There are these little red, white, green, and blue steel plates known in Olympic lifting as “fractionals.” They weigh anywhere from .75 to 2lbs each. Not much when talking about loading up a barbell.

But they serve a good purpose; what we call “micro loading.” Those little red plates may not even register on a lifter’s radar, but it’s a little more weight than last lift.

If you’ve been running fitness programs for the ASD population, you may be familiar with many athletes reaching a veritable plateau (<– that is not easy to spell the first time around) stage, where they, despite a sufficient level of motivation, do not seem to get any better at an exercise.

Much of the plateau situation has to do with the neuromuscular deficits common to the population. Our athletes need a lot more time (months, years) with a particular exercise or movement to master it independently. This is particularly evident during strength-based exercises and just about anything involving grip. While strength movements tend to be more proximal (closer to center of the body and involving the larger muscle groups) and grip distal (away from the center of the body and largely considered fine motor), both originate from the neuromuscular “control” center of the brain.

The takeaway here is that our athletes with autism need a lot more practice with the same movements/exercises and will, invariably, stall with a few or more exercises.

When this occurs, it may be tempting to “move along” and progress the exercise, though, prompt-dependency aside, the reality is that our athlete most likely needs continued exposure to and practice with the current level of challenge.

But about those fractional plates…

When approaching programs using the PAC Profile method, we always have physical, adaptive, and cognitive skills to consider. Having three skill variables also provides the opportunity to improve other areas of functioning. Want an example? Good, so do I.

Chris might be “stuck” at 10 overhead presses with a 6lb Sandbell, so we’ve reached a physical plateau, but what about adaptive and cognitive?

Perhaps Chris is already motivated to perform the overhead press, but that does not prohibit us from providing additional behavior-specific praise that can impact his physical performance and, potentially, a cognitive aspect as well.

If Chris has some “on again/off again” grip strength on the press, we can verbally reinforce each repetition where his grip is tight on the Sandbell. Three things are potentiated here:

Thing 1) Coming into contact with BSP may increase Chris’ grip performance in more repetitions

Thing 2) Chris May become even more motivated to perform the exercise

Thing 3) Chris may develop the association (contingency) between the phrase “great gripping the Sandbell” and the performance of that task. We might perhaps build in some new language for him.

There may also be some physical aspects of the exercise that we can “micro” load as well. We’re not going to add weight or reps to an exercise that isn’t mastered yet, but we can improve performance by having Chris perform the exercise with a slower eccentric (lowering) or by holding the Sandbell overhead an extra second (shoulder stability, anyone?) at the top of the press.

These micro progressions can improve stabilization and muscular control (along with the oft-misinterpreted/misrepresented kinesthetic/body awareness).

We can also do this with exercises that have been mastered however the athlete is not yet ready for a full transition to a heavier weight or more demanding variation. This occurs often with hurdle steps. An athlete is able to step over six 6″ hurdles in a row but exhibits a litany of compensatory movement if we attempt progressing the hurdles to four at 12″ high. We can provide a micro/bridge progression of four 6″ hurdles plus one 12″ hurdle. We don’t need a sea change. We can do with one wave.

Micro progressions can be the answer to overcoming a current stagnation, whether it is physical, adaptive or cognitive. We may be taking smaller steps, but we’re still guiding our athlete towards success.

  • EC