Strength Training Basics: Exercise Selection
Exercise selection is the foundation of program design, there’s no doubt about it. Choosing which exercises to perform in the gym is the first step in directing your training towards a specific goal.
Think about it, there is nothing that incurs more specific adaptations than the lifts you choose to include in your program.
If you’re an athlete, your best bet is to practice the exercise or movement which you are evaluated on.
For runners, that means the simple art of running. For powerlifters, that means the squat, bench and deadlift done in competition style. For bodybuilders, it means doing exercises that will best target the muscles which need to be developed.
It is no surprise, then, that specificity when it comes to exercise selection is king.
Variety as the Spice of Life
Although specificity incurs the most direct adaptations, over time staleness will manifest as either physical or psychological burnout, or both. Additionally, there is a higher risk for overuse injuries from doing the same repeated movements for a prolonged amount of time.
However, the main reason variation remains an important part of program design is due to the principle of accommodation.
To put it simply, as your body becomes accustomed to a certain stimulus, or in this case a specific exercise, increases in performance come to a halt. Doing the same program, with the same exercises, using the same load and rep schemes eventually diminishes your body’s response to the training plan.
Keep in mind that variation does not imply the need for a completely novel exercise. Most of the time, choosing between slightly different variations of the same lift is enough to offset accommodation. Examples include varying foot stance, grip width or, in the case of a squat, bar placement.
Switching up your exercise selection is one of the most straight-forward ways of promoting variability, but that’s not the only way to keep the gains coming. Later on in this article, I’ll mention some of the ways in which you can promote variation in your training.
For now, let’s look into some of the different ways exercises are categorized in.
Most exercises can be classified under at least one category that describes its pattern of movement. These movements are universal and illustrate the different ways in which human beings can move. They are the squat, bend, lunge, push, pull, twist, and gait.
The squat is an essential movement to all humans. The descent involves lowering your torso in between your legs by bending your knees and keeping your back neutral and core engaged, all while having your feet planted firmly on the floor. The ascent involves using the muscles of the anterior leg (quadriceps) and those of the posterior hip to raise your bodyweight back to the starting position.
Bending involves using your hips as a hinge between your lower and upper bodies. This is a movement we do when picking up objects off the floor, and in all hip-dominant exercises, such as the deadlift and its variations, cable pull-throughs and good-mornings.
The bend, or hip hinge, primarily engages the posterior thigh muscles (hamstrings), the glutes and the lower back muscles.
Pushing movements involve the use of upper body musculature such as the chest, shoulders and triceps. These muscles work to push an external resistance away from the body, such as in the bench press or when pushing a heavy door open. The motion of pushing can be further broken down into horizontal and vertical components, with the chest assisting with most horizontal pushing movements (push-ups, bench press) and the shoulders doing most of the vertical or overhead pushing (military presses, handstand push-ups).
The muscles involved in pulling are also located in the upper body and are antagonists to the pushing muscles. They include but are not limited to the rhomboids, the biceps and the lats. Pulling against a resistance in order to bring an object towards your body can also be further classified into horizontal and vertical components, similar to pushing.
Although not as evident, the lunge is part of our daily lives as we perform it in movements such as walking and going up the stairs. Lunges utilize most muscles of the hip, thighs, and lower legs, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves.
Twisting is a movement performed on the transverse plane of the body, as opposed to the sagittal or frontal planes like most other movements. We twist when we throw an object, as there is rotation of the body involved in the action. Twisting exercises can also involve those which prevent rotation of the torso, such as in Palloff and landmine presses.
The final human movement pattern is that of gait, which involves jogging, running, walking and crawling. It is the way in which we propel ourselves forward, and is by far the most used movement pattern in our daily lives.
Practical Applications for Exercise Selection
Creating a sound training program begins with the why: identifying your specific training goals. Figuring out the destination is a crucial step before deciding how to get there.
A measurable goal can range from increasing performance in a sport, to losing fat, to increasing cardiovascular endurance, etc. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to the concept of program design with the intention of getting stronger.
With a clear goal in mind, the process of exercise selection begins with picking the primary movements you will be performing. For powerlifting, as an example, that includes the three competition lifts: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift.
A well-balanced program must include at least a couple of exercises from each movement pattern. This means you will be hitting every muscle group with equal frequency and promoting a balanced physique that is less prone to injuries. As an example, for each pushing movement that you perform, choose a pulling movement to counterbalance it.
Something crucial to consider when choosing an exercise is whether you can perform it correctly and pain-free through a full range of motion. If your body must be forced into a certain position, due to either anatomical limitations or flexibility and mobility restrictions, you should look for the next best alternative exercise.
Unless your sport absolutely requires you to perform a specific lift, as is the case in powerlifting, there are no rules set in stone that say each individual should be able to perform certain exercises.
Sure, the squat is a wonderful full-body movement that can greatly increase strength and muscle mass. But if you can’t perform it correctly or safely, there are ways to incur very similar benefits in safer and more efficient ways.
An exercise must always fit the individual, not the other way around.
Addressing the cause of movement restriction will prevent the onset of overuse injuries acquired from repeated poor technique. This is an essential part of the initial evaluation performed by (hopefully all) fitness professionals, but it can also help individual trainees assess their own physical limitations.
Machines vs. Free-Weight Exercises
If your goal is to mimic and strengthen real-life movements, free-weight exercises that involve dumbbells or barbells are the way to go.
When training with free weights, the body moves and is forced to stabilize in all three anatomical planes of movement (transverse, frontal and sagittal).
When using machines, the body is typically restricted to a single plane, which diminishes the need for stabilizing muscles to be engaged.
For that reason, free-weight exercises more closely resemble movements that we do in our daily lives and sports, meaning they have a much greater carryover to athletic performance.
However, free-weights aren’t always the superior choice. The complexity of the movement performed, specially those involving multiple muscle groups, means free-weight exercises are harder to learn.
With that being said, machines pose less of a risk of injury for true beginners, and thus may be a better way to get started.
They are also very useful in isolating specific muscle groups, such as the quadriceps in the leg extension. By inhibiting the use of stabilizing muscles, you are recruiting more of the muscle fibers present in the target muscle. This can be beneficial for those seeking hypertrophy in specific areas without overdeveloping unwanted muscle groups, as can be the case for physique athletes. Machines may also be a great option for physical rehabilitation patients.
The Case for Compound Lifts
Exercises can be further classified between compound or single-joint movements. Compound lifts involve the use of multiple muscle groups, such as the squat, deadlift and military press. Typically, there is a primary muscle group doing most of the work, with a secondary muscle group assisting in the movement. An example would be your lats and biceps during a pull-up, as primary and secondary movers respectively.
Single-joint, or isolation exercises, on the other hand, involve movement around a single joint only.
Radical concept, I know. These include exercises such as the bicep curl and calf raises, and require a lot less coordination and proficiency than multi-joint lifts.
Compound lifts are usually performed with free weights, and for that reason they more closely mimic real-life movements. The recruitment of a larger number of muscles means there is a greater potential for building strength.
Compound lifts signal a greater metabolic response compared to isolation exercises. They also induce a greater release of anabolic hormones such as growth hormone and testosterone (Kraemer and Ratamess, 2003). This can translate into greater fat loss or muscle gain, which is one of the reasons why they are the exercises of choice for most fitness professionals.
Exercises Per Individual Muscle Group
One of the most popular ways of classifying exercises is by the muscle groups it involves. Surely you’re familiar with the typical bro-split, or body-part training: back day, leg day, arm day, etc.
Body-part splits can be useful in targeting a specific area, but it also has its drawbacks.
Because most muscles are involved in a few different exercises, inexperienced lifters can easily be overwhelmed with the amount of choices there are for each muscle group.
Beginners tend to make the mistake of overloading a muscle through repeatedly performing similar movement patterns. If you’ve ever witnessed somebody doing four different variations of a squat within a single workout, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
This type of training may lead to muscular imbalances if exercise selection is not well thought-out. As previously mentioned, a balanced program should strive for an equal number of exercises from each basic movement pattern.
The Problem with Too Much Variability
Having discussed the downsides of prolonged specificity, the question becomes: is there such thing as too much variation?
The overapplication of variability in training occurs when switching exercises too frequently.
A lot of lifters mistakenly believe that in order to ‘keep the muscles guessing’, they should never allow the body to become accustomed to an exercise. For that reason, they switch out exercises every week, in hopes of ‘shocking the system’ and thus making better gains.
The problem with that idea is that it completely overrides the concept of overload and specificity. As we’ve previously discussed, your body needs to undergo progressive overload in order for positive adaptations to happen.
Specificity occurs along the same lines. If your sport involves the reproduction of a specific lift or movement, there is no better way to develop technical proficiency and maximal strength than through its practice.
Who do you think would fare better in a powerlifting competition, the lifter who has squatted in competition style 10,000 times or the lifter who has performed 10 different variations of squats 100 times each? If you’ve guessed the former, you are correct.
Variability is necessary to remove staleness and introduce new stimuli into the training program, but for the most part, training should be geared towards improving the specific adaptation you are looking to achieve.
Switching up your exercise selection might then not be the best option. In that case, there are alternative training variables which you can modify to elicit variation in your routine. They include modifying the tempo, rest periods, sets and reps scheme, and training frequency.
We will discuss some of these variables in future articles, but here are the takeaway points I would you to keep in mind when it comes to exercise selection:
- Choose exercises which will provide the desired physiological outcomes, based on your individual goals.
- Avoid neglecting body parts, and strive for balance within all muscle groups
- You don’t need to change up your routine as frequently as you think. And when you do, there are simple changes you can make to a lift that will suffice in removing staleness and avoiding plateaus.
- On the other end of the spectrum, repeatedly performing the same movements for months or years on end with zero variation likely won’t yield optimal results.
Kraemer, W. J., & Ratamess, N. A. (2003). Endocrine Responses and Adaptations to Strength and Power Training. Strength and Power in Sport, 361-386.