5 Keys To Exercise Selection

5 Keys To Exercise Selection

We’ve all been there as a student or young coach — you find yourself in a situation where your mentor is positioned ominously over your shoulder and poses the question, “why did you pick this exercise over something else?”. Inevitably, we all mustered up a rather unrefined response along the lines of, “well this movement is helping to strengthen ______ muscle and improve the stability of ______ joint.”

While this sort of rationale is by no means wrong, it does leave much to be desired. It lacks depth and a robust appreciation for the “why” behind what we are doing.

Exercises are merely tools of the trade — little more than heavy paperweights without the insights of an experienced coach or clinician. Just like a tool, an exercise is nothing more than a blunt instrument without skill and specific intent. To steal a quote from our very own Dr. Baker: “The ‘best exercise’ is the one that meets the biomechanical demands of an individual’s target activity and is dosed according to their metabolic needs and abilities.”

The knowledge trajectory of all coaches and clinicians must follow a similar path. We quite simply don’t know what we don’t know. It is through the continual cycle of exposure to new interventions and ideas, trial and tribulations, and personal refinement that we enhance our decision making capabilities.

The ability to refine and prioritize exercise selection improves significantly over time. This is much like a skilled marksman learns to hone in on his target from all distances and angles. In many ways, practice helps us filter through the noise and requires us to ask the most pertinent questions. There are literally millions of exercises being touted on social media and on TV. Seemingly every day there is a new rendition of an age-old exercise that “you just have to try!”. The ubiquity of options can be paralyzing without access to a filter.

This ease of access to options is both a blessing and a curse. The reassuring side is that there is no perfect exercise for a given individual or situation, but rather a slew of equally viable options. By using the following questions as a guide, you can streamline you exercise selection process and drastically increase your odds of a successful outcome:

  1. What is the Intent? — Think about both the macro and micro here. The macro would be what is the desired future outcome (ie increased force production, enhanced sports-specific qualities, improved body composition?). The micro would be ensuring that this particular intervention is doing something to facilitate said goal.
  2. What positions and muscles are being challenged? — How am I recreating the necessary joint angles and positions required for this individual’s goals and desired activity? This is when the discussion of biomechanics and joint forces becomes highly relevant.
  3. What is the desired speed of the movement? — Tempo changes everything. How can I manipulate velocity to alter movement demands? Do I want to promote higher velocity with lower loads or lower velocity with heavier loads? If my goal is to enhance muscular force output, I will likely want to first promote the latter prior to the former.
  4. What is the desired intensity of the movement?  — How difficult do I want to make this movement? How much stress do I want to impose on the system? This question asks us to assess factors such as Rate of Perceived Exertion, percentage of 1 rep maximum, reps in reserve, and a multitude of other qualitative and quantitative performance metrics.
  5. What is the dosage? — How does the amount of work the individual is doing currently compare to what they have done before? Too much too soon often leads to burn out and lack of progress.  Progressive overload is king here — consistency of execution and gradual increases over time will maximize outcomes.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I would argue that if you address even a handful of these questions, you will streamline your exercise selection process. Placing emphasis on training principles affords the ability to then mold the endless array of methods and exercises to your client’s unique individual needs.

Author: Dr. Michael Reinhardt, DPT; Site Director, Rehab 2 Perform – Germantown


Podcast: Resilient Performance Podcast: “Keep it real #15”

  • Key Takeaways: The team at Resilient PT do an excellent job breaking down the significance and nuance of the endless “mobility vs stability” debate as it relates to performance and rehab. They discuss the importance and limitations of each side of the continuum and offer excellent examples as they relate to human movement.

Article: Sham surgical procedures for pain intervention result in significant improvements in pain: systematic and meta analysis — Gu AP, Gu CN, Ahmed AT, Murad MH, Wang Z, Kallmes DF, Brinjikji W. Sham surgical procedures for pain intervention result in significant improvements in pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Clin Epidemiol. 2017 Mar;83:18-23. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2016.12.010. Epub 2017 Jan 4. PMID: 28063914.

  • Key Takeaways: This article offers evidence that sham surgical procedures resulted in significant reduction of subjective pain reports, but showed limited improvements in objective outcome measures. This analysis speaks highly toward the power of the placebo effect and hints at the degree of over-medicalization that our healthcare system is facing. The article also notes that sham surgeries are significantly safer and have far fewer complications than its counterpart. This begs further questioning as to when are surgical interventions truly necessary and to what degree is symptom modification a psychosocially driven phenomena? 

Book: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain – John Ratey 

  • Key Takeaways: This book is a bit of an oldie but a goodie. It is chalked full of scientific knowledge and anecdotal accounts pertaining to the broad reaching benefits of exercise as it relates to health, performance, and the brain. The author dives deep into the cascade of physiological benefits that proceed bouts of aerobic exercise. He discusses the potential implications of aerobic exercise maximizing both our physical and cognitive capabilities.

Social Media Follow: Derek Hansen (@DerekMHansen)

  • Key Takeaways: Derek is absolutely the man when it comes to maximizing acceleration and linear sprint mechanics. He is a master of teaching and doing the basics savagely well… and with tremendous results! He shares a tremendous amount of drills, insights, and coaching cues as they pertain to track and field sport athletes. 
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