For many people it can feel a bit overwhelming to decide what exercises to include in their strength training program. This can create a barrier to entry for some people – they feel like they do not even know where to start, and so they never do. For others, it can cause a bit of “lifting ADD” where they try to include every exercise under the sun, often at the expense of truly developing a smaller handful of key exercises. It can also often result in people feel compelled to do certain exercises because of perceived peer pressure / public perception – such as “sumo deadlifts are cheating and everyone should only conventional deadlift” or maybe “everyone needs to be back squatting with a barbell no matter what.” I firmly believe that both of the preceding statements are significantly mis-guided. In an effort to help bring some clarity to the confusion in this area, I offer what I hope is a simple and clear starting point to determine what exercises to include in your training program. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but it should get you pointed in the right direction.
Looking at the chart below, exercises can be lumped into one of four categories:
- Relevant to your goals, and things you can do well
- Relevant to your goals, but at present you struggle to perform them well
- Not relevant to your goals, and you can do them well
- Not relevant to your goals, and you struggle to perform them well
Clearly, there is no reason to even venture into #4 from above, because if it is not relevant to your goals AND you cannot perform it well, then it should not even be considered. Let us consider #4 eliminated. This leaves us with options #1-3, and this is where people start to get a bit lost. Let’s take a brief look at each one, working backwards in order.
#3 Not relevant, and can perform well. There is usually little harm in doing these, it can just be an inefficient use of time and energy. That does not mean NEVER do them – just make sure you are not majoring in minors. This example can take on many forms.
For instance, if someone wanted to build muscle and get stronger (most people?) then their leg / lower body sessions are best focused on compound movements that recruit large groups of muscles. This might include variations of squats, lunges, and deadlifts (again, many variations of each are possible). What is should NOT be centered around because they are not relevant would be isolation exercises like leg extensions and calf raises. When these exercises take up the lion’s share of your training time and energy you are all but guaranteed to be frustrated at your lack of progress.
Another example I will not dive too deeply into are group exercises classes that make claims of building strength or delivering “long lean muscles” but include no actual strength training in their workouts. It is not far-fetched to assume this is because these business models are primarily focused on packing the room with tons of people, and so they try to focus on simple movements that require little to no instruction to create the smallest barrier to entry possible. The downside of this type of format is that it tends to be ineffective at actually building strength and delivering the long-term transformation that most people are looking for.
#2 Relevant to your goals, but you struggle to perform them well. This is where things get a bit trickier, and in my experience can be are more difficult conversation to have with people. I have seen many instances where someone gets caught up in the idea that they should be / need to be doing a certain exercise, even if they do not have the prerequisites that are needed in order to do said exercise reasonably well. In this situation I usually try to explain to the person that we should start the process by asking what the outcome goal is (build muscle, get more powerful, lose fat, etc.) and once that is established the next step is work backwards to determine what the process should look like to achieve that (including which exercises to focus on). It can be difficult and frustrating when someone gets fixated on the act of doing a particular exercise as being the actual goal.
I have seen too many examples of this to list here, but to help paint a picture I will briefly share one. Many exercises in the gym include lifting a weight over your head, such as snatches (barbell or kettlebell), military presses, and Turkish get ups. If someone has enough mobility to get their arm over their head in a solid position, then some of those exercises may be a good fit for them. However, if someone cannot lift their arm over their head, then what sense does it make for them to try and do exercises that would have them lifting a weight over their head? To be clear, I see lots of people who, for one reason or another, cannot lift their arm over their head … so this is a legitimate scenario. In this circumstance we would call the ability to lift your arm over your head a “prerequisite” for doing the exercise, and if the prerequisite is not in place and you try to do the exercises anyway, you will end up either A) frustrated, or B) injured, or C) both. A more productive path would be to circle back to the primary goal, and then determine what exercises are relevant to that goal that the person does have the prerequisites for, and focus the program on those. Of course, you can combine this with things like flexibility exercises to help them work towards achieving the prerequisites that they do not currently have, and you can revisit those down the road.
#1 Relevant to your goals, and things you can do well. At this point I hope you already have a clear picture of what I am getting at. In order to make long term progress, you want to make sure that the majority of the exercises in your workout program are both relevant to your goals and are things that you can do well. As simple as it sounds, my experience is that many people do not understand that you will always get more benefit from doing an exercise well than doing a “better” exercise poorly. This is true even if someone on Reddit or Instagram makes something look or sound really cool (in fact, it is probably especially true then). Remember, the real-life benefit of an exercise is directly dependent on a) how well it is performed, and b) how much hard work you put into it consistently … what strangers on the internet say about it is irrelevant (even if they have a big instagram following).
Of course, as you get stronger, more fit, more mobile, and more coordinated, the list of things you can do well will increase. Also, as you practice a certain thing, you will probably get better at that too. If there is something that you would like to do at some point but do not currently have the prerequisites for, my advice would be to A) hold off for now and focus on other movements that you can do well, and B) work on addressing your restrictions so that you can eventually meet the perquisite and said exercise will be within your abilities down the road.