecapMy Profile

  4. I never used to take breaks until I noticed the pain in my knee just wasn’t going away. I make sure to listen to my body now, pushing through the pain isn’t always worth the hassle! – http://calisthenicsblog.com/
    Oliver recently posted…Weights + Calisthenics The Greatest Way To Build Muscle?My Profile


  1. […] When (and How) to Regress Your Workout – Fine Fit Day – A personal trainer’s insight on when (and why) it’s a good idea to regress your workout and get back to basics. […]

  2. […] Be aware of what is going on in your life that could be affecting your body. Sometimes you just have a crappy night’s sleep. Or you wake up for a workout feeling heavy and sluggish (or hungover) because you overdid it eating and/or drinking the day before. If it’s a one-off occurrence, then follow the tips for feeling sore – increase your warm up, attempt what you had planned and make a judgement call based on how you’re feeling. If, however, insomnia or poor sleep is the norm for you, or you’ve been consistently feeling weak, in a bad mood, or unmotivated, these may be signs of overtraining. If you are overtrained, you can kiss goodbye any improvements in your strength or endurance until you take a big step back and let your body rest and recover fully. […]