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Exercise selection for intermediate lifters

Sample session

My approach to programming a single workout (or a ‘microcycle’, as it’s referred to in training science) is a combination of many different influences. I borrow from other successful training methodologies such as Juggernaut, Westside, the Texas Method etc. All these programmes may be different, but what they all have in common is that they all work to some degree. At the minimum, each programme involves lifting progressively heavier weights in the basic barbell exercises, while also including some other exercises for injury prevention and hypertrophy.

Keep in mind that my approach assumes that the person can train 4 days per week on an upper-lower split. I like this approach best because it allows you to hit your upper and lower body twice per week. Other approaches such as 3 days per week definitely work, however this requires full body workouts. The downside to full body workouts is that they generally take longer, and do not allow for as many exercises to be done.

Also remember that this is for INTERMEDIATES ONLY. By my definition, this is someone who can no longer break training records on a per session basis. Total body workouts done 3 days per week work great for beginners, but that is for a separate article. What follows are the 5 categories that I break exercises into.

1: The Main Lift

This should be some kind of compound/multi-joint exercise. Whether it is an upper or lower body exercise will depend on what day of the split you are on. As for which exercise you perform here, it depends on a number of factors. If you are a non-strength sport athlete, you will want to choose an exercise that will transfer most to your sport. If you’re just lifting for fun, then it should be the lift you want to progress on.

Make no mistake though: if strength is your goal, this should be some kind of a squat, deadlift, pushing, or pulling exercise. Isolation exercises, or silly bullshit on a bosu ball does not belong here.

2: The Builder

The Builder is just what it sounds like. This is the exercise that is most likely to improve your main lift. For example, if your main lift is the squat, and you find it difficult to stay upright, you may decide to use a belt squat here to build your quad strength. Similarly, if you are missing your bench press at the lockout due to tricep weakness, you could decide to do a dumbell floor press here.

If there is no glaring technical issue or weak muscle that is holding your lift back, then you should select an exercise that will build all the muscles involved in the lift.

3: The Balancer

This is an exercise that balances out the other stuff you are doing. On upper days, this would be a row or a pull-up/chin-up of some kind to work the back in order to balance your pushing work. On lower body days, it would be some kind of a hamstring-focused exercise like RDLs or leg curls to balance your quad work.

4: Hypertrophy/Bodybuilding

This is exactly what it sounds like. If you want to keep getting strong, you will eventually need to gain size. This section is where we put isolation exercises that will stimulate our muscles to grow that little bit more. Examples are tricep extensions, leg curls, chest flyes.

5: Prehab/Rehab

These are exercises that are performed either to reduce your risk of injury, or to treat an area that is already injured. Bear in mind that this doesn’t necessarily have to be a resistance exercise, it could be a stretch or a mobilisation exercise your physio gave you to do. Bear in mind that these exercises should be kept very light and done for high reps so that you can focus on the muscles being used, and not overtax your system.

If you’re not sure what to do here, I’ve provided a list of exercises that you should probably be doing. I’m not one to claim that any of these are essential, but broadly speaking, if you are bad at these you will probably end up doing them in a physio office at some stage because of some kind of niggle/pain that’s developed.

Upper body prehab examples:

  • Band pull aparts

  • I-Y-W-T-s

  • Bottoms-up KB presses/carries

  • External rotations

  • Hanging from bar

  • Wall slides

Lower body prehab examples:

  • Glute exercises (band walks, band external rotations, bridges, etc.)

  • Single leg work (lunges, single leg RDLs)

  • Core/trunk exercises (planks, hollow holds, side planks etc.)

  • Hip stretches

Note: A major inspiration for this article and for my approach to programming was this piece from Dave Tate at EliteFTS. We differ in some areas but on the whole I think his philosophy is very sound. His article is much more detailed than mine, and a very good read for those who are interested:

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