Ask many coaches or trainers a question involving what the “best exercises” are and they’ll usually say “it depends,” and leave it at that as though they’ve just said something profound. The problem is, saying “it depends” isn’t an answer; it’s just the start to an answer that needs to be followed by “here’s what it depends on….” in order to provide any real value to anyone.
Here I’m telling you exactly what it depends on so you know exactly how to determine the best exercises in order to maximize your results.
Determining the best exercises comes down to evaluating and comparing exercises based on the following factors.
#1 – What’s the Risk to Reward?
High box jumps are a great example of a high risk, low reward exercise because the emphasis is on the height of the box instead of the height of actual jump. Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say you’re standing next to a high box platform that’s the same height as your waist. Now pick up one leg off the ground and flex your hip as high as you possibly can. The distance between the bottom of your foot and the top of the box is the actual height you’d have to jump in order to get on top of that box. The rest comes from hip flexion.
If you’re trying to increase vertical jump height, it requires a powerful and explosive hip extension action, instead of a hip flexion action, which means you actually want to limit the amount of hip flexion involved in landing on top of the box.
If you do this, you won’t land on top of the box in that super-low crouched position we see during high box jumps. Instead, you want to find the highest box height that you’re able to land on, but with your knees and hips only bent around 30 degrees. With this method you’ll get all the good stuff from the exercise and you’ll be far less likely to become the star of the next high-box fail video.
With the above example in mind, when you have two exercises that train the same movement pattern or muscle group, but one of those exercises creates less potential unwanted stress on the joints and connective tissues, the exercise that offers just as much reward with less risk can be considered the better exercise.
Another good example of this is doing lateral shoulder raises in what’s called the scapular plane, which is at roughly a 30-degree angle to the torso, instead of with your arms directly out to your sides.
Research shows that doing shoulder exercises in the plane of the scapula creates the same demands on the shoulder musculature, but lessens the unwanted stress on the rotator cuff tendon (1).
Or, maybe there’s a tweaked version of the form a given exercise that is designed to give you the same benefits while minimizing the unwanted stress on your joints and connective tissues.
A good example of this is why I recommend doing upright rows with a wider grip while also avoiding pulling your elbows above shoulder height. Research shows these two form modifications not only increase deltoid and trapezius activity (2) but also reduce unwanted impingement stress on your shoulder joints (3).
As a general rule, exercises that create forced end-range joint and spine actions while lifting heavy loads or using medium loads for high repetitions can be considered high risk. This is because, when joints are moved to their end range of movement, the load shifts from the contracting muscle to the non-contractile connective tissue (e.g., ligaments, joint capsules).
Examples can range from trying to force too much range of motion at the bottom a dumbbell pec fly to doing full extension sit-ups over a glute-ham raise apparatus.
Going heavier also increases your risk because the more load you use, the closer you get to potentially exceeding your body’s tolerance. This is why many lifting injuries are a product of having more ego than brains.
Now, this doesn’t mean lifting heavy is dangerous or bad – that would be a ridiculous claim. It simply means that, if you’re not training to be a powerlifter, you don’t need to go nuts with 1RM work. Instead, you can get plenty strong lifting heavy loads (relative to your strength) doing 3 to 5 rep sets while maximizing the effort on each rep, and while leaving a rep to two in the tank on each set. Doing so gives you the benefits of lifting heavy loads with far less risk of injury from potentially exceeding your body’s tolerance.
Risky exercises don’t just come from the movements or amount of load they involve. It can also come from the equipment they involve. For example, Resistance bands pose a unique hazard because they can strike you in the face, causing serious (possibly blinding) eye damage. This is why the number one rule of resistance band exercise safety is to never pull a band toward your face because it’s an accident waiting to happen. Yet, band exercises like this are commonly recommend by major fitness resources.
This band face pull version is asking for an accident. The band is hardly secure as it is placed under the feet in this manner, all while the band is aimed directly at the face under maximum tension.
A Google search of the terms “resistance band” or “exercise band” and “eye injury,” results in hospital data providing a long list of eye injury incidents caused by resistance bands (4) along with numerous legal firms, safety commissions and eye surgeons talking about cases of resistance bands causing serious face and eye injuries. Despite the overwhelming number of documented incidents and convincing data, this reality is completely overlooked by the majority of experienced lifters, trainers and physiotherapists.
#2 – Does the Exercise Fit You?
Speaking of increasing your risk of injury; doing an otherwise low risk exercise with poor technique or working through pain can also increase your risk.
Since we are all built differently with different medical history and lifting experience, not every exercise is right for everybody. This is why it’s important to fit exercises to you instead of trying to fit yourself to exercises by finding exercise variations you can do pain-free and with good technique.
In other words, the best exercises for you are the ones that not only fit with all of the criteria outlined in this article, but also allow you to perform them with what I call the two C’s of individualized exercise:
- Comfort: The movement is pain free and feels natural.
- Control: You can execute the standard movement technique and body positioning of the exercise.
Train based on your ability, not your age, since there are lots of variations in the capability and training level among people of the same age group.
#3 – What’s the Effective Range of Motion?
There’s the range of motion (ROM) you move through in a given exercise, and there’s the effective range of motion that your involved muscles are dealing with enough load to create sufficient training adaptations. The effective ROM is what matters when it comes to building strength and muscle. This is why Strength Zone Training is TRUE full of motion lifting.
To illustrate, let’s compare two common shoulder exercises: the dumbbell rear-deltoid fly and the dumbbell side-lying rear-deltoid fly.
When performing the traditional dumbbell rear-delt fly, the point where it’s most difficult is when the arm is farthest away from the side of the torso. How do you know this? Try to hold that position and you’ll see how difficult it is. This is where the lever arm is the longest, and where the most mechanical tension is being created on the involved musculature. In this position, the rear deltoid is in a contracted or shortened position.
By contrast, the point within the range of motion where the movement is easiest is when the arm is in front of the shoulder and the rear deltoids are in a stretched position. Pausing at this point is easy. You could probably hang out there until your grip gave out! At this point, there’s the least mechanical tension being created on the involved muscles.
For this reason, a dumbbell rear-delt fly exercise trains the shortened (or more accurately, mid-to-shortened) range strength zone of horizontal shoulder adduction.
On the other hand, when performing a dumbbell side-lying rear-deltoid fly, the situation is reversed. The movement is easiest when your arm is away from the side of the torso, or above you, and the muscle is shortened. It’s hardest on the involved muscles when the arm is directly in front of the torso, and the muscle is lengthened.
Thus, the dumbbell side-lying rear-delt fly trains the lengthened to mid-range strength zone of horizontal shoulder adduction.
Without the Strength Zone Training frame of reference, it could be easy to think those two exercises I just talked about are interchangeable. After all, they’re both rear-delt isolation movements, right?
But it’s more accurate to say that they’re complementary and that a complete approach to training the rear delts should include both. That way, you can strengthen different aspects of the range of motion and be able to express the muscular strength you have more completely.
To get strong, use at least one exercise from each strength zone for each muscle group.
This will strengthen different portions of the range of motion in each main joint movement. When you’re choosing exercises, this approach guarantees that you’ll build true full-range strength.
Related Article: The New Rules of Full Range of Motion
#4 – Does the Exercise’s Resistance Curve Match Your Strength Curve?
Two important factors that influence the way we perform all resistance training exercises are 1) the resistance curve involved in the exercise and 2) our strength curve when performing the exercise.
The Resistance Curve: This refers to how the load changes throughout the range of motion based on changes in lever-arm (or moment-arm) length.
For example, when performing standing biceps curls using free weights, the point at which your biceps is being maximally loaded is the point in the range of motion in which your forearm is at a 90-degree angle with the load vector. That’s why a free-weight biceps curl gets easier when you move the bar to the top or bottom of the range of motion. That’s precisely why people tend to rest between reps at the top and bottom position.
The Strength Curve: This refers to how your strength changes throughout the range of motion of a given exercise, which is due to a principle of physiology known as the length-tension relationship or the length-tension curve. This describes how muscles are strongest in their mid-range of motion, and weaker in their shortened range (contracted position). (5)
Ideally, you’d like the lever arm of a movement—or the distance between a weight and the joint responsible for moving it—to be longest at the point where you’re strongest, and less where you’re weaker. But that’s often not the case.
For example, when doing rows (using a barbell, dumbbell, cable, etc.), the weight gets heavier as you row the weight towards you because you’re losing a mechanical advantage over the weight. Well, resistance bands get “heavier” as you stretch them. This is why I don’t recommend attaching bands to barbells, dumbbells, or to plate-loaded machines when doing rows.
Many trainers falsely believe that adding resistance bands to free weight and plate-loaded exercises creates “accommodating resistance.” The resistance is only accommodating when the band getting heavier corresponds with you gaining a mechanical advantage over the load as you do the lift, such as what occurs when doing a free weight or machine chest press, deadlift, Romanian deadlift, squat, leg press, etc.
However, the opposite occurs when adding bands to rows, which creates UN-accommodating resistance. And, when the resistance curve is increasing as your strength curve is decreasing, it forces you to cheat. This is why we see lifters pull the weight halfway with good form and then jolt it the rest of the way when doing bent-over rows and one-arm dumbbell rows.
It’s also why you see so many people turning their torso towards their rowing arm as they pull the dumbbell in on dumbbell rows, along with seeing people staying too upright on bent-over barbell rows and one-arm rows, or leaning back too far when doing seated rows or machine rows. The addition of bands simply magnifies these cheats.
That said, there are two instances where I might recommend using bands on rows:
- Attached to free weights or a plate-loaded machine using a light load for dynamic effort (fast) reps. Bands allow you to move fast, which is why they’re great for dynamic effort type work, but the weight needs to be light in order to maximize speed.
- When you’re traveling or working out at home or outdoors and all you’ve got is a set of bands with handles.
#5 – Does it Require High Skill?
It’s well accepted that the best methods for improving power output are probably ballistic training (i.e., jumping and throwing with weights) and Olympic lifting.
When talking about power training for non-Olympic lifters, jumping, medicine ball throwing drills, along with kettlebell swings and simple variations on Olympic lifts like jump shrugs are better than Olympic lifts for power training because they require far less skill in order to properly perform them.
Put simply, if there are multiple ways to accomplish the same training goal, the one with the shorter learning curve is the best because it gets the job done more efficiently. In that, instead of spending time working on skills specific to Olympic lifting that non-Olympic lifters don’t need; other methods of improving power, such as jumping, medicine ball throwing and kettlebell swings, work just as effectively while also allowing for more time to be devoted to training other important things they do need.
#6 – Does It Take a lot of Setup Time?
Speaking of maximizing your valuable and limited time; if you have a bunch of exercises that accomplish the same goal, the best exercises are the ones that accomplish roughly the same goal but don’t require a lot of extra equipment and setup time.
Not Being the Best Exercise Doesn’t Mean It’s Bad!
Just because an exercise might not be classified as the best in the above criteria doesn’t mean it’s not an effective exercise.
Think of exercises like the people on the medal podium at the Olympics. Only one can take home the gold, but the others who took home silver, bronze, and even finished in the top 10 are still great at what they do.
That said, since there are so many exercises options out there to choose from, you can use these criteria to narrow the field in order to make your top 5 or top 10 list of “go-to” exercises for each movement pattern or muscle group.
Want to learn more about how to analyze exercises and design the best training programs using Strength Zone Training techniques?
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- Greenfield B. Special considerations in shoulder exercises: plane of the scapula. In: Andrews JR, Wilk KE. The Athlete’s Shoulder. New York: Churchill Livingstone; 1994: 513-522.
- McAllister MJ, et al. Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright row. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jan;27(1):181-7.
- Schoenfeld B, et al. The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial Impingement. Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2011 – Volume 33 – Issue 5 – pp 25-28.
- Houglum, P. A., & Bertoti, D. B. (2011). Brunnstrom’s clinical kinesiology. FA Davis.