Thoughts on Exercise Selection

I’m always thinking about how to select the best exercises for a given situation. I’m referring to what you do in your workout program. This runs the gamut from choosing movements that can help to correct deficiencies, to exercises that can embellish your natural gifts, or to motions that are “sports-specific.”

Your conditioning program includes the assortment of exercises that you do in addition to your sport, or as a health and fitness routine. There are a ton of categories and considerations that should be considered when designing a program, and selecting the best exercises in contextual fashion. I’ll list out some of the considerations that are either top of mind for me or which are frequently asked questions from clients.

Right and wrong. This could also be labeled good and bad. In most cases, there are no good, bad, right or wrong exercises. Usually there is a lot of “more or less better.” Sometimes maybe best. Honestly, it just depends on what we are trying to accomplish. However, in the presence of injury or a non-changeable dysfunctional condition, some exercises can be either relatively or absolutely contraindicated. For example, depth jumps off a high box are not appropriate for someone with a total knee replacement but a band-assisted low box jump (up) can often work quite well. We always need to look at the situation. We might want to use slow, heavy resistance training in the off-season to build tissue but in pre-season we might choose more power, speed, or skill-based exercises. 

What is best fit? This is the match-up of the mashup. It’s totally context-dependent and this is the artistry required of coach or therapist. Who is the athlete (or patient) in front of us? What’s their training history? How about skill level? Conditioning status? What are they good at? What are they lacking? What’s our timeline? Knowing which exercises fit the situation best, and then applying them effectively, is the sauce. You’ll initially get results with an untrained individual just by throwing a bunch of slop at them. But eventually, you have to be more precise. It’s not quite laser-cutting diamonds, but it takes some experience and know-how. And an open mind. And occasionally a little luck.

Isolation versus compound. Nothing is evil here. Sometimes we want to focus on improving strength, range of motion, and other parameters within a specific joint or muscle. This is especially true if we have an injury or a specific deficiency. But we also need to incorporate that segment into the performance capacity of the whole body, and the CNS. Single-joint isolation exercises and multi-joint compound movements both have a place.

Functional? This word is popular and it gets a lot of love and hate. Honestly, anything can be “functional” if it helps someone to perform a required movement or task. That recognized, some things can yield a high return of investment while others may be a bit more superfluous. Most people would say a carrying exercise like a farmer’s walk is a little more functional than a wrist curl, and it is in most cases.

Triphasic? Concentric (muscle-shortening)? Eccentric (muscle-lengthening)? Isometric (static)? Yes to all these contractions. The body uses all these muscle attributes in harmony during performance. Sometimes you can and should train them separately. Other times you can simply adjust tempos and capture each phase in the same exercise.

Tempo? Mentioned just a moment ago, tempo is the speed or rhythm of an exercise. In classic terms most gym or resistance exercise has 4 phases or stages: initial movement, hold (or not), return movement, pause (or not). It’s easy to express this in counts such as 2-2-2-2. Move the weight or your body for a count of two. Hold for two. Return for 2. Wait for 2 before starting the next rep. I like “counts” better than seconds because it’s easier to think in “1-2-3…” than “one-thousand-one…” and so on. Mixing tempos is a great way to alter training stimulus within a movement and get better results. I’ll slow things down for people who lack strength and control of range or position and speed tempo up for those who need more explosive power. 

Bilateral versus unilateral. Bilateral-saggital-symmetrical movements define many of the standard exercises we all know such as squats, deadlifts, bench and overhead press, pulldowns, pullups, pushups, etc. These are two-footed or two-handed straight plane movements. They have a place. They allow you to use high loads and to develop muscle maximally. But they aren’t all necessarily natural and joint-friendly. They fix you into positions that are a bit contrived. Training unilaterally (one side of the body at a time) can work the lower extremities in a locomotive pattern and the upper extremities in reaching and throwing (just to name two) mechanisms. Doing some of each is good but I find myself using more unilateral movements these days, both in my own training and in the programming I design for clients.

Triplanar versus monoplanar. This relates to that last topic as well. Whether you like to think of the body as a series of linkages and levers, a viscoelastic fluid-based system, or slings/trains/chains…human movement is triplanar. We are designed to wind and unwind in helical fashion. I’ve covered this in numerous discussions including a 3-part series on The Lifetime Athlete YouTube Channel entitled “Understanding Human Movement.” Making gym training a bit more triplanar can be very helpful in eliminating pain and improving performance for many people. Here is one example that a lot of people find helpful. Let’s say that despite your best efforts, you just don’t seem to have optimal mobility or comfort with a bilateral barbell overhead press. Try a 1-arm kettlebell push press that has you winding down and back and then pressing up and in slightly. This doesn’t have to be super exaggerated to be more comfortable on your shoulders, neck and back while still allowing you to really work this pattern.

Using the “Big 7” patterns. Squat-hinge-lunge-push-pull-rotate-locomote. These are great constructs to make sure that we are covering most of the bases and we’ve used this nomenclature for quite a while. I think it’s important to have proficiency in all those patterns and to make sure your training touches on each enough to maintain it at the level you need/want. But I do like to modify the movements away from the more strict versions for most people. Unless you are a powerlifter and you actually have to barbell back squat, deadlift, and bench press in those straight-line, fixed manners we have been talking about, you are probably better off in the long run (making your body last a lifetime and not blowing out/wearing out joints and disks) by making some modifications. Adding unilateral, triplanar, and multiple-directional components to these movements can be dynamite.

Order of exercises. Now here’s a cool one. There is some standardization worth following. Prep and warmup movements first to facilitate, activate, etc. Speed next when you are fresh. Or strength and power if that’s the goal. Conditioning or extra mobility, skill work, or other accessories toward the end. But all this actually depends on what the athlete needs and where he/she is in the season. We have these things called primacy and recency. Do first what you need absolutely the mostest. And the CNS tends to be able to remember/recall whatever you did last. Sometimes mixing up exercise order can be just the ticket to break through a plateau.

Training a movement pattern versus developing a muscle. It’s all good. Summer’s here so you might be saying “suns out…guns out” and working on sculpting your guns. Great. Or maybe you just need to get good (better) at a lateral lunge or approach jump. It’s actually pretty smart to bounce back and forth between these two areas of focus. Work a movement for a while and see how much it improves. Then hit a body area or muscle that seems to be lacking and holding you back just a bit. Then return to the movement and see what kind of change you made. This can be a fun Frankenstein experiment if you remain open to the possibilities.

Enhancing a skill versus basic conditioning. This is related to the aforementioned subject. It kinda hits on the old “perfect practice” concept. Sometimes it’s better to take your time and just work on getting better at The Thing, instead of doing the grind and working on mental toughness and doggone durability. But then again, we all need both. If you find yourself incredibly fatigue resistant but lacking effective execution, work on skill and technique more. But if you tend to fall apart later in a game or other pursuit, put more conditioning work into your programming.

Classifying a movement as only doing one thing. Oh, you mean this one works strength, this one works mobility, and that one is only hitting movement competency. This is sometimes true but a lot of times you can combine strength with mobility or speed with agility. Many times doing less total exercises, but doing them really well, is pure gold.

How do exercises transfer to speed? Not all that well, actually. Yes, there is a certain amount of strength needed for force production, but beyond that point most gym exercises just don’t move fast enough to duplicate sports speed. This is not to say that speeding up tempo in certain movements, such as a banded Smith Machine ¼-Squat (one of my favorites) or a hang clean isn’t helpful – it’s just still not as quick as a jump, sprint, or throw in terms of limb velocity. And what about stretching? Well, once you have enough flexibility to match your sport demands, more stretching can actually make you slower if applied unscientifically. We need to train speed using max intent and focus with long rest periods. True speed is actually about 7 seconds or less, down to milliseconds. Most people confuse relative speed, such as your 5k pace, with max velocity. Semantics yes, and all have a place, but good to know the difference.

How long before you change it up? Probably not never or always. If we do the exact same thing every time – forever – we get stale, both physically and mentally. And changing constantly or too often usually doesn’t allow for optimal skill and competency in a given exercise or movement pattern (we need reps). I’ll often stick with some consistent movements and concepts for several months, making minor weekly microcycle adjustments in the plan. This works for most people. I have one client who needs a lot of work on global position and motion proficiency. He thinks we do something different every time but in reality we are being redundant in pattern application with slight variations to help his CNS be able to recognize and produce the pattern in any circumstance. My advice is this – if you love routines, challenge yourself to explore some different possibilities every few months – and if you get bored of redundancy, stay consistent in at least a few things to see if you can really refine your movementsmith qualities.

Using a seasonal model. Do so. Please. The seasons change and so should we. Boring is the chap who drives the same route to work for 40 years and always eats a ham and cheese sammy at 12:15pm. I use the post-off-pre-peak season model with a lot of the athletes I coach. For myself and the Training Tribe, block periodization in which the year is divided into 5 different blocks of 2-3 months each works well. Macro-meso-micro cycle approaches are also great, especially for very accomplished athletes who like to look long term and manage data thoroughly.

How to breathe. Seems like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised how many athletes at various levels don’t have a handle on this. Do some nasal breathing at low intensities. Learn the art of compression breathing for heavy loads. Avoid “panic-panting” at high output. Master the art of using breathing to rev up for big efforts and to calm down and get parasympathetic between or after them. Key inhalation when you want more expansion and movement variability. Drive exhalation when intrathoracic and intra-abdominal pressure are needed. Treat breathing like an art form and an exercise component in addition to its obvious natural role.

Compression versus expansion. These are also popular topics today. Everyone has a unique body type, as well as life experiences and personality types. Some will be biased towards or better at compressing while others shine at expanding. We need both. Sometimes your body or sport will live mainly on one side of this continuum, but training yourself to be somewhere in the middle…and able to access either condition, is a great goal.

Honing strengths or shoring up weaknesses. Here’s my experience. You’ll never make your weakness a true strength. Yes, you can make it better, but only so much. And your strengths are your go-to’s in the clutch. I like to encourage people to hone and polish their strengths to high levels. It’s part of appreciating your inner, natural beast. But I also want them to keep their weaknesses from becoming pronounced and biting that athletic beast in the buttock, so to speak. Address weaknesses more in the off-season. Lean into your strengths in the pre-season and peak performance periods.

Training for athleticism versus body composition. A lot of people work out to get or stay in shape. Cool. This means they want to feel and move reasonably well but they are mainly thinking of pounds, waistlines, body fat levels, and muscular development. Way cool. But training to also make sure that you possess and maintain the Big 5 capacities of human athletic performance (strength, speed, power, endurance, and agility), is the magical gamechanger. Of course you want to look and feel good. But when you are a Hard to Kill, movementsmithing, peak performing, athletic BEAST of a Lifetime Athlete…well, I need say no more. 

Evaluating success. Have a few metrics, which we often call Key Performance Indicators in your training. Every month or two, test yourself on something, and see if your output falls within your acceptable parameters of excellence. If it doesn’t, use some of these thoughts on exercise selection and tweak your programming to be just a little bit more awesome.

As always, thanks for joining me and feel free to share any questions or comments with which I can help you and support you in your lifetime athletic journey. If you want to join the Training Tribe, work with me in a coaching relationship, or take advantage of some of the other TLA resources, you’ll find everything laid out on the website. Coach JZ signing off and I’ll look forward to when we meet again!

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