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There are infinite exercises in the world. And if an exercise is any form of movement, then the choices are, quite LITERALLY, infinite.
The issue with this is that it can be overwhelming when you need to choose only 5-6 exercises for a lift and there are HUNDREDS to choose from. I get it.
The other issue I see with this is that coaches, trainers and trainees often just choose 6-8 exercises from under the sun and run their clients or themselves into the ground thinking that they are being effective, when that is likely the furthest thing from the truth.
It’s more likely that if they continue down this “any asshole can write a hard workout” path of programming, imbalance and injury will set it. Also, constant confusion is not how you get results. So there’s that.
We’re here now to discuss how to select exercises that are NOT from the “any asshole can write a hard workout” playbook.
The goal of today’s episode is to help you, whether a coach or trainee, to experience more ease, logic and confidence when choosing what exercises to do and when.
As you know, I believe knowledge is power, and EMPOWERING. I think when we feel informed and educated on a topic, we gain confidence and take more action in that area of life. This case – in the gym or in your programming.
Today should also help you understand why your coach might have chosen a certain exercise for you. Maybe you hate it, but since you can at least grasp the purpose of the exercise, you’re more willing to do it.
It is the decision to choose a given exercise and the REASON for choosing it.
The reason you might choose an exercise typically revolves around strengthening an area, improving mobility in an area, gaining power through certain muscle groups, the functional aspect of the exercise, or to build muscle in a given muscle or muscle group.
Which means we first need to determine the goal at hand. Then we choose the most appropriate exercise.
If you want to increase power output, doing no dynamic work is not going to be very effective, right?
You can also choose one exercise for very different reasons.
Maybe one person squats to strictly gain strength while another does it for a physique goal – to have a balanced lower half.
The goal for the majority of my programming combines these, and then leans more heavily towards some than others depending on the client:
But the REAL goal within all of those remains:
This is also why I encourage coaches to use an assessment of some kind. If you don’t know where your client is starting from, at least for 1:1, how can you program in a manner that will yield results?
My two week assessment lets me know all mobility restrictions + if my client is squat dominant, right or left leg dominant, right or left arm dominant, push or pull dominant, if they have a grip strength discrepancy, if they are strength vs. capacity dominant and so on.
THAT is what I base my 1:1 programming off of. If you have no clue what I am talking about, take the Active Life Immersion Course for coaches.
If you’re strictly going off of training goals, or aesthetics, this can be a much simpler process.
Goal – increase muscle mass in shoulders and glutes.
Or widen my back, and grow my quads.
Those programs wouldn’t be in line with my programming style of balancing the body joint by joint. The exercise selection in the body part specific program is going to favor say deadlifts, hip thrusts, and more hip dominant work, where as the quad growth goal program will favor squats, split squats and knee dominant exercises. I don’t see why you can’t have both personally.
If the goals largely revolve around mobility, then you’re going to choose exercises that get the client or yourself into your end ranges with control. Think cossack squats, and high box step ups, or eccentric chin ups to a dead hang and so on. These are all exercises that can build strength and even hypertrophy, but the focus is improving mobility.
I hope you’re tracking.
My point here is that you need to first understand the goal whether it be via assessment or written goals, or a combination of the two.
The goal is step one. We can’t select exercises with purpose if we don’t have the goal.
Once we have the goal, we choose exercises that will serve that goal + are IDEALLY in line with what you like (and feel).
For instance, if the goal is to build the booty, there are tons of exercises that we can choose that align with that goal.
This is all outside of actual program design by the way. So you would also need to consider actual structure of the program. For example, is there a main lift? Followed by compound accessory work and then single joint isolation work? Is it a body building, solely isolation type program? So on and so forth.
Just want to point out that you’d need to consider this as well, but this current episode is only on how to select exercises based on goals and likes/preferences.
That’s where we’re at now – likes and preferences.
Back to building the booty. I use this example because it’s an easy one to understand.
I’ll also cover the triceps because it’s a common and easy one to cover as well.
Say my client wants to build the booty, or working the glutes is simply needed in order to maintain muscle and joint balance. In this case hinging and posterior chain strength vs knee dominant exercises and quad/hip flexion strength.
Hip thrusts are the holy grail in my opinion. But I have clients who dislike them and/or have a hard time feeling them.
A quick switch up in exercise selection is to program kneeling hinges instead on the smith machine or with free weights. Their choice. You could also try a different angle – doing them off of a decline bench or from the ground.
Speaking personally, while there is a larger range of motion and more glute max recruitment for most people when hip thrusting from a bench, I feel more direct glute max engagement when I do them from the ground. That’s just me, so that’s how I choose to do them a lot of the time.
Another example – people RAVE about dumbbell sumo squats for the glutes. That is ALL quad for me no matter what I try. So, I don’t do them for glutes. Because all I can think about is how my freaking quads are on fire. I much prefer hinge specific work like a SUMO RDL for my glutes.
We want to hit the glutes from different angles. That’s for joint health and maximum muscle recruitment.
If the goal (like it is in my programming) is balanced joint movements and muscle strength, there will be sagittal and frontal plane movements for sure. A hip thrust or kneeling hinge is going to isolate the glutes, largely in the sagittal plane. I say largely because if we have a band around the knees or are driving the knee out, we have small abduction at the hips which is happening in frontal plane, but it’s not a frontal plane movement.
So, sagittal, then for lateral, I’ll do lateral band walks, lateral step ups, cossack squats, or seated or standing abduction. That can happen with a cable machine, bands or glute machines like the bad girl – avoid all eye contact machine.
Those lateral movements will work primarily the glute med.
As far as selection goes, choose the ones you or your client feel the most and enjoy the most! That’s the goal right!? Enjoy your workouts. We’ve got A LOT of choices fam. Some of my clients feel step ups in their glutes, real aggressively, some feel it solely in their quads. Now, most of my humans will do step ups regardless, but I have no problem changing up stance, height or load in order to get them feeling more glute – if that’s a goal.
Sometimes even pairing them with a glute specific exercise can help as well.
That brings me to single leg work. We have saggital, frontal, and now we make sure that we’re getting unilateral work – meaning one side at a time. Step ups fall into this, single leg glute bridge variations, lunges, glute kick backs – both bent and straight leg, so on and so forth.
This isolates one side at a time and ideally balances out right to left discrepancies in strength or size.
Again, choose exercises you ENJOY and feel. I LOVE straight leg banded kickbacks at a 45 degree angle. They DESTROY my glutes.
Okay, that’s a lot about the glutes. But I hope you’re grasping that when choosing exercises, ideally you’re finding ones that are mostly enjoyable and have a strong mind muscle connection for you or your client.
I promised we’d touch on triceps to I’ll try to make this brief and to the point.
Just how the glutes have glute max, med, and min, the triceps have a short and long head. Different exercises will demand more from one or this other.
As far as exercise selection, triceps can be tricky.
I find that cable extensions are pretty safe but not incredibly functional. If I’m working triceps with leg my clients, it’s likely to improve their horizontal and vertical pressing – bench or push ups and over head pressing.
Ideally I’d choose dips and seated dumbbell overhead tricep extensions.
With these two movements, I’d argue they are very “bang for your buck” BUT…
They can easily be limited by shoulder and T spine restrictions. Shoulder for dips, and T spine or shoulder for overhead extensions.
If someone lacks the mobility to perform dips, I limit the range of motion or have them do narrow knee push ups, where it is still compound, but the demand on shoulder mobility is not there. And barbell skull crushers in place of overhead extensions. Simple changes, targeting the same demand on the triceps.
If a client feels skull crushers more with dumbbells than a barbell, great, use DB’s.
And that’s it!
And find exercises that you or your client FEEL – ideally in the sagittal and frontal planes as well as some unilateral work. I mention that again because at the center of Built by Annie is balanced joints and muscles.
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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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