When putting together a training program for yourself, exercise selection is an area where there is a lot of confusion. This guide will take you through how to choose exercises and incorporate them into your routine based on your training experience.
There are some things that novices need to be aware of before they worry about exercise selection and programming, so we’ll cover those first. We’ll then get into specific exercise suggestions, with particular attention to the things we feel that intermediate trainees with differing goals (general body recomposition, physique competition, or strength) should bear in mind.
Learn Correct Exercise Form Before Chasing PRs
When starting out at the gym you will be tempted to see how heavy you can lift, or try every single exercise and piece of equipment in sight. These are both mistakes. Learning how to perform the exercises properly needs to be your priority.
In the next few paragraphs, we’re going to detail the technical reasons for this, but basically, the reason you want to follow this advice is because you will limit your long-term strength gains by loading heavy early on with shitty form. Only by becoming a skilled lifter will you truly be able to lift impressive weights, and skilled lifters treat exercises as skills to master.
You want to ingrain the movements such that your body will naturally move in certain ways without you actively thinking about it. By learning the exercises first, instead of picking up some random weight and exercises haphazardly, you will develop your ability to keep proper lifting form under heavy load, and this will enable you to train safely and more effectively.
When you haven’t learned how to perform the exercises, your ability to reproduce the same movement is limited. This means that when lifting heavy loads, you will more likely place stress in the wrong places, and not only will you miss out on the training effects that you are after, you will also risk injury.
If you take up many different exercises right from the start, you will have many different movements to ingrain. This will often slow down the learning process of each exercise. Resist the temptation to do everything. Limit the number of exercises you start with. Focus on learning the correct form.
Now, the focus is on learning how to perform the exercises that are important for you to progress as a trainee, not the actual number of exercises per se. Motor learning is complex. There may be scope for adding exercise variations to facilitate the learning process but deciding what additional exercises will help you learn better, often requires the experience of a coach, hence the recommendation to limit the number of exercises chosen to start when you need to make the decisions yourself.
If you’re interested in more in-depth insights, Greg has a great video on this, and there’s a great discussion on Brad Schoenfeld’s Facebook wall, with a link to an interesting review paper on the topic.
To learn the right form, the best thing is to hire a coach. The second best option would be to go to a proper powerlifting gym and make friends who can show you. But I appreciate that simply isn’t possible for most people. So, working with world-class experts, my team and I spent 3 years developing a 46-lesson curriculum to teach you how to master the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift.
We call it The Big 3 Basics. Here are our three free mega-guides created from that video series:
- 🏋🏻♂️ How To Low Bar Squat: The Definitive Form Guide
- 🏋🏽♂️ How To Bench Press: The Definitive Form Guide
- 🏋🏿♂️ How To Deadlift Properly: The Definitive Form Guide
Train With a Volume You Can Handle
As you continue to train, your strength will increase and muscle mass will follow. You will also increase the amount of training you can do. For example, you might be shattered after squatting 3 sets of 5 in your first workout, but in a few months, you might find yourself squatting for 5 sets of 10 with no issue. This is something often referred to as work capacity.
Doing more work generally translates to greater training effects, so improving your work capacity is a good thing. However as stated above, learning proper technique is essential when just starting out. And it’s important to realize that when your work capacity is limited, your ability to practice the proper form of your exercises is also limited. Thus, it is important to limit the number of exercises and choose the ones that are actually conducive to your progress at this stage.
Also, it is important for everyone across the board, not just beginners, to take into account their work capacity when deciding on exercises to incorporate in their routine.
The more advanced you are, the greater your work capacity will tend to be. But there’s a great deal of individual variability. Genetics, nutrition, sleep and stress all play a role in determining the amount of work you can handle.
So, if adding an extra exercise means doing three extra sets, that’s an increase in the amount of work you do. If you can handle that and make some additional gains, then great. If you have plateaued on your program as an intermediate trainee, and you have some room left for additional work, it might make sense to do that.
On the other hand, even if you have a long history of training, if you’ve had to take a break from training for a while you may find your work capacity is lower than it previously was when you finally get back to the gym. In this situation, it might make sense to do away with an exercise or two for the time being.
Greater Potential = Easier Gains
You can’t get bigger and stronger forever. We all have a genetic limit we were born with. However, when you’re just starting out you are far away from your own genetic limit and you have a lot of potential for progress. And when you have a lot of potential for progress, it’s actually fairly easy to make progress.
What this means is that there’s no need to be worried at this stage about not being able to do a lot of volume, or ‘missing out’ on an exercise you perhaps read in a magazine and are keen to try. All you need to do is learn how to perform the exercises that you’ve chosen properly, and get on with them. You will naturally gain strength, muscle and work capacity along the way.
This graph is a quick reproduction of what is presented in Mark Rippetoe’s Practical Programming for Strength Training. This shows that, as you continue training and gain strength, the complexity of the programming you will need to make further progress increases. You should also notice that when you are starting out, you have a lot of room for progress and you will be able to make progress on a simple program.
A Guide To Choosing Main Lifts and Accessory Lifts
We’ve covered how choosing too many exercises at random can be inefficient for making progress. So, what is an effective training routine for you? Well, it depends on your training experience and goals. We will assume that your goals are either physique or strength focussed. To help us choose exercises, we will categorize them into main lifts and accessory lifts.
‘Main’ lifts are the exercises that play the most important role in you achieving your training goals. Compound exercises are often chosen and used here to serve as a staple in each workout and in long-term programming.
The term “compound exercise” refers to exercises that involve multiple joints of the body such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, etc. Compound exercises work a lot of muscle and thus allow you to use heavier weights and train the whole body efficiently.
Accessory lifts are used to add more volume and increase the training stimulus in a program. They can be used to bring up body parts lagging in size, and strengthen specific body parts or ranges of motion. Compound, as well as isolation exercises, are used as accessory lifts.
The term “isolation exercise” refers to movements that involve a single joint. They tend to work relatively less muscle mass and thus only allow you to lift lighter weights. They can be useful in targeting certain body parts without imposing too much stress on the whole body.
Don’t Worry About Categorizing Exercises as Compound or Isolation Right Now
Some exercises are a little tricky to categorize as compound or isolation.
The hip thrust is often seen as an isolation exercise that involves the hips and trains the glutes. However, the knees also move to a degree, and this could disqualify the hip thrust as a single-joint exercise.
The Romanian deadlift is a deadlift variant that involves only the hips while the knees are kept almost extended throughout the movement. It is sometimes categorized as an isolation exercise, however, the Romanian deadlift works quite a lot of muscle mass and doesn’t quite fit the image of one, like a bicep curl, which targets small muscle groups. (And technically it also involves the spine and thus sometimes it is treated as a compound exercise.)
You may find this annoyingly confusing but you don’t need to categorize exercises accurately. What is important here is that you understand how main lifts and accessory lifts play different roles. You want to choose your exercises with the distinction in mind, and your overall programming should reflect that.
The Four Movement Patterns To Consider
Generally, we recommend compound exercises that allow you to use a lot of muscle and lift heavy weights for your main lifts, regardless of your level of training experience.
To help with exercise selection, we’ll categorize the compound exercises further according to their movement patterns: squat variants, hip-hinge variants, push and press exercises, and pull/rowing exercises. If you choose from these four, you’ll have your bases mostly covered. If you’re new, choose one exercise from each category. Just bear in mind that this is far from an exhaustive list of all the exercises that fit each category.
1. Squat Variants
Squat-type exercises involve the knees and hips. They mainly work the quadriceps and glutes.
- Barbell Squat
- Goblet Squat
- Leg Press
2. Hip Hinge Variants
Hip hinge exercises involve the hips. They mainly work the posterior chain consisting of muscles on the back of your body like hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors.
- Romanian Deadlift
3. Push and Press Exercises
Push and press exercises mainly work the triceps, deltoids, and pecs. They can be further divided into horizontal and vertical movement patterns.
- Barbell Bench Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Barbell Overhead Press
- Dumbbell Overhead Press
4. Pull Variants and Rowing Exercises
Pull variants and rowing exercises work muscles on the upper back and elbow flexors like the biceps. They can be further divided into horizontal and vertical movement patterns.
- Lat Pulldown
- Inverted Row
- Seated Cable Row
- Dumbbell Rows
How to Choose Exercises as a Novice
Introduce Compound Exercises Gradually
For beginners, we generally recommend they start with the big three barbell lifts. If you do decide to focus on the big three, your routine will not have any pull- and row-type exercise at the start. It’s temporary, and that is ok.
After you have built familiarity with your initially chosen lifts, made some strength gains, and gotten into the habit of training on a regular basis, it will be a good idea to add more compound exercises to your routine. At this point, again, you do not want to mess with many different exercises at random. Limit your options to major compound exercises.
Which exercises are appropriate for you specifically? It depends on a number of factors; what training equipment you have access to, what your long-term goals are, your body structure, and personal preference. However, when you’re just starting out, your body will respond positively to the stimulus almost regardless of the specifics of the program design, as long as you train with a decent level of effort.
That being said, as you are going to need to learn the proper form of the basic exercises at this stage, your best bet is a simple routine with a small number of compound exercises that cover the whole body.
How About Small Muscles?
You might feel reluctant just to focus on basic compound exercises without isolation exercises to hit relatively smaller muscle groups like the arms and abs directly. You may be concerned about certain body parts that you think are lagging. That is understandable, but forget it for now. By performing a set of basic compound exercises that cover the whole body, you will also get to train those small muscles.
Let’s have a look at a study that demonstrates this point. In this study, the participants were divided into two groups. One group did compound exercises only (lat pulldown and bench press) and the other group did the same compound exercises, plus a tricep extension exercise and an elbow flexion exercise. Both groups trained twice a week for 10 weeks and the researchers compared the results between the groups. After the 10 weeks of training, both groups increased their arm circumference and gained elbow flexion and extension strength. There was no meaningful difference in the changes between the groups.
Now this study only shows the results from 10 weeks of training so the differences may indeed grow larger over extended periods of time. But you can see that just by performing basic compound exercises consistently, your arms will also grow bigger and stronger. The same is likely to hold true for other smaller muscle groups.
It’s not that isolation exercises are bad and you should never do them but, as a beginner, you will find a lot of new stuff to learn anyway. However, while your work capacity is not high and the amount of quality practice you can do is limited, it makes sense to use that limited capacity on the compound exercises that will make the biggest difference to your physique.
Summary for Novice Exercise Selection Choice
- Start with compound exercises as your main lifts. This will allow you to practice the basic movement patterns and train a lot of muscle mass. Limit the number of exercises so that you can learn the proper form quickly, and train the body effectively while your work capacity is limited. The compound exercises train small muscles, which include your arms, shoulders, and to an extent, your abs too.
- Choose one exercise that represents each of the basic movement patterns; squat, hip hinge, push & press, and pull & row. By incorporating all these movement patterns you will be able to train most of your body with a small number of exercises.
How to Choose Exercises After The Novice Stage
As you make progress as a trainee, your progress will gradually slow down. This can be a sign that you are graduating from the novice stage. The more experienced and adapted you are, the more noticeable this slowing down of progress will be. You will need to adjust your training in order to make sure that you continue to make progress. This can be done through a number of ways; incorporating new exercises, changing the numbers of sets and reps, increasing the total training volume. Designing a program specific to the goals of your training becomes more important as you progress from a novice to an intermediate and onwards.
From here, we’ll talk about how you might want to choose exercises according to your training goals. As we’ll be going though a few studies on leg training, let’s quickly cover each of the major muscles in the lower body.
Goal 1: General Body Recomposition – Use Compound Exercises As Accessory Lifts
If you are just looking to improve your body composition in a general sense by gaining muscle and losing fat, in many cases using compound exercises as accessory lifts offers an advantage. Your training is not about chasing a perfectly developed physique and thus it doesn’t require targeting every single small muscle with a bunch of isolation exercises.
- Compound exercises also work smaller muscles, and you can effectively add volume to each muscle group without isolation exercises.
- Your training will be more time-efficient this way, which is an important consideration if you are a recreational trainee with a tight schedule (like Japanese salarymen).
- Incorporating multiple compound exercises may allow you to train a muscle in a more uniform manner.
To illustrate the last point further, let’s have a look at this study. The researchers had one group of participants perform the squat only and another group perform the leg press, deadlift, and lunge in addition to the squat for 12 weeks and compared quad growth between the groups. Fig 4 shows how much their quads grew as a whole.
Both groups performed the same amount of volume and there was no difference in hypertrophy of the quads as a whole. However, the researchers also examined how much each head of the quads grew and it revealed that the group that performed the squat only experienced considerably less growth in the vastus medialis and rectus femoris, whereas the group that did the four exercises experienced more uniform growth.
- Incorporating multiple exercises will likely allow you to train the same muscle in a more balanced way.
- Adding accessory exercises to your main lifts is worth consideration if developing an aesthetically-balanced physique is the primary goal.
Goal 2: Competition-level Physique Development – Add More Isolation Exercises
If you’re looking to compete in a bodybuilding contest or trying to build a body like a competitive bodybuilder, then optimizing the balance of each and every small muscle becomes an important goal of your training. Using compound exercises as your accessory lifts in addition to your main lifts will not be enough to pursue completeness at a high level. There will be scope for adding more isolation exercises to hit body parts that compound exercises alone cannot cover sufficiently without compromising balanced development or risking injury.
The barbell squat is often referred to as the king of all exercises and is used by many as the main lift for leg training. Some people go so far as to say that the squat alone will train all leg muscles, but as we saw from the study above, it will not lead to the most balanced development.
Yes, in the squat the quads work very hard to extend the knee, but in the study above, the rectus femoris didn’t grow as much as the other heads of the quads (as shown in Fig 5). Thus, the squat alone is likely not enough to develop a #perfectleg.
On the other hand, the leg extension, an isolation exercise for the quads works the rectus femoris very hard. Thus, it might be not such bad idea to use the leg extension as an accessory lift in addition to the squat.
Next, let’s look at the hamstrings, the muscles on the back of your thigh. Here’s a study that looked at the muscle activation in the parallel squat, full squat and front squat. The hamstrings only showed weak activation regardless of the squat style. Based on this, adding other exercises is likely necessary to properly develop the hamstrings.
But training the hamstrings may not be quite as simple as it sounds because not all exercises train the hamstrings the same way. This study compared hamstring activation between the leg curl and RDL. These two exercises worked the hamstrings just as hard near the hips, but the leg curl worked them harder near the knee. What this means is that you may want to choose one exercise or the other depending on which part of the hamstrings you want to develop.
We’ve talked about studies on leg training but many of the concepts will hold true for other body parts. For example, if you want to improve the definition of your abs, you may be better off adding an isolation exercise specifically for hypertrophy of the rectus abdominis.
- There’s value in adding isolation exercises if your goal is to develop a physique at a high level, like a competitive bodybuilder.
- When your goal is to develop a competition-level physique, it is a viable strategy to add isolation exercises to a routine that already consists mainly of compound exercises.
Goal 3: Lifting Heavy – Use Accessory Exercises To Address Weak Links
If your goal is to lift as heavy as possible on certain exercises, it’s very important to do a lot of practice with those exercises so you learn how to efficiently move your body and exert force in that movement. So, if you want to lift heavy on the three power lifts, a lot of time in your training program needs to be spent practicing the squat, bench press and deadlift.
Additionally, you may choose your accessory exercises to address any weaknesses that are limiting how much you can lift in those exercises.
For example, nearly all the muscles of the back contribute to the deadlift, yet many of them are only trained isometrically, and the eccentric is typically uncontrolled. Thus, the amount of actual training stimulus on muscles like the lats and scapular retractors is questionable, and it has long been proposed by powerlifters that both deadlifting skill and “back building accessory work” needs to be performed.
However, there hasn’t been much research done in the area of accessory exercises, so we can’t say that it has been fully supported by science. It’s likely that it hasn’t been fully investigated because adjusting accessory work (like adding isolation exercises for hypertrophy of small muscles) will take long timeframes before it translates to measurable changes in the heavy weights used on the main lifts, which makes for prohibitive study designs. It’s important to note however that this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work.
Many different options can be used as accessory lifts. We’ve listed some of the regulars in the table below.
Summary for Exercise Selection Choice After the Intermediate Stage
- Program design and exercise selection specific to your goals becomes more important as you progress.
- For general body composition improvement, use compound exercises predominantly for efficiency.
- For competition-level physique development, use more isolation exercises to address small body parts that compound exercises alone cannot hit adequately.
- For lifting heavy on certain exercises, consider adjusting accessory work to address weaknesses, even though this strategy has a weaker evidence base in support of it.
When putting together a training program for yourself, exercise selection is an area where there is a lot of confusion.
For novice trainees, focus on the basic movement patterns; the squat, hip hinge, push and presses, and pulls and rows. Limit the number of exercises you do to ensure you’re able to get in a high quality (and frequency) of practice with the exercises that matter, while your work capacity is limited. As you gain experience and familiarity with the exercises, add other compound exercises. What you will learn here will lay the foundation upon which you will be adjusting your programming even after you’ve moved onto the intermediate stage.
At the intermediate stage and onwards, it becomes more and more important that your exercise selection is specific to your situation. Decide both main lifts and accessory lifts according to your goals. There may be situations where isolation exercises come in handy.
We hope this article has been useful in laying out a roadmap for exercise selection according to your experience level as a trainee. We hope that now you have a good grasp of the concepts, decisions are much easier to make.
Thank you for reading,
– Naoto and Kengo.
^ This is an article that Kengo and Naoto put together for our Japanese site. I was so impressed that I suggested we have it on Rippedbody.com too. The translation into English is by Kengo. – Andy