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Exercise Selection

Today we’re talking about… exercise selection!

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Exercise Selection

This is a topic that even advanced lifters find difficult, as there are literally hundreds of exercises and exercise variations! The key is TRAINING EFFECT. You are looking to bring about a specific and measurable goal, which should help narrow down your choice of exercises!

The first thing you must be able to do when you put together a routine is justify each and every exercise selection you have made. There is only so much you can do at the gym and when you forget why your doing an exercise you’ll try to do EVERYTHING. The basic premise is this: every exercise – and it variants – have different training effects. Your goal is to select a given exercise that corresponds with your goal, i.e. correct a given technical problem, strengthen a given muscle group, protect an antagonist group, protect a supporting muscle, Correct technical issues, or to prepare a muscle group for future training stimulus. 

The next stage is understanding training effect. This means that everything you do, you do to bring about a specific (measurable) training effect. That, after all, is what we’re doing when we go to the gym.

The last thing we need to do before we sit down and put together a routine is decide a timeline for our given goals. Usually, training phases last between 2 and 6 weeks, depending on the adaptations (training effect) desired. I’ll look at this in a later article. 

We’ll look at 2 scenarios, the first being a general “I just want to get in shape” exercise selection type issue, and the second aimed at sport specific issues or specific movement/technical problems

In the first instance, getting in shape isn’t so much attributable to your exercise routine as to your diet plan, though there are some SERIOUS issues with mainstream workouts. To “get in shape” you need to challenge your muscles (otherwise why would they change???), and THIS DOES NOT MEAN 40 MINUTES TREADMILL WITH 20 MINUTES OF BABY DUMBBELL ACCESSORY WORK! (…sorry). The idea here is to maximize both training intensity (exertion as measured in weight or effort), AND to maximize range of motion of said exertion, as this will increase both calories burned and stress on muscles (which is what makes them adapt). So, for “body shape” and “getting lean” this means compound movements and HIIT style training. If you go to the gym and do isolation work (arm curls / calf raises), DO NOT expect to get toned or shredded or beefy or ripped or curvy or anything other than bored. 

Exercise Examples:
Squat / Deadlift / Squat Press / Cleans / Good Mornings / Jerks / Sprints / Prowler / Circuits / Pull Ups / Jumping Movements / Ab Wheel / Planks / or any variations on the Squat or Deadlift / Skipping etc.

These movements can be done as a complex – back to back (like we mentioned in our previous post), or in pairs, or done close to failure (within 1-2 reps) and repeated with a 1 minutes break in between (meaning 18 reps – 1 min – 16 reps – 1 min – 12 reps – 5 minutes break – next exercise)

HIIT Guide - Girl - Side Press

Ok, so if you’ve hit a plateau and are looking to improve exercise performance, a sample exercise selection plan could look like this (explanation below):

Technical IssueWeaknessExercise SelectedGoal
Hip Lifting Early On SquatInsufficient Quad StrengthSSB Squats or Pause SquatsAdd 10% to SSB Squat 5RM
KB Goblet Squats
Squat Depth Too HighMobility Issue (Ankles)Mobility Work & Front Squats with Pause (or Zombie Squats)Increase ROM by 2-3°
Poor Hip Position on DeadliftWeak Off Floor Due To Overemphasis on HamsDeficit Dead’sLift With A Lower Hip Position
T-Spine MobiliyLower Back Sore On Overhead PressingMobility Complex & Stretching For After GymPress Pain Free
Correct Posture


This is a fairly brief overview, but you get the idea. Try to pick a lift that you’re not happy with, and dissect it. Is there something wrong with your shape on the lift? Is your hip position out? Are you too Quad/Ham dominant? Does it feel like you could lift significantly more if it wasn’t for that one weakness holding you back? Now is the time to sit down and write out those problems and diagnose those weaknesses. IT WILL PAY DIVIDENDS IN THE LONG RUN! If you still want to use a template routine, I highly advise it, but remember that you can (and should) modify those routines to fit your needs!

The above table would most likely be from an introductory phase. Here’s a look at the reasoning behind the exercise selection process.

SSB Squats favour a more UPRIGHT squat stance, emphasizing the quads. It also forces the core and mid-back to work hard to maintain a good upright position. Both are very necessary for a more erect and stable squat.

Goblet Squats are to ensure you are pushing your knees out sufficiently in the bottom position. This can be a big problem when learning the squat, and Goblet Squats are a great way of reinforcing good movement patterns, as well as helping with good ankle mobility which is up next.

Front Squats (done with a light weight) allow you to spend some time in the bottom position, with an upright back, and focussing on your knee position, which will allow you to work on your ankle mobility. The emphasis here is not on developing Front Squat technique, but staying upright in the lift so using straps or a sting ray to help is perfectly ok.

Zombie Squats are an evil alternative to regular Front Squats and involve standing with your arms outstretched (like a zombie) with the bar resting on your shoulders (in front of your neck). This ensures you maintain an upright posture throughout the lift, otherwise you get very sore arms very quickly. This is an exceptional exercise for developing strength/stability in the mid and upper back…

Deficit Deadlifts are useful for developing strength in the start position AND for requiring better mobility in the hips and ankles. But because this is still a compound lift you can use some substantial weight, which allows for some serious results. Also, as mentioned in the table, the key issue was too much emphasis on the ham’s which means legs are too straight when initiating the lift. Using the deficit variety forces a lower hip position and more leg involvement in the lift. Another useful variation to help with this is the wide stance box squat.

As you can see from the explanation, you pick exercises based on their training effect, not because they’ll give you a big back or enable you to wear a t-shirt saying “suns out, guns out” once a year (don’t be that guy). This form of self diagnosis is time consuming initially, but with a little practice will allow you to progress much faster and understand your body much better, and of course – ANY QUESTIONS just send us a message!

For more information check out our HIIT page, Calisthenics page, and if you’re really interested in getting in shape, take a look at our personal training programmes!

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