Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Exercise Selection 101: How to Choose, and How to Not Choose, Exercises

Knowing what exercises to choose, and what ones not to choose, is not easy matter. What is a good exercise for your body, your goals, and your training level is not always going to match another person, another goal, or another training level.

But how do you choose? How do trainers choose? How should you choose?

Let's start with the opposite.

How should you not choose exercises?

Do not choose exercises because . . .

. . . it is entertaining, either to you, your client, or someone you are trying to impress at the gym. Even if your goal is to entertain yourself, your client, or someone at the gym, this is a weak reason at best to choose an exercise. Poor trainers may choose exercises for this reason to keep a client coming back, even in the face of a lack of results. It betrays a lack of confidence in their ability to get clients results, too.

. . . it's difficult. Choosing a difficult exercise is fine. Choosing it because it is difficult means that you're selecting based on difficulty rather than it helping you achieve your goals. If two exercises will get you to the same point, and one is more difficult, why choose it? Choose the most effective, efficient route to your goal. Poor trainers may choose exercises like this because the client cannot do them on their own, creating a perceived need.

. . . it's trendy. Did you pick that exercise because it's the gym's "Exercise of the Month" or "Featured Exercise"? Is it trendy because everyone needs to do it, or because they picked something difficult and/or entertaining to attract people to their personal training services? Poor trainers may choose exercises like this so they seem up-to-date. Basic exercises aren't that exciting, and results take a while to show - but a new, trendy exercise? The client and potential clients get to see something new right now.

. . . it's safe short-term, but not long-term. It's a bad reason to choose it if it's only safe in the short-term, by reducing chances of an acute injury at the cost of a greater chance of a long-term dysfunction. That machine exercise may be grinding at your shoulder joint, giving you long-term pain - but you won't ever drop a weight on your foot or tear a callous or bang your fingers on the bar. Poor trainers may choose these for exactly this reason - you do that machine exercise and break a sweat and feel like you worked hard, and there is a zero chance of a banged up foot or finger. But months later you might not feel right, or just show a lack of results. If the exercise is ineffective but harmless, it's still not worth doing, because it's not adding anything to your routine.

. . . it's easy to perform or easy to coach. Again, like safety, this is a great reason to choose an exercise, if it's not the only reason you chose it. Poor trainers choose these kinds of exercises so they don't need to master a lot of coaching cues to get you to perform it correctly.

. . . for dogmatic, everyone-should-do-this reasons. This ranges from everyone-does-them exercises like biceps curls, to corrective exercises, to squats and deadlifts. Exercises must fit the goals of the trainee and the needs of the trainee. Sure, most people need some extra pulling exercises, or have tight hamstrings and need extra stretching there. But what if they don't? Most people can benefit from squatting and deadlifting with a barbell - but what if, due to injuries, those exercises are strongly contra-indicated? Poor trainers will assign the same exercises to everyone, or randomly choose "corrective" exercise for a problem that doesn't exist.

How should you choose exercises?

Choose exercises because . . .

. . . they fit your needs. If you need extra shoulder exercises, do them. If you need activation drills, do them. If you don't need them . . . don't. Your exercises should match what you need to do.

. . . it's safe long-term. The exercises must be ones that are safe for you to perform, both in the short-term and long-term.

. . . it works. If it's getting you stronger when you want to be stronger, bigger when you want to be bigger, healthier (no matter what your goals are), faster when you need more speed, or leaner when you want to lose body fat, it's a good exercise for you. If it doesn't do that, it doesn't matter how great of an exercise it is for other purposes.

. . . it is progressive. It needs to be in the sense that you can build on it with more reps, more weight, less rest, more difficult variations, whatever. You need to be able to expand on it.

. . . it is sufficient to get the job done. It doesn't need to be any more, or any less, than the right tool for the job. You want the exercises that are the most effective and efficient way to get to your goals. Don't use a more difficult variation when a simpler one will do, nor a simpler one when a more difficult version is required.

You want to do an exercise routine that works, that makes progress towards your goals or those of your client.


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