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Exercise Selection: 101

How do you choose which exercises to use in your training?

Do you just pick stuff you like? Are you a masochist and only pick things you hate? Do you only do chest and biceps because training chest and biceps is awesome?

Exercise selection, I think, is one of the biggest modifiable variables that separates the "always banged up lifter" from the lifer in the iron game who actually gets results.

Here are a few considerations to make when choosing exercises for your program OR when selecting YOUR BIG 3 for the BREAKING GAINZ programs.

1. What are your training goals?

This should always be numero uno when designing a program. You want to select movements that clearly align with your desired outcome.

Take this sample goal: increase leg size and strength.

Choosing an overhead squat to accomplish this goal is like trying to open a can with a spoon. Can it be done? Maybe... but it’ll take a long time, be super inefficient, and likely cause some bodily harm in the process.

An overhead squat is limited mostly by shoulder and core stability; not your legs’ ability to produce force. For this goal, a more stable exercise that is limited ONLY by the desired outcome (leg size and strength) will be your best bet.

Back squats, hack squats, and leg presses would be a much better choice here.

When choosing an exercise think... what is the limiting factor? If the limiting factor is the desired outcome then you will likely be making a good choice.

I am currently trying to improve my deadlift strength off the floor so I am using a deficit deadlift in this training cycle. This exercise is limited by my ability to produce strength off the floor in an exaggerated fashion; so this lift has always helped me improve the weak point in my deadlift.

2. Do You Have the Skill To Perform the Lift?

Trying new things is great! I encourage it. If, however, you need to spend hours on end simply learning a skill that will eventually lead to reaching a fitness goal then your time may be better spent elsewhere.

I run into this often with athletes who want to train power. Do I use the olympic lifts (snatch, clean, and jerk) or not? Between school, practice, games, a social life, and training with me - their schedule is packed. We don’t have hours every week to work on snatch technique. Instead, we pick lower skill exercises to train power.

Resisted sprints, jumps, sleds, etc.

If you are spending all your time on skill work, you will develop skill. But it will take a long time to be able to load the lift enough to make real progress if your goal is size and strength.

That said, if you have the time and want to learn how to do something - DO IT!

Another thought, does skill limit you in your goal?

If your goal is conditioning and you are using barbell snatches then you are short changing your conditioning by A LOT. Snatches are a high skill movement, you will be limited in how hard and fast you can push because you need to focus so much on technique. Using an assault bike or sprints for conditioning is a WAY better choice.

3. Does This Exercise Fit My Body?

If you are 6'7" with really long limbs then a conventional deadlift from the floor may be a hard exercise for you to perform all the time. Can it be done, sure. Our body can adapt to pretty much anything if the dose and recovery are appropriate.

Would it be a better choice to perform a high handle trap bar deadlift for this athlete? I would say yes because it takes much less effort and focus to get into good positions to train this lift.

Think about yourself and exercises you have done in the past. Can you perform the lift for weeks on end without any joint trouble or pain? Can you perform the lift any time of day or do you need to stretch and "mobilize" for 45 minutes before you can even get the bar over your head?

If you tell me you need half an hour of self mobilizations and SMR then you're really telling me you need to pick better exercises.

4. Resist the Need to Force Feed Lifts

People, myself included, get hung up on the BIG 3 from powerlifting. Squat, bench, and deadlift.

Are these exercises great? Yes.

Can you get stronger, build a great physique, and improve fitness without these lifts? Absolutely yes.

Even elite powerlifters take breaks from these exercises and use other exercises to get stronger and build muscle... and their entire sport is the squat bench and deadlift.

Final Thoughts on Exercise Selection

Make sure what you are doing matches your fitness goals.

Make sure you are training your goal and not training a skill. But, if your goal is skill development, then go for it!

If doing an exercise a certain way always causes you pain and discomfort because of injury history, body type, preference, anything - swap it out for something else.

Don't force feed exercises you think you need to do. There are literally zero must-do exercises.


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