Whether you want to work out in the gym or follow a program at home, you must choose the right workout exercises. 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 the weights or resistances chosen. But you will see that there are many other points to check if you want convincing results. All this will determine the effectiveness of your sessions.
Table of Contents
- 10 criteria to choose your exercises
- Exercises for the vast majority of muscles
- Full body exercises
- 1. Tips on isolation or compound exercises
- 2. The limiting factor of a muscular exercise
- 3. Reduce the hard point of an exercise
- 4. Maximum range of motion
- 5. How to increase freedom of movement?
- 6. What type of contraction should I look for?
- 7. Unilateral or bilateral exercise?
- 8. What is progressive overload?
- 9. What equipment do you have available?
- 10. Is exercise safe when you go to failure?
- The order of the exercises without equipment
- Choose the best weight training exercises
10 criteria to choose your exercises
In this comprehensive guide, you will learn what makes some exercises better than others. I'll explain the criteria that define an optimal exercise. And finally, you'll see how to use these criteria to choose your own. Finally, you'll learn about all the Sport Chez Soi articles that feature different exercises in detail.
In order to go beyond simply lining up exercises in your program, you'll want to start by checking if they fit your needs. To do this, here are 10 criteria to consider for each of them.
Exercises for the vast majority of muscles
Before you read any further, here is a list of all the blog posts on the different bodybuilding exercises categorized.
Of course, it happens that the muscles used with one group are also used with another. Indeed, a movement can easily work a different part of the body by changing the position of the hands or the width of the grip. This is for example the case for pull-ups or push-ups.
In particular, they involve the long back, the trapezius (although it is also used with the shoulders), the rhomboid, the lumbar and the erectors of the spine. To learn more about the anatomy of the back, read this article. You will find the best exercises to work this part of the body in these different articles:
- Note: We are selling a pair of the adjustable dumbbells...
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- Full body exercise – with the adjustable dumbbells...
Biceps (and forearm) exercises
What can I say about biceps training, except that it is often the focus of men. And often wrongly so, as you'll see below. In any case, here are some interesting topics about biceps:
Push-ups are the foundation of most bodyweight workouts. This multi-joint movement allows you to gain volume in the chest, arms and shoulders. In addition, it can be done anywhere and anytime. But there are many other possibilities for optimizing pectoral strength training, as you will see in these articles:
We always think of the biceps when we want big arms, but this is a mistake. In fact, the triceps are the largest part of the arm. So give them priority.
Shoulder exercises are often poorly executed because they are complex and fragile joints that require a different approach. When we start doing sports, we tend to ask too much of the 3 deltoid fascicles. You must first learn all the movements and perform them correctly and gently.
Exercises for legs, thighs, buttocks and hips
In anatomy, the legs represent the part between the knee and the ankle, and thus primarily the calf. The thighs primarily include the quadriceps in the front and the hamstrings in the back. The buttocks contain several muscles called the gluteus minimus, gluteus medius and gluteus maximus. These are the most powerful muscles in the body and should not be neglected. The hips often work in conjunction with the lower extremities, especially the adductors and abductors.
Here are some topics that may interest you:
There is a reason why the abdominal muscles should generally be worked at the end of the session. You need to understand that almost all compound exercises work your abs. Sometimes even more than a set of crunches. You don't want to start the most strenuous movements with already dead abs. This guarantees that the other muscles will not be able to get enough work done.
So save the abs for last... unless you're just doing abs 😉
Full body 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. Tips on isolation or compound exercises
When you break down each movement you make, you can easily notice that you are usually using several joints at the same time. For example, when you bring your cell phone to your ear, you put an elbow and a shoulder into action. When you walk, your knees and hips are moving.
These are therefore polyarticular movements. You will notice that in real life, we rarely do monoarticular movements. And this is what we find in weight training.
Polyarticular or compound exercises
If you really want to reap the benefits of resistance training, basic movements that engage multiple joints are a must. These compound exercises include the squat, deadlift, bench press, dips, rowing, etc.
They involve several muscle groups at the same time and you need to incorporate them into your training plan.
Core exercises have the ability to increase your overall strength, quickly raise your heart rate and improve coordination and body balance.
However, they generally require more technique than those that only involve one muscle group. This means you need to be as fresh as possible when doing them.
In addition, they spread the stress over several parts of the body, which is generally better for your joints. Most of the actions you do naturally in life involve multiple joints. That's why compound movements also feel more natural or intuitive.
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 need to do these types of exercises at the beginning of your sets for 2 main reasons:
- If you do them when you are super tired your technique will be poor, which will reduce the effectiveness of your volume training;
- Your movements will lack confidence, which will greatly increase the risk of injury.
Single joint or isolation exercises
Next, you can move on to movements that involve a single joint. These are what we call isolation exercises. These are single-joint exercises and can usually be done when you are tired, at the end of the session. This is the case, for example, with calf extensions, which only move the ankles.
An isolation exercise is very important to finish tiring the muscles that participate in the main movements without being the first ones involved.
For example, you can do wide grip pull-ups for the back or rowing. They work the biceps at the same time, which is normal.
But the backs do most of the work. And your biceps will still have juice when the big backs are done. So you need to set aside separate sets for them in your training.
And here, it will be monoarticular exercises since only the elbow will be in motion for example to do biceps curls. That being said, compound movements are not always better than isolation movements for each muscle involved. This is especially related to the following point...
2. The limiting factor of a muscular exercise
The title of this point may seem obscure to you, but you'll get the idea. An exercise will be more effective for a given body part if that body part is the limiting factor in the exercise. That is, if it is the muscle group that will fatigue first.
For example, the pectoral is normally the limiting factor for the bench press or the wide grip push-ups. Although these movements also involve the triceps, the anterior deltoids (front of the shoulder) and even the back, these are not the limiting factors. It is the pectoral muscles that will tire first. These exercises are therefore better for your pectoral muscles than for the other muscles.
Similarly, squats involve the back, hamstrings, and glutes, but they work the quadriceps first and foremost. All right, you get the idea?
Determine the main muscle group worked
Therefore, while a compound exercise can work many different groups, they cannot be considered ideal for each. We rarely say, "I'll do a set of push-ups for my back or abs"... yet those work too.
This principle also means that any weight training exercises where you stand on unstable surfaces like a swiss ball will build little mass. This is because neurological fatigue or smaller stabilizing muscles will be the limiting factor. This type of training is very useful for athletic performance and postural correction, but not for building volume.
So when choosing an exercise for your session, make sure you choose the right one for the body part you are targeting.
3. Reduce the hard point of an exercise
Most movements have a more difficult point. This is usually the point where you will fail at the end of the set. This is a real handicap in strength training because the strength curve of the exercise does not match its resistance curve. What does this mean?
What is the resistance curve?
The resistance curve of the exercise is the variation in resistance throughout the movement. If the weight is lifted up and down, as in squats or bench press, the resistance is constant. When the weight follows a curved path, as in bicep curls, the resistance varies throughout the movement.
What is the force curve?
The force curve is how your muscle strength varies throughout the movement. As a general rule, muscles are strongest in the middle of their range of motion, so the force curve will peak around the middle of the range of motion.
For example, when you do push-ups, the hardest part is when your torso touches the floor. Or when the bar touches your pecs in bench presses. Pectoral strength peaks around the middle of the movement, but triceps and shoulder strength increases, and it's easier to hold the weight when your arms are straighter.
Pushing movements are almost always harder at the bottom of the movement, while pulling movements such as 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 force curve by replacing the free loads with the resistance bands. Some weight machines also do this by using pulley systems that vary the resistance during the movement. But this equipment 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
To be most effective, an exercise must move the joints involved to their full range of motion. Research has shown that this 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 an exercise beyond the natural capacity of the joints involved. This makes the exercise more difficult, but it is also dangerous for your joints without improving the results. There is no reason to do a leg extension until your knee is hyper-extended, for example.
Why look for joint amplitude?
The use of large-amplitude movements improves the mobility of the body parts involved. And according to some studies, it's even more effective than stretching. In addition, 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 use large movements with lighter loads or resistance than small amplitudes with heavier loads. In fact, some people use such small amplitudes with such crazy weights that it becomes ridiculous. Type "gym idiots" on YouTube and you will see some edifying examples of human stupidity.
How to have more amplitude?
Seeking maximum range means that for most upper body exercises, the optimal grip will be at shoulder width, unless a wider grip is needed to keep your arms out of the way.
This means that for many of them, such as the bench press, the range of motion will be restricted by the barbell. This is why the barbell bench press offers a better range of motion. The standing bench press with elastic bands also gives you great joint freedom. Similarly, when doing push-ups, the use of handles will allow you to reach the maximum range of motion.
5. How to increase freedom of movement?
The best exercises should allow you to move freely. The more an exercise limits your mobility, the worse it is. More freedom of movement means that more stress is placed on the muscles than on the joints. This allows you to exert more strength.
This freedom also allows you to cheat a little at the end of your sets. Of course, cheating a movement is usually bad, but sometimes it's necessary when you get to the last rep. Although long bars are the signature tool of bodybuilders and other power lifters, they don't offer much freedom of movement.
Which bodybuilding equipment to choose?
For these and other reasons, dumbbells, elastic bands or TRX straps are superior to bars. And of course, they are 100 times better than 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 freely rotate your shoulders.
Your shoulders naturally want to rotate inward when your hand is extended and outward when you pull your hand toward your body. By allowing you to do this, the equipment listed above allows you to exert more force with your shoulders while putting less pressure on their joints. It's a win-win situation.
A word about strength machines
The machines can be divided into 2 categories:
- Fixed motion: These machines are not recommended for your joints. They offer no latitude of execution and force your body to adapt to the mechanics.
- Cable: Cable machines, as you may have guessed, offer greater freedom of movement. In fact, many exercises with pulleys and cables are very useful and comparable to those with free weights or elastics. But the problem with home weight training sessions is the cost and the space taken up by the equipment. Now, if you can afford it, why not?
6. What type of contraction should I look for?
Here are the different types of contractions and their interest:
Concentric contractions are the ones you think of first for your strength training exercises. It's the one used when you activate the fibers to lift or push a weight.
Eccentric contractions are kind of the opposite. It's when you use the muscles to resist a physical force. For example, when you do a squat in a controlled manner rather than letting the weight crush you. Or when you let your body drop on the pull-up bar.
Isometric contractions are those where you contract the muscles while remaining still. Planks for the sit-up come easily to mind, but isometric contractions are sometimes used by adding a pause in a movement. This is recommended for hammer grip curls, for example, with a 2-second pause when the biceps is 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.
So you have to be careful how much effort you have to put in. In some cases, a dynamic exercise becomes concentric only because the weight is so heavy that you end up dropping it after you lift it. So make sure the weight or resistance can be controlled!
However, there are exceptions where isometric efforts are more appropriate. This is the case with planks because the abdominal strap is more useful for stabilization than for moving the torso, .
7. Unilateral or bilateral exercise?
An aspect often neglected is the bilateral deficit (link to the American NCBI site). What is this?
The fact is that one limb is stronger if it is worked alone rather than in conjunction with the opposite limb. For example, if you do quadriceps extensions with both legs at 50 kilos, you will probably be able to reach 30 or 35 kilos when using only one leg at a time. This may seem like a surprising phenomenon, but it 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 use only one at a time. In real life, very few of the movements that humans naturally make are symmetrical. Even when you push, pull, or lift an object with both arms, you are usually in 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 sets on the right and left without taking a rest, just like in the alternate biceps curls.
It's up to you to see and test what works best for you and to measure the results of your sessions. I find it ideal to use both bilateral and unilateral exercises in the same session. This is very easy to do with elastic bands or free weights. On the other hand, it's a little more complicated with TRX straps, but not impossible.
8. What is progressive overload?
I'm not going to talk about this at length because you'd have to write a book about it. But you need progressive overload to increase your muscle volume. That's why bodyweight sets are great to start with, but you often have to find a way to overload them to get more volume.
The principle of progressive overload is to increase the weight or resistance of an exercise in small increments. In other words, you require extra effort, 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 use machines that often increase the melt by 5 or 10 kilos at a time. Dumbbells and elastic bands do better in this area too. In fact, it is possible to find elastic bands with a resistance of between 1.4 and 2.3 kg or cast iron discs of 500 g (you will need 2 of them or 1 kg of additional weight in total).
Please keep in mind that you must be prepared to take notes to use this technique. You must be able to remember exactly where you are on each exercise. You need to note 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 do with the weight training equipment at your disposal. Of course, if you train at home, this is often the equipment 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 available bench to do your sets. Especially if you go at the end of the day...
But let's stay focused on training at home. There are many exercises that can be done without equipment. This is the case for the many variations of burpees, push-ups or squats. And let's not forget almost all the movements for abs.
A little 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, kettlebell and tilting weight bench ;
- TRX straps and weighted vest.
For practical reasons and joint preservation, I have opted for TRX straps and weight training elastics for over 6 years. I reserve the barbell or weights for certain range of motion exercises, but not for those that involve the joints. However, I understand that some of you prefer them.
Truthfully, I've also always found it beneficial to do my sessions at home, and not just for the long-term savings. But also because no one else is using the equipment at the same time and I can do what I want 😉
10. Is exercise safe when you go to failure?
You should always be able to do an exercise safely. This is even more important if you are doing strength training at home. Because if you get tired and can't handle the weight, you can easily get injured. This is especially true for squats or bench presses.
This is also why elastic bands and TRX straps are best used at home. Dumbbells and kettelbells 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 a substantial equipment to protect you in case of failure or fall. In this case, you will have to look at closed squat cages or Smith machines. But the budgets explode!
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 no real hard point with this material (see tip #3).
The order of the exercises without equipment
If you are only doing bodyweight movements like with the Lafay Method or the Insanity program, you might think that the order doesn't matter. But it doesn't. As you read above, do the ones that require the most energy first. Generally, these are the ones that involve the most muscle groups at once.
For example, burpees tend to require more juice than decline push-ups. Decline push-ups require more juice than regular push-ups, and so on, until you get to the tricep wall presses. And yet, you won't be using any equipment, just 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.
Choose the best weight training 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 ways to improve them and think about where they can fit into your program. And remember to always start with a full multi-joint exercise.
Leave a message in the comments area below to share your experience or ask your questions. THANK YOU !
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Related words: quadriceps exercises vary the difficulty front-arm squat classic hands on the ground parallel to the ground flat stomach feet on the ground arms along the body straight workload anatomy of the triceps lower part of the body precise part of the body set of muscles of the trunk anatomy of the dorsal functions of the dorsal trapezius muscles
Last updated on 2022-03-03 / Affiliate links / Some images are sourced from the Amazon Product Advertising API