Man doing push-ups with bars on floor
Posted: August 7, 2020 at 7:00 am

Although the concept of “indicator exercises” had been familiar for some time, I think I first heard the specific term from Joe DeFranco sometime in the late 2000’s.  The concept is fairly simple: you want to pick a handful of exercises or tests (usually somewhere in the 3-5 range) that you use to gauge how your training is progressing.  What is important is that the indicator exercises are selected in such a way that they are in line with the overall objective of training.  What needs to be kept in mind is that the training objective can vary wildly from population to population and even from one individual to another.  In an extreme example, someone trying to get drafted by the NFL will have a drastically different objective than a 70-something year old who wants to be able play with their grandkids.  One common mistake people make is that they think their indicator exercises have to be barbell exercises – and that is 100% not true, and in many cases barbell exercises are actually a poor choice.

Once the exercises are identified, then training should be reverse engineered to move you along towards progressing on them.  Typically this involves some specific training (e.g. actually doing the indicator exercise or a close variation of it) as well as other assistance exercises to complement them and to fill gaps for a nice, well-rounded training program.  One of the other useful parts about identifying your indicator exercises is that it lets you know what to cut out of your training.  There are simply not enough hours and definitely not enough energy to do everything all the time, so you must prioritize.  Having a clear understanding of your indicator exercises will help you determine what to do a lot of, what to do some of, and what does not make the cut.

One reference that is familiar to a lot of people is that of a college degree.  When you get your undergrad degree you declare a major, and the majority of your coursework is in that department.  The primary courses that make up that major would be your “indicator exercises” while others would be assistance work that helps the indicators or just fun electives.  Let’s say you choose chemistry (which was one of my majors), then your main subjects within the department would be general chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, and biochemistry.  While these would be your indicator exercises, they are not the only courses you take.  You also take certain amounts of math, physics, and sometimes biology because they help improve your indicator exercises.  Assuming you now have a nearly full course load, you need to be careful about what electives you take (and how many) so that you do not overload yourself and burn out.  If you spend too much time on your philosophy homework and do not have time / energy to dig into your organic chemistry that is a problem.

Now that we have that established, let’s take a look at some examples within the gym.

Starting Out

In the same way that it would be silly to have the same expectations of a white belt as you would a black belt in martial arts, it does not make sense to ask someone new to fitness (or coming back from a lay off or injury) to train the same way or with the same goals as people with tons of experience.  Here are some recommendations for indicator exercises for someone who is just getting going:

  1. Walking
    • If you want a great starting point to begin development of aerobic fitness, burn a few calories, and simply make sure your body retains the ability to actually get around when you are older, there is no better starting point than walking. One of the best parts is that you do not need any equipment or any coaching, just lace up your shoes on and go!  Start as slow as you need to, maybe an easy 15 minutes each day.  Eventually you want to work up to being able to comfortably walk for an hour straight.  Many of my personal training students enjoy going for longer hikes on the weekends when they are not in the gym, and they have even built up to 7-8 miles long!
  2. Plank and side plank
    • Establishing a foundation of endurance in the core muscles is important to ensure they can keep up with you as you progress into more rigorous training. If these muscles start to fatigue too much during training there is a chance you  will start to slip into poor posture and could compromise your lower back (in spite of your best intentions to maintain proper form).  A good goal is to work up to being able to hold a regular plank as well as a side plank on each side for 60 seconds, and to feel like you have room to spare.  Your form / technique is important here, so don’t just blindly go for a certain amount of time if it comes at the expense of your form (I mention this because I see it all the time).
  3. Push ups
    • These are fantastic upper body exercise that does not get the credit it deserves. They are an amazing way to build strength in your arms, chest, shoulders, and core.  If you can not do full push ups yet then start with your hands on an elevated surface (such as a counter or the seat of a chair) – note that I do not recommend push ups from the knees, and we do not do them that way in our facility.  Set a goal for yourself to eventually be able to do 10 full push ups on the ground, where you go all the way down on each one (imagine your chest has to touch a tennis ball on the floor each repetition).  Note that #1 above (walking) goes hand-in-hand here, because as you burn calories and lose some weight the push ups will get easier for you.
  4. Deadlifts
    • Learning to stabilize your core and lift with your hips is one of the most important aspects of getting stronger and keeping your lower back and knees safe. It would be good to work with an instructor on this one, since you really want to make sure you get the form right.  Typically we will start people with a kettlebell and keep them there until they are doing at least 100 pounds for 5-10 reps, at which point we can look at transitioning to a barbell or a trap bar.  A good goal for someone new to strength training is to be work towards being able to deadlift your own bodyweight for 5 repetitions.

Keep an eye out for a follow up article that will cover some options for intermediate and advanced populations.

– Tony Gracia

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