Rethinking the Exercise Selection Criteria

The process of rethinking exercise criteria has led to a complete revision of how I structure exercise selection and programming. People want to be healthier and generally more capable. They care about being happy with their bodies, not being in much physical pain, life tasks being easy to perform, mentally feeling they are in control of their life and destiny, and being proud of their appearance and accomplishments, and not dying any sooner than they have to. If that's the actual goal—a better quality of life—then simultaneously improving the greatest number of fitness attributes possible is our real aim.

Reexamining the Exercise Criteria and Developing Programming Criteria

By: Noah Hayden, BLOC Staff Coach

Quick introduction

There are countless exercises that have been devised for the human body and endless ways to organize them into a training program. For quite a while now, strength coaches like us have used the Three Exercise Criteria to help us decide which exercises belong in a comprehensive strength training regimen. The traditional Three Exercise Criteria assert that the exercises that best drive strength adaptations are those that (1) train the most muscle mass (2) over the longest effective range of motion and allow someone (3) to lift the most weight. While these have been very helpful in establishing a workable approach to exercise selection, I tend to think they could benefit from some elaboration.

The process of rethinking exercise criteria has led to a complete revision of how I structure exercise selection (and programming, to a lesser extent). Although this is still a work-in-progress, I brought the topic up in a recent podcast episode, so I thought it appropriate to elaborate on my ideas in an article.

Looking at the Fitness Attributes

Anytime you are examining long-held assumptions, it helps to start from scratch. What exactly is our goal with physical training? The default answer tends to be that the goal is to get people stronger. But why? When I’m selling the idea of strength training to clients, I point out that our training approach doesn’t just get you stronger; it simultaneously improves the largest number of fitness attributes possible. An average person off the street doesn’t really care if their squat increases by 100 pounds. They want to be healthier and, generally, more capable. They care about being happy with their bodies, not being in much physical pain, life tasks being easy to perform, mentally feeling they are in control of their life and destiny, and being proud of their appearance and accomplishments, and not dying any sooner than they have to. If that’s the actual goal—a better quality of life—then simultaneously improving the greatest number of fitness attributes possible is our real aim.

While we’re talking about it, what are the fitness attributes? Everyone seems to have a slightly different list. Here is mine:

Fitness Attributes

  1. Strength
  2. Endurance
  3. Power
  4. Mobility/Flexibility
  5. Agility/Coordination
  6. Precision/Body Awareness
  7. Body Composition
  8. Lack of Debilitating Pain
  9. Mental Fortitude

Strength and endurance are self-explanatory. Power is a derivative of strength, incorporating time (speed) into the equation and defining “explosiveness,” a very important athletic attribute. Agility also requires a speed component. (I have not listed speed separately because I don’t think speed matters outside of its practical application in other attributes.) Together, agility and precision define balance, but these components exist independently of each other—and can be improved independently—so I consider them on their own. Body composition is a major metric for health outcomes and life expectancy, as is a lack of debilitating pain. I include mental fortitude in my list because many times, in my professional experience, the only lacking ingredient to a successful performance is determination, confidence, and courage.

Anyway, we know that training focused primarily on strength improvements is the best way to achieve a better quality of life for two reasons. First, many of those attributes aren’t very trainable. After a relatively short amount of time, they’ve improved about as much as they can be improved, or they quickly reach the limit of useful improvements, where more “adaptation” does not increase quality of life substantially or may even undermine other attributes. Second, strength is unique in the list because it is capable of being trained and improved for many decades without significantly detracting from other attributes. In fact, it can sustain the other attributes. Even after a “peak” is reached, perhaps in late midlife, continuing to train primarily for strength slows the deterioration process of aging and allows us to retain (and maintain) the other attributes as efficiently and productively as possible. Again, strength training, with a HIIT component (more on this later), is the best way we have found to achieve and maintain a high level of “readiness” in as many of the fitness attributes as possible. Nothing else comes remotely close.

Modified Exercise Selection Criteria

How do we apply this to exercise selection? With this different goal in mind (improving as many attributes as possible), let’s rethink exercise selection criteria:

  1. Train the most muscle mass. We know this is necessary because exercises that involve large amounts of muscle mass produce more systemic stresses on the body, which is very useful in driving strength adaptations. However, simply using that muscle isn’t good enough. If the muscles involved aren’t being loaded with enough intensity to actually train that mass, the exercise misses the point. This is the argument against, say, push presses in place of strict presses. Are the quads being trained in a push press? Push presses will always be a submaximal effort for the knee and hip extensors—effectively “junk volume”—that possibly interferes with recovery from other exercises that can efficiently train those groups.
  2. In normal, predictable movement patterns. One of the big advantages of our style of training is that the lifting platform can be a very controlled environment. No surprises mean a much higher level of safety. Also, throw out BOSU balls and earthquake bars.
  3. Requiring normal coordination when possible. Simply put, stand on your feet when you can. This loads the axial skeleton, which encourages increases in bone density—a huge benefit of barbell training, especially for an older population. Loaded standing movements also require you to precisely maintain your balance, a helpful part of an injury-free life.
  4. Over the longest effective range of motion. This criterion makes sure that all the muscle mass being trained is practiced at applying force through the spectrum of their intended applications, which protects against injury. This criterion also fulfills the flexibility attribute as much as it needs to be fulfilled. Too much flexibility is definitely a bad thing, making you more prone to joint injury and excessively lengthening muscles—making them worse at their jobs. A healthy “fully functional” degree of flexibility for your lifestyle is all that is needed. Any elements that aren’t addressed with the main lifts can be with supplemental stretches (like the badly named “shoulder dislocations”).
  5. To lift the most weight. There is a considerable amount of overlap with this criterion. More weight being lifted without regard for #1 and #4 defeats the purpose of this point, which makes it hard for me to include it. Also, training the most muscle mass over the longest EROM sets the weight as high as it can be. Squatting ATG, for example, lowers the amount of weight that can be lifted—because the amount of muscle mass being trained decreases with the additional depth. This makes squatting deeper than breaking parallel an ineffective ROM. Thus, I delete this criterion.
  6. That is structurally sustainable. No exercise is a great choice if it causes impingement, pain, or irritates a condition. A good example of this is upper limb pain experienced by a lifter who lacks the shoulder flexibility to reliably maintain a tight upper back during standard-bar squats. Improve this lifter’s shoulder flexibility with supplemental stretches (if possible), but in the meantime, use a safety squat bar or Duffalo bar.Also, all exercises should be as low impact as possible to maintain joint health. Everyone’s tolerance to high impact activities is different; this almost always diminishes with age, and of course, certain sports require it. Regardless, the accumulation of joint impact should be responsibly managed. The Olympic lifts come to mind, as their inclusion may irritate a lifter’s beat up joints.
  7. With exercises that have a wide therapeutic window. Being able to easily titrate an exercise with small weight increments makes it accessible to the majority of the population. It also allows for more effective and sustainable programming of an exercise, which we’ll talk about shortly.

So, our aim is to simultaneously improve the greatest number of fitness attributes possible, keeping in mind which attributes are a priority to achieve our current goals. To find what activity can achieve this, we turn to the exercise criteria. Going through the list, one would probably arrive at the low bar back squat as best satisfying all the criteria. The deadlift would come in a close second, but it’s ROM is a little shorter, and it requires less coordination since the bar is sagittally constrained against the body. So, the squat it is! Can we just squat every day, and that’s it? Of course not. We need another set of criteria to know when a group of exercises are sufficient for our needs. Enter the programming criteria.

Arguing for Programming Criteria

  1. Train all major muscle groups. This ensures a program is comprehensive.
  2. With the least number of exercises as is practical. A comprehensive program must also be an efficient use of time.
  3. That do not interfere with other adaptations. During novice training, the main barbell lifts are adequate to improve the endurance attribute. After this, however, a more specific exercise is needed to tax the cardiovascular system further. A full discussion about “cardio” is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that proper HIIT training is a great choice for increasing endurance without significantly detracting from the training of other attributes or lifts.
  4. Any movement done to failure must be as low skill as possible. One of the only exercises I would recommend performing to failure is a HIIT exercise (maybe pull-ups/chin-ups as well). Almost all movements can be performed in a HIIT-style, but the best choice would be a movement that doesn’t risk injury when you’re in a fatigued state. Again, without elaborating much, the sled/prowler is a great option here.
  5. In the minimum effective dose required to continue making progress. This criterion encompasses an entire programming approach, which, again, is beyond the scope of this article. Simply put, stress must increase over time to maintain progress. That stress must transition from general to specific for the adaptations we are trying to improve, from simple to complex… but only as specific and complex as is needed to maintain steady progress.

Once the programming criteria are satisfied, you’re done! You now have a comprehensive set of exercises that train the entire body, with the most practical and efficient use of time, whose execution does not interfere with other exercises or adaptations, in a program that is making sustained progress.

What the Criteria Do

It could be argued that these criteria are just retrospective justifications for the barbell lifts we were going to program anyway. They certainly make it easy to explain why we’ve made those choices in a concise rational way, but where these criteria really shine is when modifications are needed. It gives you a roadmap of precisely what is required of a comprehensive training regimen. Under average circumstances, the “standard” prescription covers all these requirements nicely—which is how we originally arrived at their recommendation—but these new criteria help you make sure all those boxes are ticked when a lifter’s situation requires you to reinvent a program.

For instance, if a lifter is very frail, 5×5 chair “stand-ups,” programmed twice a week, might be the appropriate training regimen—maybe even holding the coach’s hands for assistance to start. This challenges most muscles in their body, as well as their endurance. There’s a good chance that this single exercise will tax their recovery ability as well, so that’s as comprehensive as we can start for them. Also, getting better at standing and sitting will have the greatest impact on their quality of life, so it’s a great place to start.

These new sets of criteria also describe the reasoning behind which supplemental and assistance exercises to include in a program and when. Usually, quite early on, we include chin-ups in most programs to get more direct lat work—preferentially to pull-ups because of the greater biceps recruitment. In early novice training, deadlifting (and the novelty of the program in general) is enough to train the lats just fine, so this isn’t necessary. As the lifter progresses further into mid-intermediate territory, barbell rows might be included in addition to chin-ups and pull-ups, because the advancement of the lifter requires this extra complexity and volume to continue making progress. On the other end of the spectrum, an older lifter might never include “direct” lat work in their training, because their life and schedule cause them to hover in novice programming indefinitely, and the extra time and complexity of these additions would not lead to substantial improvements in their quality of life.

When a main lift starts to plateau, troubleshooting the “limiting factor” to progress can lead to adding variations and supplemental exercises that specifically target these areas. Exercises like LTEs, press starts, and rack pulls are all great examples of exercises that can address “sticking points” or weaknesses that are no longer receiving enough specific stress to continue making progress. This is why intermediate training frequently includes many new variations of exercises, to see which a lifter can do well (so we rarely do those again) and which the lifter struggles with (which identifies a weak point to address).

What Do You Think?

As I said, this is a work-in-progress, so I’m sure it will evolve more. At the least, I hope this sparks some thought in other coaches that might lead to a more precise description of how we approach exercise selection and programming.

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