7 Principles of Exercise Selection

To paraphrase a wise man, “Small, weak, and injured is no way to go through life.” But if you design your workouts around the wrong exercises, that’s exactly how you’ll end up; dreadfully unmuscular, embarrassingly weak, and prone to chronic injuries.

Proper exercise selection can be tough. There are countless lifts to choose from and most of them have several similar-but-different variations. Fortunately, there’s a set of objective criteria to qualitatively rate exercises, which allows you to make the most effective choice between any group of exercises with the same purpose – like figuring out why an overhead extension is a better choice for triceps than a pressdown.

Admittedly, this is only a partial list of criteria, but they do apply to the vast majority of exercises. Let’s take a look at exactly what these principles cover and learn how to apply them to several basic exercises.

Read the updated article on SimplyShredded.

Read the original on T-Nation.

85 Comments

  1. Spain Guy says:

     
    Hi Menno
    I love your articles,they have been very useful to me.
    Since i read them i have changed some concepts,parameters and exercises form in my workouts and the results are being very positives.
    It woul be great if you wrote an article like:¨¨My best hypertrophy protocol¨….you know a practical example of your concept of ideal workout with your favorites exercises for each bodypart,training division,rep schemes etc
    One more question:I would like to know  which is in your opinion the best way to target the lateral head of triceps.
    There are very diferents points of view about this little subjec(high reps ,low reps in close grip press…),pressdowns is the only consensus i think haha.
    Thanks a lot and waiting for more kick ass articles!
     

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      Future articles will cover my views on optimal program design. If you want to isolate the lateral head of the triceps, you should minimize activity of the long head, so your shoulders should be extended (arms at sides). Use the Principles to select a good exercise. Unilateral rope pushdowns should get the job done (better than bilateral, because the rope does not allow you to exert force straight down). Triceps respond best to relatively lower reps.

  2. Denis says:

    Could you elabourate more on  dips and other movements? How do you know the body isn't adapted to this movement pattern. Would shallow dips be okay? I'm confused how to determine what is "natural" for the body.

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      The ‘natural’ is just an intuition behind the statement, not an actual argument for it. Do note that the sub-criteria of the tissue stress distribution principle are explicit generalizations. Móst people can’t perform full dips without lots of joint stress, but if you are an exception, this sub-criterion obviously does not apply to you. Dips don’t perform well on the other criteria either though.

  3. Alex says:

    Menno, what type of compund movement do you recommend for the long head of tricpes and lateral head of shoulders? Something with a high absolute load but at the same time effective

  4. nkp81 says:

     
    Menno, I've re-read this article a couple of times since it was published on T-Nation and while I think it's a great article, I absolutely do not understand wtf you're talking about with #6… Can you recommend a good reference that I can refer to for help? My dad has a phd in physics and my sisters are physics majors but I ended up in the shallow end of the gene pool when it comes to stuff like this. Thanks.
     
    Also, what on earth is a "behind-the-body side or front raise"? Are you talking about exercises like dips?

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      Think of it as the balance between the resistance of the weight and the force you can apply. At some points this balance is skewed, making the exercise much harder or easier at those points. You don’t want sticking points or dead areas like that.

      A behind the body front raise is a front raise done from a position in which the weight starts behind your body, e.g. when you’re lying on an incline bench.

  5. Pat D says:

    What are your thoughts on intensity? Do you go to failure on each set? Do you take rest weeks? Thanks in advance!

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      Ah I could and will fill several articles with those questions. In short though, I think intensity should be high, as in over 70% with practically no exceptions. Failure is not necessary, but it can be useful if applied properly, meaning definitely not every set of every exercise. I pretty much never prescribe full rest weeks. If you needed a full week off, you were overtraining.

  6. Aesthetic says:

    I have very long femurs and squats hurts my lower back, do you think quadriceps hypertrophy would significantly lower by replacing them with the 45 degree leg press? I also find that I can progress easier on the leg press. Thank you.

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      Leg pressing is inferior for quad hypertrophy, yes, due to the leg press being open chain and the movement being restricted by the machine. If squats hurt your back, it’s likely that you’re not performing them perfectly.

  7. Pat D says:

    I've read somewhere that you thought 5/3/1 was a good program for strength gains. Do you have any recommendations for a program with hypertrophy as the primary goal? For lack of a better option, I'm currently doing 5/3/1 but using your articles to help choose and execute my assistance exercises.

     

    Thanks in advance!

  8. Vince says:

    Do you perform rope overhead extensions (on a low pulley I assume) unilaterally or bilaterally?

  9. DennisRitchie says:

    Is barbell bench pressing better than dumbbell bench pressing? Barbell benching has a better range of motion but I don’t know if it’s better than the tissue stress distribution and safety of dumbbells.

    • The ROM doesn’t need to be larger with a barbell. The opposite is often true, in fact. Dumbbells also have slightly better tissue stress distribution, assuming your form is good. However, the barbell has much better microloadability, which is why I generally prefer it as a primary chest exercise.

  10. What about Standing Calf Raises performed using two barbell weights to increase range of motion?

  11. I don’t recommend any cookie cutter program. There is no such thing as 1 program that is optimal for trainees of varying level of development, anthropometry, recuperative ability, etc.

  12. Regarding #5: What are (and are examples of):

    Eccentric-concentric contractions
    Isometric contractions
    Concentric only contractions
    Eccentric only contractions.
    Because I don’t know what those things are…I take it has to do with the resistance curve?

    • Isometric: muscle’s length doesn’t change (static holds, for example).
      Eccentric: muscle’s length increases (downward phase of a biceps curl, for example).
      Concentric: muscle’s length decreases (upward phase of a biceps curl, for example).

  13. So which exercise is better for leg hypertrophy? Squats or deadlifts? It sounds like squats, based on the criteria, but I just want to make sure, as I notice they don’t seem to have an eccentric-concentric contraction (while leg extensions do). However, squats seem to be more…’natural’ for lack of better words, and do seem to fit the other criteria rather well. In fact, it seems to do well with all of them save only for #5 (and possibly #7 but that would depend on the person’s gym), near as I can tell. If not squats, what exercise would be better for leg hypertrophy–in terms of the principles you listed here?

  14. As I’m reading this again, I have a question.
    What about standing calf raises done on a machine like this one: https://s3.amazonaws.com/exercises.youtrain.me/wp-content/uploads/Standing-Calf-Raises-622×485.png (similar to the one at my gym)?
    Is there a way to do it better? Like on stairs or something so I’m not forced into a specific position? I mainly do it that way because of principle 1–the limiting factor often being my balance (so I find myself holding onto the stairs rails for stability if done like that). But without the machine it would better fit principle number 4. At home it would also be hard to obey principle 7 (absolute loading) because of the width of the staircase limiting how much weight I can carry in my hands/on my shoulders. What do you think?

  15. I have another technique question. When doing chin downs (I’m not strong enough yet to do chin ups) using a lat pulldown machine, I find I tend to feel it most intensely in my forearms. I notice that my wrists bend near the end of the concentric portion of the movement and that might be giving me more forearm activation than what’s optimum. However, I find I have to do that in order to get the bar to my upper chest I could not have the bar go that far but that would violate range of motion principle. I find that trying to keep my wrists still, while turning my hands along the bar seems to help, but not as much as it probably should. Any tips?

  16. Sounds like you’re supposed to do Cable/Rope Overhead Extensions with the low pulley so the resistance is greatest at the end of the eccentric portion. I find I’m actually stronger/the exercise is easier if the resistance is maximized at the top of the concentric. I guess this is an exercise/movement where anatomical position isn’t where the strength curve is maxed out.

  17. steve says:

    I’m not a powerlifter, but I do train to get stronger. Would substituting my deadlifts for an alternative like RDL’s be wise even with strength as my main goal? Or are deadlifts important for strength, just not hypertrophy?

    Big fan of your work!
    Steve

    • Yes, this will be a good idea, unless you specifically train to have a strong deadlift.

      • steve says:

        I was training for a strong deadlift because of its real life functionality and a stronger body/posterior, but your article was very interesting and has me thinking. While the RDL may promote more hypertrophy with its dynamic loading, does it promote the same “functional” strength as the deadlift, as in picking objects off the floor?

        Steve

        • How often do you pick up objects that require a genuine effort to lift them? For the average person, there’s nothing functional about the deadlift. Muscle mass is functional, because it is not movement specific. It will increase your strength in every movement where that body part is active.

          • steve says:

            I’ve heard several strength coaches say “train movements, not muscles” for strength. But your saying the opposite, that its more functional to increase muscle mass in a body part than to train a specific movement that uses that body part. Is that correct? In that case, I can see why the RDL is better then the Deadlift, and why its accepted in your 7 principles. Is the SLDL a good substitute as well for posterior if you use a “touch n go” set?

          • SLDLs are good too, yes, though more injurious than RDLs.

            The muscles vs. movements dichotomy is often moot. It is not a relevant question, as it does not directly translate into practical recommendations.

          • Oh wow. I myself was considering asking about SLDLs, but yeah, as someone with lower back pain/problems I think I’ll avoid them and instead do RDLs and Good Mornings. Best advice I’ve been given for exercises like squats to help my back was to keep my back arched, core braced, and above all to not move (flex/extend) my spine during those movements. Ditto for keeping my toes and knees pointing the same direction/not hyperextending my knees to keep my knees from getting too strained during squats.

          • steve says:

            Good point! I’m now using your “7” to pick my exercises. You definitely make alot of sense as to why your principles apply. Thanks for your help Menno! Keep up the great work!

  18. So I notice that the back and legs have 10/10 exercises that are compound, closed chain, have good absolute load, etc–pull ups/chin ups, calf jumps, squats, and to a lesser extent, RDL/Good Mornings. But what about a similar 10/10 exercise (i.e. one that is closed chain and compound, etc) for the chest or shoulders?

    Push-ups tend to have a rather restricted strength range, so what about doing them using those Olympic handles/bars that gymnasts use, and your feet level with them on something like a chair with maybe a weighted vest and weights tied around a belt or whatever like people use for weighted pull ups? Practical issues aside one concern that came to mind for me is the shoulders not getting the support of a bench to be rested again, which could cause unnecessary shoulder strain though.

    As for the shoulders, even if you’re in the proper strength range for them, hand-stand push ups would have a limited range of motion your head, unless you can do them between two objects that your head can slip between (though that could pose a safety hazard). And while rows are nice, I find that something like a cable machine with two cables about 18-24 inches apart (like the one I would use for Bayesian Flys) would be better for range of motion to better exercise my rear delts.

  19. James says:

    Hi Menno

    This was an interesting article (I find much of your writing on training far superior to most nonsense out there on the internet). However, I don’t believe your definitions of closed and open chain exercises are correct.

    A leg press can be described as a predictable or constrained closed chain exercise, this is not the case with a free weight squat. In a true closed chain environment, the change in one angle/joint will show a predictable change on the subsequent angles/joints. This can be seen in a leg press…if I change my knee angle, for example, my hip angle will change. When we observe a free weight squat, I can change my knee angle as much as I want but my hip angle doesn’t have to change (this wouldn’t look much like a squat, but that’s not the point!).

    Regardless of the debatable advantages/disadvantages of one form of chain over another when it comes to training; I think we should have a better understanding of the terms we’re throwing around!

    Keep the articles coming, you’re sharing some great information.

    Best

    • This is actually no scientific consensus on the definition of open chain, but my rule of thumb supports the most common definition of lack of freedom in the terminal segment of motion. A leg press can then be closed chain. It depends on the design. A squat is however closed chain by almost every definition, as the feet are fixed in position during the movement.

  20. Steve says:

    Hey Menno! What about using a reversed grip bench press instead of a traditional bench press setup? Would this be overall safer on the shoulders as well for long term?

    Thanks!

  21. Pantherhare says:

    Menno,

    I appreciate your analytical approach to bodybuilding. With regard to factor #2, compoundedness, I appreciate its importance, especially with training efficiency (and often miroloadability). However it seems to me many compound exercises, even ones that you recommend such as bench press for pecs or squats for quadriceps, violate factor #1, the limit factor. For example, many trainees are limited by anterior delts or triceps for bench pressing or lower back for squats. Thus, if time was not a factor, wouldn’t it be more optimal to use “isolation” exercises for bodyparts? The different muscles involved in a compound exercise may have different needs in terms of frequency, volume, and rep range. For example, if the delts are primarily slow twitch but the pecs and triceps are fast twitch, wouldn’t it make sense to split them up into separate exercises?

    That being said, I am unaware of anyone successfully training people with solely “isolation” movements, so there’s probably a good reason why no one does it.

  22. Thomas says:

    According to the 3 principle – ROM,
    Does it mean that ATG Squats are superior to the ones just below parallel, even though there is a risk of form breakdown due to lumbar flexion while lifting same load?
    I could eliminate this issue by decreasing the load, which would result in less volume, but better ROM vs parallel squats.
    Is it worth it?

  23. Tim says:

    Hi Menno,

    This article (and all of you other articles for that matter) is a complete paradigm shift for me. Thank you so much for the mindblowingly good info for us bodybuilders. I have a couple of ponderings:

    My grip is the limiting factor of many exercises I do; how would you suggest strengthening the grip besides heavy compound movements?

    I also have a clicking right knee (outside of the knee I believe) during movements with a lot of knee flexion (squats, lunges, etc) but I have zero pain. Could there be an issue there or can I disregard the clicking (like I said, no pain) and continue training heavy?

    Finally, where can I read more about the resistance curve and matching that with my strength curve?

    Keep on busting bro science myths and educating us to make better choices in life based on Bayesian thinking.

    Best, Tim from Sweden

    P.S would definitely like to read about how you apply Bayesian reasoning to the rest of your life outside of training and nutrition. D.S

    • Hey Tim, good to hear you appreciate the Bayesian method. To answer your questions:
      – If your grip is a limiting factor for any exercise other than deadlifts, either your technique or your grip strength needs work.
      – Crepitus (the clicking) is generally harmless in itself, but in my experience, it can predispose you to injury, so extra care is warranted.
      – You can check the biomechanical literature for information on strength and resistance curves (or my PT Course).

  24. Jason says:

    Hey Menno, what do you think about using dumbbells for overhead pressing rather than the barbell? Generally dumbbells are superior in all categories except microloadability in which the smallest jump is 5 lbs per side vs 2.5 with the barbell. Plus the dumbbells have a much lower injury risk.

    • Microloadability is an issue, as is terminal consistency (not discussed in this article though) and they’re not as compounded (less triceps recruitment), but dumbbells are still great for overhead presses.

      • Jason says:

        I ask because the barbell really irritates my shoulders but the dumbbells feel fine (I prefer the standing single arm dumbbell OHP with elbow in scapular plane) so I didn’t know if working on progressing that lift would be a viable alternative to barbell overhead pressing. Not ideal, but the next best option to barbell pressing. I figure that even if there’s a slight benefit to the barbell version it’s better for me to use dumbbells due to the fact that I can train it hard consistently without injury or nagging pain. I can still get a good training stimulus on the muscles and movement pattern to produce results.

  25. Tyler says:

    Hello Menno, what compound movements for pec development would you recommend for guys whose shoulders and triceps take the majority of the workload in horizontal pressing exercises (BB & DB flat/incline benching). My pressing numbers are pretty good but my pecs remain underdeveloped compared to my back, shoulders and arms.

    • I can’t recommend specific exercises without a full client assessment. Exercise selection should be synergistic, so the selection of one exercise depends on the selection of the others, which depends on how much volume is in your program, your equipment, etc.

  26. Jared says:

    Hey Menno, as far as back exercises go would you say that doing weighted supinated grip chin ups and weighted pronated grip pull ups would be the best exercises for the back since those two hit all the muscles in the back but the upper traps and erector spinae (which can be taken care of by doing RDL’s) and are close-chained, compound, microloadable and allow heavy absolute lows. Basically should the priority be doing the 2 weighted chin variations and then put in rows as a tertiary movement if you still have available volume left in your session to fit them in. Seems like according to your principles of exercise selection it’s pretty hard to beat weighted chin variations as a back developer.

    • There’s no such thing as a universally best exercise, only a best exercise selection for any specific individual. Chin-ups are a great exercise, but if you’re only going to do chin-ups, you certainly won’t maximize whole back growth.

  27. Todd says:

    Hey Menno, is there any need for rows at all if you’re hitting your weighted pull ups/chin ups hard and doing deadlift variations (like rdl) and overhead pressing movements? Don’t all those exercises take care of all the primary back musculature (lats, upper lower mid traps, rhomboids, teres major, posterior delts, erector spinae)

  28. Vince says:

    Hi Menno,
    Slightly left field question.

    Do you believe the idea that more body weight (not necessary more muscle ) aids in how much one can bench press? E.g. More mass and hence stability around joints.
    Thanks.

    • More muscle mass definitely benefits strength and a higher bodyweight is generally accompanied with more muscle mass, so yes, absolutely.

      • Vince says:

        How about if it’s non-muscle mass being the difference? I’ve noticed my bench slightly off when I dropped calories and hence body weight, but pretty sure I was doing everything to perserve muscle.
        Could less fat between muscles or water retention or glycogen be a factor?
        I’ve read online lifters saying that just having extra mass (not necessarily muscle) can aid leverage and stability. Or you feel this is bro science?

        • It could make a slight difference via biomechanical factors (e.g. less ROM, passive assistance from your body), especially for an exercise like the squat, but not nearly as much as having more lean body mass.

  29. Patrik says:

    Hey Menno!

    I really love this article!

    Anyways, I am still debating between few exercises – I went through all the comments and saw that you did briefly comment on some of them but I am still not certain.

    Will a combination of pull-ups/chin-ups/RDLs/(overhead pressing*) ensure balanced back development? Lats will get hit for sure but what about the trapezius and rhomboid muscles? Would it perhaps be better to replace chin-ups with suspended inverted rows?

    Speaking of pressing* – if I have access to very gradual increments in dumbbells, should I opt for them instead of barbell for bench and overhead press? Or do you think that the barbell variations still remain the most “optimal”?

    I would really appreciate a reply if you have time.

    Thank you for everything!

    • Patrik says:

      Okay, so I did some digging – I went through all the comments in every article related to exercise selection.

      I came to the conclusion that;
      – Rows indeed are absolutely not necessary.
      – Barbell variations of bench/overhead press are generally better in comparison to DB variations.

      Granted some of your replies were from 2013ish – so you may have changed your opinion as you apparently have 10 principles nowadays?

      • That article is quite dated by now, yes, but the general principles still hold. I just have more now and the principles are a bit different.

        • Patrik says:

          I see.

          Is your recommendation for primary chest exercise still barbell bench press and for primary shoulders exercise barbell overhead press? Or has the changes in the principles made you lean more towards something else?

          Also, do you still think that rows are not necessary?

          Thanks for the reply by the way; appreciate the information you share. I would definitely join your course if I wasn’t a poor student.

          • I never defaulted to barbell presses: bench presses don’t score that well on the principles actually. Rows are definitely not necessary, though they can be viable.

          • Patrik says:

            Oh? It does seem then that indeed some of the comments are outdated by now.

            I read previous comment where you said that you generally prefer barbell bench press* as the primary chest exercise, although db bench press may have better ROM and tissue stress distribution – it lacks microloadability in comparison to the barbell variation.

            For db overhead press* you said that microloadability again is an issue, as is “terminal consistency” and that they are not as compounded in comparison to the barbell variation.

            Because of those comments, I thought that they were indeed your defaults. I guess I have misunderstood then?

            * I do realize that weighted push ups and weighted handstand push ups do score better in comparison – however many if not most have trouble with loading these movements, so even though they are great exercises and should be included, perhaps free weight variations are better as the primary exercises due to the microloadability.

            I am most likely over-analyzing this but I find your approach to exercise selection very interesting.

          • I use barbell presses very often, just not álways. Novices may be able to get better results with push-ups, whereas advanced trainees may do well with handstand push-ups, for example. Then there’s equipment availability, which determines the microloadability of each exercise. So yes, barbell presses are great exercises for many people: just don’t forget the alternatives.

  30. Kryton says:

    Hey Menno, do believe direct rectus abdominus training is beneficial for aesthetics? Many people say the because the growth potential is so low for the rectus abdominus that direct training won’t make a noticeable difference and the only way to improve the look of your abs is getting leaner.

    Thanks

  31. hendrik hoekstra says:

    Hello Menno,

    concerning the:

    Contrary to popular belief, the hierarchy of muscle building according to a systematic review and meta-analysis is:

    Eccentric-concentric contractions
    Isometric contractions
    Concentric only contractions
    Eccentric only contraction

    Could you perhaps send me some links of papers that come to these conclusions?

    Kind regards,
    Hendrik

    • They’re from Wernbom’s review paper IIRC, but there are a lot of conditionals here that the article didn’t go into (i.e. whether volume is equated and how). The take-home message is that dynamic muscle contractions reign supreme though.

  32. Jason says:

    Hey Menno,

    I’ve found I’ve made great progress using a wave loading progression with 5 lb jumps in weight on my barbell lifts but due to injury im stuck using dumbbells for pressing. When using dumbbells for compound pressing would you recommend buying 1.25 lb plates to add on to dumbbells so they can be loaded in 2.5 lb/side increments just like a barbell? And then running a wave loading progression with the dumbbell presses the same way as I would with barbell presses? I didn’t know if modifying the dumbbells to allow for 2.5 lb/side increases would allow me to get the same hypertrophy benefits and run the same progression schemes with dumbbell pressing as I would with Barbell pressing. Just an idea I had that I thought I’d ask someone more knowledgeable than me if it’s a good one.

    Thank you,

    Jason

  33. Aaron says:

    Hey Menno,

    How do you go about measuring weighted chin up progress? I’ve just subtracted by bodyweight from the absolute load (bw + external load) to determine how much external load too add, and then focus on increasing the absolute load. For example, a 200 lb guy would add 35 lbs of external load to give him an absolute load of 235, he would then go about increasing from the 235 load regardless of bodyweight. So if he loses 10 lbs and is trying to increase his absolute load by 5 lbs he would subtract 190 from 240 to give him an external load of 50 lbs. He focuses on progressing the absolute load and then subtracts his current body weight from that load to dictate the amount of external weight to use for that session. Weighted Chins are a little bit more complex to progress but worth the extra math because of how great an exercise they are. Weighted Chins seem to hit all 7 principles quite nicely. As a bonus weighted chins were batman’s exercise of choice in preparing to fight superman, and batman doesn’t f**k around with ineffective exercises.

  34. Travis says:

    Hey Menno,

    Awesome article! Do you believe barbell hip thrust are good in the compoundedness department? They’re mainly a hip joint movement with very little knee flexion, they seem closer to a single joint exercise than a multi-joint exercise. Yet even though they mostly involve movement at a single joint they hit pretty much all the lower body muscles pretty hard, even quads surprisingly. When you define compoundedness do you use the usual definition of an exercise that involves movement at 2 or more joints, or do you mainly focus on how many muscles a movement hits? Most of the time multi-joint means multiple muscles but in exercises like RDL’s and Hip Thrust where movement takes place mainly at one joint it becomes tricky because they involve many muscles.

    Thanks,

    Travis

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