Exercise selection – How to choose the right exercises?
Exercise selection is the process of choosing exercises for program design that allow for the optimal achievement of the desired adaptation. It has a tremendous impact on the outcome of the training program.
Exercise selection – key ingredient for designing effective exercise programs
Before you consider exercise technique, you may need to first analyze your exercise selections. An exercise performed with even the most efficient and safest technique possible will still offer limited value if the exercise was a poor selection for accomplishing the desired goals. In other words, the manner in which each element of technique (such as alignment, positioning, stabilization, motion, tempo, and breathing) is altered should relate to better achievement of the same goals that inspired the selection of the exercise itself.
Appropriate exercise selection is also the key ingredient for designing effective exercise programs. Therefore, since exercise selection is a prerequisite for both exercise technique and exercise programming, this entire post is devoted to providing information to help you develop a thought process for safe and efficient exercise selection.
Exercise selection involves the following four steps:
- Determining goals;
- Targeting desired movement;
- Targeting desired muscle groups;
- Doing benefit-to-risk analysis;
How to choose the right exercises?
The exercises you choose should reflect the areas of the body and the biomechanical characteristics of these areas that you want to target for improvement. The number of possible exercises that target specific joint angles is almost as limitless as the body’s functional movements that these exercises help improve.
When choosing which exercise to do, remember that muscle tissue that is not activated does not benefit from resistance training. Therefore, you should first determine what you want to get out of resistance training program and then select exercises that stress the muscle and joint angles you want to target.
Nearly all benefits of exercise can be categorized into two general areas. One area involves performance-based goals. These are goals aimed at benefits that improve the health and functioning of the body but not necessarily the appearance. The other area in which people often seek improvement involves aesthetic-based goals. Those are physiological adaptations that make a person look more muscular or fit. Since most people want to obtain some combination of both aesthetic and performance benefits, their exercise programs should include exercises that focus on each of these general goals. It is also possible that certain exercises may address both aesthetic and performance concerns concurrently.
The human body is capable of a vast combination of movement patterns performed in a variety of positions. However, some exercises do not go hand in hand with your anatomy.
For example, a person with short arms will be able to do push-ups more easily because the range of motion is smaller. A person with very long arms will have a more difficult time because the range of motion is much greater. If their body weights are equal, then the long-armed person must move the same weight over a greater distance. It is a bit like one person who must run 100 yards while another person has to run only 90 yards in the same amount of time.
As a function of your body type, certain exercises could be more or less risky for you. As an example, when lifting weights in a squat, a person with long legs must lean farther forward than a person with short thighs. This is not about poor technique while performing an exercise. It is a question of body type. With short thighs, it is relatively easy to keep the back very straight. The longer your thighs are, the more you have to lean forward to maintain your balance. Unfortunately, the farther you lean forward, the greater chance you have of injuring your back.
Two complementary ways to select your exercises
- By elimination. Some exercises do not work well with your anatomy. You should omit those. Other exercises do not match your goals. These two parameters will restrict the possibilities and, therefore, make your choices easier. However, simple elimination should not be your only criterion. It is better to find exercises that work for you.
- By selection. To determine compatibility between your body type and an exercise, often the only way is to try the movement. You will find some exercises that you like right away. But most of the time you will find them a bit strange, and you will have difficulty performing them since they involve muscles that you are not accustomed to using. With time, the novelty will fade and you will feel the exercises more and more.
Fight for your right to do compound (structural) exercises
Gyms today are designed to promote the least effective exercises. You might not find a squat rack, or even a place to put a bar on the floor for deadlifts, but you can do curls just about anywhere. In fact, in some gyms, it’s hard to find a place to do standing curls with free weights.
We sometimes get the impression that the entire health-club industry is involved in a massive conspiracy to make strength training as ineffective as possible,
Fight for your right to do compound (structural) exercises. Don’t let the forces of flab pressure you into choosing single-joint exercises. And if you want to do single-joint exercises, at least do them on your own two feet.
The more muscles an exercise requires, including the ones you use to maintain balance and coordination, the more you’ll get out of it. That is the main reason why compound exercise are better for building size and strength. The benefits of multi-joint exercises (in terms of muscle tissue activation, hormonal response, neural coordination among muscles, and metabolic demands) far outweigh those of single-joint exercises, and for the best results, most workouts should revolve around these multi-joint exercises.
However, for smaller muscle groups such as biceps and triceps, most exercises involve only one joint (the elbow in this case). But even it that case you can escape from single-joint (isolation) exercises. You can train triceps by doing close-grip bench presses and triceps dips (both compound movements), but you’ll find that virtually every other triceps exercise is a single-joint move. The same applies to biceps. For example, the most effective biceps exercise is close grip chin-up (compound movement).
List of the most effective strength training exercises
In this post, we have carefully selected the most effective weight training exercises. However, all the exercises mentioned here may not necessarily suit you. Everyone has a different body type. Some people are large and some people are small. Some have broad shoulders and some have narrow shoulders. Every torso, leg, and arm is different size.
To match different body types, you should choose exercises that work for you individually. We would be lying if we pretended that all body types could adapt to any exercise. Certain builds are just better suited for some exercises.
Effective exercise selection for muscle hypertrophy (increasing muscle size)
Most effective chest exercises
- Flat bench barbell press
- Incline barbell bench press
- Flat bench dumbbell press
- Incline bench dumbbell press
- Chest dips on parallel bar
- Chest push-ups
Most effective back exercises
- Wide-grip pull-ups and chin-ups
- Conventional deadlift
- Bent-over barbell row
- Wide-grip lat pulldowns
- Bodyweight or inverted row
Most effective shoulder exercises
- Seated barbell shoulder press (front military press)
- Seated dumbbell shoulder press / Variable-grip dumbbell shoulder press
- Machine lateral raise
- One-arm cable lateral raise
Most effective quadriceps exercises
Most effective hamstrings exercises
Most effective calf exercises
Most effective biceps exercises
Most effective triceps exercises
- Parallel bar tricpes dips
- Close grip barbell bench press
- Decline EZ-bar triceps extension
- Cable triceps pushdown (rope attachment)
Most effective abdominal/core exercises
Final words about exercise selection
Most sports and functional activities in everyday life depend on structural multi-joint movements. In all sports, whole body strength and power movements are the basis for success in running and jumping activities. Therefore, programs for beginners should primarily be made up of multi-joint exercises. These allow for intense work on a maximum number of muscle groups in a minimum amount of time. Isolation exercises can later be added to these multi-joint exercises in order to target certain areas that are delayed or that you really want to focus on.
The first six weeks of weight-training exercises develop the nervous system, especially the proprioceptive and muscular coordination of exercise movement. This development is reduced if the person uses machines that work in only one plane of motion decreasing synergistic muscle activation that may later cause potential problems when using free weights.
(2) Fleck, S. J. and Kraemer, W. J. (1997), Designing Resistance Training Programmes
(3) Fleck, S.J., and R.C. Schutt. 1985. Types of strength training. Clinical Sports Medicine 4:159-168.
(4) National Strength and Conditioning Association. 2008. Exercise technique manual for resistance training. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.