Workout exercises: How to choose them to progress?

Whether it's for gym workout or home program, you have to choose good workout exercises to build muscle. Because your muscles don't care where you work them, but not how you work them...

You must determine the order in which you perform them, the number of reps and sets, and the weights or resistances chosen. But you will see that there are still many other points to check if you want convincing results. All of this will determine the effectiveness of your sessions.

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10 criteria for choosing your bodybuilding exercises

In this comprehensive guide, you'll learn what makes some exercises better than others. I will explain the criteria that define an optimal exercise. And finally, you will see how to use these criteria to choose yours. Finally, you will discover all the Sport Chez Soi articles which present different muscle exercises in detail.

In order not to content yourself with aligning the exercises in your program, you will start by checking whether they correspond to your needs. To achieve this, here are 10 criteria to consider for each of them.

Workout exercises by muscle group

Before going further in your reading, here is the list of all the blog articles on the different bodybuilding exercises classified by targeted muscles.

Of course, it happens that certain muscle groups are solicited in several exercises. Indeed, a movement can easily target a different muscle by changing the position of the hands or the width of the grip. This is among others the case of pull-ups or push-ups.

Back Exercises

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Biceps exercises

Exercises for the Pectorals

Triceps exercises

Strengthen the shoulders and neck


Legs and buttocks exercises

Abdominal Exercises

There's a reason why the core should generally be worked on at the end of the session. You need to understand that almost all compound exercises work your abs. Sometimes even more than a series of crunches. You don't have to start the most demanding bodybuilding exercises with already dead abs. This is the guarantee that the other muscles cannot be stressed enough.

So save the abs for last…unless you’re just doing abs 😉

Full body strength training exercises

These are a little special and can be used as a warm-up, for intensive cardio or even during an express full-body session.

1. Choose compound or isolation exercises?

When you break down each movement you make, you can easily notice that you usually use several joints at the same time. For example, when you bring your cell phone up to your ear, you put an elbow and a shoulder into action. When you walk, your knees and hips are mobile.

These are therefore polyarticular movements. You will also notice that in real life, we rarely make single-joint movements. And that's what we find in bodybuilding.

Polyarticular or compound exercises

Compound bodybuilding exercises

If you really want to reap the benefits of resistance training, core exercises that work multiple joints are a must. These compound strength exercises include squats, deadlifts, bench presses, rows, etc.

These movements engage several muscle groups at the same time and you must incorporate them into your training plan.

Visible effects

Core exercises have the ability to increase your overall strength, quickly elevate your heart rate, and also improve body coordination and balance.

However, these movements generally require more technique than those that only use one muscle group. This means you need to be as cool as possible when making them.

Also, they distribute stress to multiple parts of the body, which is generally better for your joints. Most of the actions you do naturally in life are compound movements, so compound exercises also feel more natural or intuitive.

Invisible benefits

But they are also excellent for less visible reasons. This is because basic movements are more neurologically demanding and produce greater metabolic and hormonal effects. For example, they promote the production of testosterone.

You should do this kind of exercises at the beginning of your sets for 2 main reasons:

  • If you do them when you're super tired your technique will be poor, which will reduce the effectiveness of your training in building muscle;
  • Your movements will be uncertain, which will greatly increase the risk of injury.

Monoarticular or isolation exercises

Then you can move on to single-joint movements. These are the so-called isolation exercises. These relate to a single muscle and can generally be performed when you are tired at the end of the session. I am talking about muscle fatigue, not fatigue due to lack of sleep.

An isolation exercise is very important to finish tiring the muscles that participate in the main movements without being the first concerned.

For example, you can do wide-grip pull-ups for the back or rows. They will work the biceps at the same time. It is normal for the biceps to work at the same time.

But the back muscles do most of the work. And your biceps will still have some juice when the lats are done. You must therefore reserve series for them separately in your physical preparation.

And there, it will be monoarticular exercises since only the elbow will be in motion for example to do biceps curls. That being said, compound movements aren't always better than isolation movements for every muscle involved. This is particularly related to the following point…

2. What is the limiting factor of a muscular exercise?

The title of this point may seem obscure to you, but you will understand. An exercise will be more effective for a given body part if the latter is the limiting factor of the exercise. That is, if it is the muscle group that will tire first.

For example, the chest muscle is normally the limiting factor for the bench press or wide-grip push-ups. Although these movements also work the triceps, the anterior deltoids (front of the shoulder) and even the back a little, these are not the limiting factors. It is the pectorals that will tire first. These exercises are therefore better for your pecs than for other muscles.

Similarly, squats engage the back, hamstrings, and glutes, but primarily work the quadriceps. It's good, you understand the principle?

Determine the main muscle group worked

Therefore, while compound exercises can work many different muscles, they cannot be considered ideal for all of them. We rarely say “I'm going to do a series of push-ups to strengthen my back or abs”… and yet these muscles work too.

This principle also means that exercises for muscle building in which you stand on unstable surfaces like a Swiss ball will build very little mass, as neurological fatigue or smaller stabilizing muscles will be the limiting factor. They are great for athletic performance and postural correction, but not for bulking up.

So when choosing an exercise for your session, make sure you choose the right one for the targeted muscle.

3. Reduce the hard point of bodybuilding exercises?

hard point exercises to build muscle

Most movements have a more difficult point. This is usually when your muscles will give way. It is a real handicap in bodybuilding because the strength curve of the exercise does not correspond to its resistance curve. What does it mean ?

What is the resistance curve?

The exercise resistance curve is the change in resistance throughout the movement. If the weight is lifted up and down, like in squats or bench presses, the resistance is constant. Exercises in which the weight follows a curved path, such as bicep curls, will have resistance that varies throughout the movement.

What is the force curve?

The strength curve is how your muscle strength varies throughout the movement. Typically, muscles are strongest in the middle of their range of motion, so the strength curve will peak around the middle of that muscle's range of motion.

For example, when you do push-ups, the hard point is when your torso hits the ground. Or when the bar hits your pecs on the bench press. Chest strength peaks around the middle of the movement, but triceps and shoulder strength increase, and it's easier to hold the weight when your arms are straighter.

Pushing exercises are almost always harder at the bottom of the movement, while those that involve pulling like pull-ups will be harder at the top.

How to limit the effect of the hard point?

For pushing movements, you can match the resistance curve to the strength curve by replacing dumbbells or weights with resistance bands. Some weight machines also do this by using pulley systems that vary the resistance during movement. But this material is not available to everyone.

So, choose elastic bands for your weight training sessions at home rather than free weights like free weights.

4. Maximum range of motion

look for amplitude in bodybuilding exercises

To be as effective as possible, an exercise must move the joints involved to their full extent. Research has shown that it is more productive than partial movements.
In general, this means that the greater the range of motion, the better.

However, it is sometimes possible to continue exercise beyond the natural capacity of the joints involved. This makes the exercise harder, but it's also dangerous for your joints without improving results. There's no reason to do a leg extension until your knee is hyper-extended, for example.

Why look for range of motion?

The use of large amplitude movements improves the mobility of the parts of the body involved. And according to some studies, it would even be more effective than stretching sessions. Also, it allows you to use lighter loads while producing more growth stimulus. Lighter loads mean less nerve fatigue and less joint stress.

It is therefore better to make large movements with lighter loads or resistance than small amplitudes with heavier loads. Besides, some use such reduced amplitudes with such crazy weights that it becomes ridiculous. Type “gym idiots” on YouTube and you'll see uplifting examples of human stupidity.

How to have more amplitude?

Finding maximum amplitude means that for most upper body exercises, the optimal grip will be shoulder width apart, unless a wider grip is needed to keep the arms out of your way.

This means that for many of them, like the bench press, the range of motion will be hampered by the barbell. This is why the dumbbell press offers a better range of motion. The standing press with elastic bands also gives you great joint freedom. Similarly to push-ups, the use of handles will allow you to reach the maximum amplitude.

5. How to increase freedom of movement?

The best exercises for building muscle should allow you to move freely. The more an exercise limits your mobility, the less good it is for you. Greater freedom of movement means more stress is placed on your muscles than on your joints. So you can exert more force.

This freedom also allows you to cheat slightly at the end of your sets. Sure, cheating a move is usually bad, but sometimes it's necessary when you get to the last rep. Although long bars are the iconic tool of bodybuilders and other power lifters, they do not offer great freedom of movement.

Which bodybuilding equipment to choose?

For these and other reasons, dumbbells, resistance bands, or TRX straps are superior to bars. And of course, this equipment is 100 times superior to weight machines... but that's another debate (see below). Not only do they allow you a greater range of motion, but they also allow you to rotate your shoulders freely.

Your shoulders naturally want to roll in when your hand is extended and out when you pull your hand towards your body. By allowing you to do this, the hardware listed above allows you to exert more force with your shoulders while putting less strain on their joints. It's a win-win.

A word about strength machines

The machines can be divided into 2 categories:

  • Fixed movement: These machines are not recommended for your joints. They offer no latitude and force your body to adapt to the mechanics.
  • Cable: Cable machines, as you probably guessed, provide greater freedom of movement. In fact, many exercises with pulleys and cables are very useful and comparable to those with free weights or rubber bands. But the problem for bodybuilding sessions at home is the cost and the space occupied by the equipment. Now, if you can afford it, why not?

6. What type of muscle contraction to look for?

Here are the different types of muscle contractions and their benefits:

concentric contraction

Concentric contractions are the ones you first think of for your strength exercises. It is the one used when you activate your muscles to lift or push a weight.

Eccentric contraction

Eccentric contractions are sort of the opposite. It's when you use your muscles to resist a physical force. For example, when you squat in a controlled way rather than being crushed under the weight. Or when you drop your body to the pull-up bar.

Isometric contraction

Isometric contractions are those where you use your muscles while remaining still. Planks are the example that comes most easily to mind, but isometric contractions are sometimes used by adding a pause in a movement. This is what is recommended for hammer curls, for example, with a 2-second pause when the biceps are contracted at the top of the movement.

Dynamic contraction (best choice)

Dynamic contractions, in simple terms, refer to the combination of concentric, eccentric and/or isometric contractions in the same exercise. They are the best in almost all cases because the most complete.

You must therefore watch the effort you ask your muscles. In some cases, a dynamic exercise becomes concentric only because the weight is so heavy that you end up dropping it after lifting it. So make sure the weight or resistance can be controlled!

However, there are exceptions where isometric exercises are more appropriate. This is the case with planks because the abdominal muscles are more useful for stabilizing than for moving the torso.

7. Unilateral or bilateral exercise?

Bodyweight Exercises - Bulgarian Squats 4
Unilateral: You can work one leg at a time

An often overlooked aspect of muscle building exercises is the bilateral deficit (link to the American NCBI site). What is that ?

The fact is that a limb is stronger if it is worked alone rather than in conjunction with the opposite limb. For example, if you do quad extensions with both legs at 50 pounds, you'll probably be able to reach 30 or 35 pounds when using only one leg at a time. This is a phenomenon that may seem surprising, but which can be explained.

Why are we stronger in asymmetrical?

It seems to be due to the central nervous system. Your brain controls your limbs better when you only use one at a time. It must be said that in real life, very few of the movements that humans make naturally are symmetrical. Even when you push, pull, or lift an object with both arms, you usually adopt an asymmetrical position.

Of course, it takes a little longer to work both sides of the body separately. But not much more, because you can alternate exercises with little or no rest.

It's up to you to see and test what suits you best and measure the results of your sessions. I find that the ideal is to use bilateral and unilateral exercises in the same session. This is very easy to do with resistance bands or dumbbells. On the other hand, it is a little more complicated with the TRX straps, but not impossible.

8. What is progressive overload?

I'm not going to talk about it at length because a book would have to be written on the subject. But you need progressive overload to increase your muscle volume. This is why bodyweight exercises are great for beginners, but you often have to find a way to overload them to gain more volume.

The principle of progressive overload is to increase the weight or resistance of an exercise in small increments. In other words, you force your muscles to do extra work, either by adding a little weight or resistance, or by increasing the number of repetitions.

In practice, it is more difficult to increase the load for isolation exercises than for compound movements.

Which material is better for progressive overload?

It's also a bigger problem if you're using machines that often increase the melt by 5 or 10 kilos at a time. Dumbbells and resistance bands do better in this area as well. Indeed, it is possible to find elastic bands with a resistance between 1.4 and 2.3 kg or cast iron discs of 500 g (you will need 2 or 1 kg of additional weight in total).

Please keep in mind that you must be prepared to take notes to use this technique. Indeed, you must be able to remember exactly where you are on each exercise. Record the number of reps for each set, the number of sets for each exercise, and the weight or resistance each time. Who said it was easy?

9. What equipment do you have available?

You should preferably choose exercises that you can perform with the weight training equipment at your disposal. Of course if you train at home, it's often the one you bought yourself. And you certainly don't have all the equipment you can find in a gym.

That being said, those of you who go to the gym are not necessarily better off. Indeed, you sometimes have to wait for the equipment or the bench available to do your series. Especially if you go there at the end of the day…

But let's stay focused on training at home. There are many exercises to build muscle that can be done without any equipment. This is the case with the many variations of burpees, push-ups or squats. Without forgetting almost all the movements for the abs.

A bit of sports equipment is better

However, if you want to make serious progress and apply the principles of progressive overload, it is better to invest in this type of equipment:

  • Elastic bands with handles and loop bands;
  • Adjustable dumbbells and tilting weight bench ;
  • TRX straps and weighted vest.

For practical reasons and joint problems, I opted for more than 6 years for TRX straps and resistance bands. I reserve the weight bar or dumbbells for certain range exercises, but not those that require the joints. However, I understand that some of you prefer them.

Honestly, I've also always found it beneficial to do my sessions at home, and not just for long-term savings. But also because nobody else uses the material at the same time and I can do the exercises I want 😉

10. Is the exercise safe in case of failure?

Strength training safety
This one, it's badly crossed!

You should still be able to exercise safely. This is even more important if you are doing strength training at home. Because if your muscles give out and you can't hold the weight anymore, you can easily injure yourself. This is especially true for squats or the bench press.

This is also why elastic bands and TRX straps are preferred at home. Dumbbells and kettlebells can also do the job. But if you have to use heavy loads with a long bar, it's more complicated. In this case, it is better to have substantial equipment to protect you in the event of failure or a fall. In this case, it will be necessary to look towards closed squat cages or smith machinery. But budgets are exploding!

So which strength training exercises are safer?

Machines are inherently safer than free weights. Dumbbells are generally safer than bars since you can put them next to you. Pushing movements are even safer with resistance bands since there is not really a hard point with this material (see advice n°3).

The order of bodyweight exercises

If you're just doing bodyweight movements like the Lafay Method or the Insanity program, you might think the order doesn't matter. But this is not the case. As you read above, do the ones that require the most energy first. In general, these are the ones that mobilize the most muscle groups at a time.

For example, burpees tend to require more juice than decline push-ups. The latter require more than the classic push-ups, and so on up to the extensions of the triceps in support on the wall. And yet, you won't use any material, only your body weight.

If you are experienced, it is true that the risk of injury with bodyweight movements is low, regardless of the order in which you do them. But your sessions will be much more effective if you always follow this rule.

Make a list of your bodybuilding exercises

It may seem complicated at first, but the best way to learn is to practice it yourself.

Think about your favorite exercises. Evaluate them according to the 10 criteria I have listed. Look for all the ways to improve them and think about their place in your program. And don't forget to always start with a complete polyarticular exercise.

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Related words: starting position hip thrust trapezius exercises teres major push-up position pectoral stretching exercises aesthetic aspects of the deltoid

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Last updated on 2022-03-03 / Affiliate links / Some images are sourced from the Amazon Product Advertising API

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