So yeah, it’s pretty badass to be able to execute a good-looking clean… especially if there’s a little weight on the bar. Likewise, putting up a pretty number on a bench can make you feel like a champ. Is it all really necessary though? These exercises are considered to be staples of their respective disciplines, but oftentimes are butchered or overused when your goal isn’t to compete. So how do you know go through proper exercise selection when you’re building your program? Do some research and conduct a needs analysis.
In Part 1, you chose your goal and took a look at basic programming structure, i.e. training splits. Now that you’ve got the skeleton of your weekly program, it’s time to start fleshing it out with some muscle: the exercises. However, before we look at that, let’s take a brief second to discuss how you’ll be ordering your exercises.
It’s paramount to prioritize your most important exercises by placing them at the beginning of your lift. Importance can mean a few things, whether it be relevant to your primary goal, importance to your overall health, or the amount of risk involved if you perform it under fatigue. These are all factors that you need to take into account when starting.
In almost all cases, I prefer the tried-and-true method of beginning the workout (post-warm up of course) with the core lifts. No, not abs. Your core lifts… the ones you center your program around. These are usually the big bilateral exercises that you’ll be able to move the most weight with. They are also the most neurologically stimulating, making them a little more dangerous if placed at the end or improperly loaded. These are followed by auxiliary lifts: the single joint or unilateral exercises that might be a little more unstable but aren’t heavily loaded. They are there to add some corrective work to your program, clean up weaknesses, add hypertrophy after pre-fatiguing your muscles with the core lifts, or all of the above. A decent daily structure for an athlete on a lower-body day (remember training splits?) might look like this:
A1) Core Lift
A2) Core Lift
B1) Auxiliary Lift
B2) Auxiliary Lift
C1) Auxiliary Lift
C2) Auxiliary Lift
So moving onto exercise selection and the question asked above. Just because something is good for one individual, doesn’t mean it’s the most effective selection for you. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t clean, but if you don’t have the hip, ankle, and thoracic mobility to achieve full depth, it’s more likely you’d have to “check down” to a simpler variant like a power clean, hang power clean, or hang high pull. All are ultimately accomplishing the same thing (unless you intend to compete at the clean): explosive triple extension.
Take a serious look at what your goal is. If it’s fat loss, do you really think the clean is necessary? Sure, moving weight quickly will burn some calories, but there are multitudes of exercises that are just as effective at burning calories that won’t harm you under fatigue. Squat jumps are far less technical, require almost all of the same musculature (at least from the chest down), and aren’t always loaded… so your risk of injury is appreciably lower.
Once you get ready to flesh out the program, you’ll find that there are literally hundreds of basic exercises and thousands of variants of those same exercises. Keeping all of that information straight is enough to make your head spin, so I’ll oversimplify this. In regards to your lift, look at single exercises through the lens of the quadrant below:
Now, while any of the above sections of the quadrant can be performed in any of the three planes of movement (sagittal, frontal, transverse), it’s a good starting point for the purposes of categorization and training balance. It’s worth noting that since all muscles pull in order to contract and move the joint, push refers to moving the load away from the body and pull describes movement bringing the weight toward it. The quadrant below illustrates just what kind of common exercises fall into which category:
Side Note: You’ll notice there aren’t any Olympic weightlifting progressions listed here. That’s because they transcend categories. There are so many moving parts, both pushing and pulling, occurring at once that it’s impossible to accurately categorize them. However if chosen, they’re important in exercise selection and should be prioritized first in your workouts.
In order to maintain the health and integrity of your joints, it’s important to get a good ratio of pushing to pulling exercises. There’s a lot of literature out there detailing the perfect ratio and while many are different, they’re all in agreement on one thing: you need to pull more volume than you push. Doubling down on pushes and presses for your upper body creates a muscle imbalance that pulls your shoulders forward, leading to something called upper crossed syndrome.
UCS is an imbalance disorder where your scapular elevators become much stronger than your scapular depressors and the neck flexors can’t compete with the strength of your pectorals. We’ve all seen this guy before.
In the lower body, stronger anterior musculature (typically from pressing movements like squats) relative to posterior (pulling) leads to, you guessed it, lower crossed syndrome.
This disorder is characterized by excessive anterior pelvic tilt brought on by tight hip flexors and lumbar extensors as well as weak glutes and abdominals.
So… yeah. Exercise balance is extremely important, but as long as you’re pulling more volume than you’re pushing (more on rep ranges and load in Parts 3 and 4), you’ll do well in avoiding these disorders.
Moving on, let’s do a quick needs analysis. With all the hype about “functional training”, the best and most functional thing you can do is fill your workouts with exercise selection that mimic everyday movement patterns in your world, or correct overuse from similar patterns. I’m personally a big fan of training the movement, rather than merely targeting the muscle in which way you can. If you get in and out of chairs all day, you may want to consider prioritizing squat patterns some glute work. If you’re a competitive sprinter, exercises involving explosive linear triple extension should take up the bulk of the early workout training volume. If you play hockey, explosive rotational movements squat/ hinge patterns that force external hip rotation are a must. Your own body’s current limitations will also dictate which exercise and which progression of that exercise fit you best. Just remember to tailor the exercise to you… not the other way around. There is so much to get into and I just can’t fit it all in one article. The best thing you can do for yourself is to watch clips of the most popular exercises in slo-mo. Watch the joint actions. If they sync up with patterns you use daily, add them in.
As to which specific exercises to pick, it’s slightly less important than you think, especially when you’re just starting out. As a beginner, any exercise or drill will seem foreign to your body and force adaptation. What’s more important is the consistency. If you change your workout every single day, you’ll find it impossible to build real strength.
There’s a lot of people who still believe in muscle confusion. Most fitness boot camps are built on this stuff. While your muscles won’t be confused–most of the workouts use the same exercise, but done a little differently– it’s a solid game plan for weight loss. For everyone else, you won’t build actual strength. You won’t be able to move more weight. If your muscles are constantly doing something different, you’ll burn a ton of calories but won’t be forcing the cell to adapt to periodic increases in load, aka progressive overload. Bodyweight exercises might start out as strength builders at first but once you develop proficiency, they quickly turn into endurance feats.
In other words, if your goal is weight loss, you’ll still want to come up with a plan so you don’t develop any imbalances. For everyone else, be consistent in your exercise selection and stick with your choices so you can hit those marks.