Although the exercises expressed in each known handbook are very similar, there are several minor variations between them. But because the work of Aphthonius is the one most widely recognized and practiced, these variations are often unrecognized. All students were asked to write out each assignment, memorize it, and then perform a class oration. The progymnasmata were taught in order, increasing in difficulty as the course advances. The courses were organized to begin with story-telling and end with making an argument. There was a focus on literature as a supplement to the course, paying close attention to models of rhetoric and literature. The progymnasmata of Aphthonius was first translated to Latin in the fifteenth century by Rudolphus Agricola.

This elementary assignment was to simply write a narrative (not to be confused with fable). It is assumed that this training is a result of Aristotle's theory of categories and introduces students to the four values of narrative, which is perspicuity, incisiveness, persuasiveness, and purity of language. The content of the narrative exercise in the progymnasmata is either political, historical, or based on fiction. Just as diegesis indicates the narrative plot of a film, the so-called narrative of a speech or oration moves the content forth.

Students were asked to take an action or saying of a famous person and elaborate on it. They were to develop the meanings of these actions or quotations with the framing under the headings of praise, paraphrase, cause, example of meaning, compare and contrast, testimonies, and an epilogue; anecdote is something that is frequently used in the Bible.

This exercise required the student to logically reason against something drawn from myths, narratives, or fables. The student's argument was that something was either impossible, illogical, unsuitable, or inexpedient.

The confirmation exercise is the opposite of refutation. The student was asked to reason in favor of something drawn from legends and literature.

Working out the commonplace involved attacking vice by envisioning criticism of stereotypes rather than individuals. Students do this by using contradiction, comparison, and maxim attacking the motivation of the demographic described.

Students used encomium to praise persons, things, times, places, animals, and growing things. Each praise could be engendered from the headings upbringing, deeds, skills, and sometimes was in the form of a comparison with another person, an epilogue, or a prayer.

Invective opposes commonplace. It attacks a specific, named individual, usually a political or cultural figure.

The comparison exercise acts as a double encomium or a combination of an encomium of one person or thing and the invective against another.

When asked to use ekphrasis to describe a person, place, thing, or time, students were obliged to produce a description that was complete. Included was detailed information about a person from head-to-toe, an action from start to finish, etc. This form is seen in many classical literature and historical writings.

Because this exercise is an introduction to argument in the philosophical schools, the use of thesis was not performed until first completing all previous exercises. Students had to come up with a thesis argument of their own nature; these questions were often ones difficult to answer.

Aphtonius calls this final exercise a gymnasma rather than progymnasmata. This exercise is in the form of advocacy of a proposed law or opposition of it. The argument is first stated, a counterargument follows, and then the headings are discussed

It is also taught in a user-friendly form by Classical Academic Press. Classical Academic Press's online school called Schole Academy also offers live classes based on these books.