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Pick Better Exercises: 4 Considerations all Elite Trainers Make

One of the most challenging decisions a personal trainer makes involves exercise selection. Training a client is a complex integration of the major physical sciences, paired with equal parts sociology, psychology, and even a bit of communication theory. How then, does someone know exactly what exercise to prescribe them? How does a trainer sort through the thousands of possibilities and arrive at the perfect one?

Your longevity and success in the industry falls on whether or not you write great training programs. These programs are more than just fancy spreadsheets with exercise names, rep counts, and percents of load. They are the blueprint for a successful project, and as such, require the individual elements within it to be just as refined as the master plan. Be sure to check out your ULTIMATE BLUEPRINT to a better career in fitness here.

These individual elements are the exercises you choose to do during a training session. Not all exercises are created equal though. In fact, most exercises are completely wrong for the person or their goals when they are chosen. There has to be a better system.

We've done a great job as an industry of weeding out the knuckleheads who tell us to do everything on a BOSU ball, or have us avoiding deadlifts and squats because "they are bad for the knees". Yet, there is still so much conversation about what exactly makes a great exercise.

Thankfully, the following system, and its four underlying principles are just what the doctor ordered - a way to pick better exercises and create better results.

1. Relationship to a basic movement pattern

Most, if not all, exercises in a program need to be based on the eight essential movement patterns of the human body. These patterns, vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull, squat, hinge, lunge, and rotation, are the integral foundations of all human movement. 

Thus, when picking an exercise for yourself or for a client it is imperative to ask yourself if you are doing something that the human form is supposed to do. Or, are you simply throwing spaghetti at the wall in hopes that you elicit some sort of response. The one thing about the basic movement patterns, especially when considering the addition of loaded carries, is that we have the science to show they create outstanding results in a variety of desirable ways. 

You can use them for weight loss, strength improvements, muscle hypertrophy, and athletic performance - all you have to do is manipulate the sets, reps, load, and rest periods.

Specificity is still key though, and speaking in broad brush strokes is great in conversation, but useless in programming. So, diving deeper when can say a trap bar deadlift is a specific variation of a loaded hinge, while a pistol squat is a unloaded, unilateral squat. A barbell bench press is an excellent horizontal push exercise, while a reverse lunge to shoulder press unifies the lunge and vertical push patterns effectively. 

All of the aforementioned specifics would look great in a program. Be sure to choose exercises based upon their relationship to one of the of the core movement patterns. Once you've satisfied this criteria you can begin adding the specific things that your client may want or need as accessories: arm training, glute-specific work, and additional abs or cardio.

2. Availability (Progression/Regression)

An exercise must be tailored to the person doing it. A perfectly performed goblet squat will cause significantly more beneficial progress to occur than a half-assed (literally)  barbell squat with minimal depth. Especially if the person performing isn't perfectly sure what a squat is anyway.

Thus, a foundation of exercise selection is its ability to be scaled up or down depending on a client. Every exercise should be thought of as a ladder leaning against a wall. What rung are you aiming to reach, and more importantly, where do we grab the ladder and begin?

Sometimes you'll grab too high and that's OK - you just need to know what you need to do go back down and earn the rungs below. Just the same if you go too low - reach higher. 

A squat can be bilateral or unilateral, loaded or unloaded, and be assisted or resisted. It can utilize dumbbell(s), kettlebell(s), a barbell, bands, perpendicular cable resistance, a TRX, machines, sandbags, and even a fellow human on your back. The squat can go to a box, a bench, ass-to-grass, or just a few inches to train vertical jump patterns.

You can add chains and bands to make life suck or hold your clients hands to provide unwavering care and stability. You can squat heavy or for repetitions. You can squat and jump in the air or on a box.

A great exercise is one that is capable of regressing and progressing seamlessly to the needs of the client.

3. Vulnerability

A great exercise also holds a level of vulnerability. The exercise should challenge a specific aspect of fitness that makes the client, or yourself, feel at risk of failing. NOW, to ensure this doesn't fly in the face of my previous point of scaling an exercise appropriately, I'm referring to fatigue, or subtle failure in this instance. No exercise or program should come close to typing out an obituary. We aren't looking for true failure, rather one that is relative.

Failure in a barbell deadlift would look like a great set with well-coached form that ends a repetition or two earlier than planned due to fatigue.

Failure in a push up would be the struggle to finish a repetition due to finally aligning the elbows and slowing down the repetition speed instead of bouncing out of the bottom. 

The vulnerability of a well coached exercise could also be referred to as the "area for desired improvement" since they are often one and the same.

We deadlift to improve performance in the posterior chain, so it shouldn't be surprising that weaknesses, and ultimately failure, will occur here. 

A farmer's carry with challenging resistance is meant to push the grip capacity and core control of the user, so the hands and lumbar spine will present themselves as areas of vulnerability.

To the contrary, an exercise that doesn't provide much inherent vulnerability would be machine exercises such as the leg extension, leg press, pec deck, etc. The failure on this machines would come in the form of poor execution (flinging heavy weights on extension or rounding spine on press), to simply equating a tired muscle to an excellent exercise.

The same idea goes for arms and abs exercises that are done in isolation.

The vulnerable point of the body is often NOT the point of emphasis.

For example, many abdominal crunches and raises put the lower back at risk of excessive extension or flexion. This is an undesired compromise. Many biceps curls force the shoulders into internal rotation and the thoracic spine into flexion. This is also an undesired compromise.

That doesn't mean you can burn out your quads on a drop set of leg extensions, or that you have to start wearing long sleeves because you always skip arm day. It just means that creating a muscular fatigue "sensation" doesn't qualify an exercise as great inherently, and therefore, exercises like these should be used in small doses. 

A great exercise is one that challenges something to the point of it needing to adapt.

4. Applicability of the Exercise to Actual Goals

Lastly, an exercise must be applicable to someone's goals. It must possess the versatility to be utilized in a myriad of ways to reach unique outcomes. The major movements (hinge, pull, squat, etc.) can be applied to any training goal if the proper variables are tweaked. 

A great exercise can be done as a straight set, as a part of a superset, a circuit, or any other programming  scheme. It's variability allows for quick changes to be made in intensity or complexity based upon the goals of the individual. Upping the load and dropping reps can make someone stronger while keeping the load moderate and adding in complimentary movements can create a density circuit that builds muscle and shreds fat. 

Under this foundation - a biceps curl isn't great. It doesn't exactly help you move better, lose weight, or gain gross strength. It is mostly useful for creating hypertrophy of the biceps. Again, it doesn't mean that it has no place in any program. In fact, it has plenty of space in a program that is solely aimed at increasing skeletal muscle mass and reshaping the physique. 

Thus, every exercise is valid if the goal is to maximize the benefit it provides en route to your master plan. If your goal is a bigger butt, then spend some time with that mini-band and smith machine. If you want a bulky back then you'll want to hit as many rows and pulldowns as possible to overload the stubborn lats. 

Yet, for most clients, and most of us in general, the applicability of these hypertrophy and "shaping" exercises is minimal. Our efforts are best spent observing the four foundations of an exercise and looking for the major movements that challenge multiple aspects of our human unit at once. 


A trainer is judged by their ability to string exercises together and create a program that elicits all of the desired effects on a continual basis. Utilize these four foundations to make your programs better - your results more obvious - and your clients more satisfied with your work.

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