Have you ever wondered why we would choose to do one exercise over another? If you're a client of mine, you might wonder why so many of the exercises you've seen before on social media don't feature in my training programme for you. First off, the fact you're wondering this immediately puts you way ahead of the majority of gym-goers. The idea that one exercise might be better than another would never even occur to most people training in a gym. They just float aimlessly from one machine to another, perhaps picking the one they saw the big guy using last week. In this article, I'm going to try to explain the mental framework I use for deciding which exercises to do with my clients, and why I think they are the best choices, based on the best available scientific and practical evidence.
Multi-joint over Single Joint
Research is quite clear in demonstrating that on the whole, multi-joint (or 'compound' ) exercises will provide more 'bang for your buck' than single joint (or 'isolation') exercises. This means they provide larger gains in strength and muscle mass. An example for the lower body would be selecting squats over leg extensions (isolation). For the upper body, bench press over tricep extensions. Now, that doesn't mean that single joint exercises have no place, it just means they're not as important and shouldn't receive as much of our effort. I typically advise novices to just focus on the compound lifts until they reach intermediate stage.
Okay, a few sets of curls here and there is fine..
Free Weight over Machines
To be honest, the evidence in this area is kind of mixed. On the one hand, there is not much evidence that machines are at a disadvantage for hypertrophy.
However, when it comes to strength and transferability to general athleticism, free weights reign. Whether its your ability to sprint, jump, or tackle, free weights will have a greater carry-over. This is probably because they require you to use more control than a machine.
Now, maybe you are someone who doesn't much care about those things - but I do, and so I use them for my training with people. If you want to train with someone who'd rather make you a lion in the gym but a minnow for real life, there are plenty of them out there.
Stability over Instability
You will notice I don't have you do anything on balance balls or anything that is designed to make you wobble all over the place. The reason for this is very clear when you read the science - instability hinder your ability to produce force. And since force is necessary for building strength and muscle, I want to make you as stable as I can (without violating any of the rules above).
It's for this reason that I will typically choose the barbell bench over the dumbbell bench, at least when training for strength. Dumbbells are great for lighter assistance work, but a heavy set of 3 reps would be very dodgy.
Full over Partial Range of Motion
The research is also very clear that a larger range of motion will use more muscle, leading to bigger and stronger muscles. It's for this reason that we touch ever bench press rep on our chest, and start every chin-up rep with straight arms. The only exception to this is if you cannot get into a mechanically safe position with the full range of motion. For example, a small percentage of people cannot do a full depth squat on day one. In this scenario, I will usually start them squatting to a box that is high enough for them to learn proper technique, and the box height will be gradually reduced.
Measurable over Immeasurable
The thing I love about weight training is that it is so easy to gauge if you are improving. If you're playing a more tactical/skill-based sport, particularly a team sport, it can be a lot hazier to determine if you've improved. Whereas in strength training, you simply have to look at the numbers and whether they've increased. This is a very easy thing to do if you are using free weights. However, it becomes harder when using exercises with bands or your own bodyweight. For example, let's imagine you want to use a band for a deadlift. This presents a few problems. For one thing. the band tension is higher at the top than the bottom. Secondly, the tension will vary depending on the precise amount you choke down on the band. You also have the issue of the band's elasticity fading over time. Another example is a ring row. The resistance used in this exercise is going to vary depending on how low the rings are, the angle you have your body at, and your current body weight. Now, I concede that these are all factors that could be measured, but damn is it a lot more work than just doing your deadlifts with a bar and your rows with a dumbbell. I will at times use some exercises that aren't feasible to measure precisely, but they are always a stepping stone to a better exercise, or because of some limitation the client has.
I think the best way I can show you this in action is to pit a few exercises against each other, and show you why I would pick one over the other.
Barbell Back Squat vs Barbell Split Squat
I would choose the back squat because it is more stable. Not only will it allow you to use more weight, but it is probably safer, given that you have less chance of losing your balance and falling. Weighted Push-up vs Barbell Bench
Assuming you have a spotter or safety pins available, I'd pick the bench. The reason why is because the weighted push-up eventually becomes very hard to perform, as you have to balance several heavy plates on your back, without letting your hips sag. The bench press is by comparison far more simple to progress.
Chin-Ups vs Lat Pulldown
I'll pick chin-ups because they are more stable and easier to progress for the long term, and have a greater carry-over to general pulling strength.
Barbell vs Trap Bar Deadlift
Barbell deadlift, for two reasons.
One, the trap bar does not replicate picking up a heavy item in real life, where you will always have it out in front of you. I can't tell you how many people I've seen use this exercise as a crutch for not being able to properly deadlift. Secondly. the bar is more stable, and allows you to adjust your grip. The trap can swing around a bit much for my liking, and if you're a larger person you could be unable to get into a good position if the bar is too narrow.