by Charles Poliquin
Exercise selection is a critical but often misunderstood aspect of developing strength and muscle mass, especially when it comes to program design. Commercial gyms are part of the problem, because they often have many more exercise machines than free weights, thus limiting the ability of trainees to experiment with new exercises. Also not helping are the many mistaken ideas people have about selecting the best exercises to achieve their training goals. Here are five of those myths:
Myth #1: Strength developed with machines transfers directly to free weight exercises. Training with exercise machines has value, especially for improving body composition, but the strength developed with machine exercises may not transfer well to performance in equivalent free-weight exercises. Case in point: Smith machine squats.
With a Smith machine, the bar is on a track, so the increased stability creates less demand on the body’s neutralizer and stabilizer muscle functions. Therefore, the strength developed on such machines has minimal carryover to a three-dimensional, unstable environment such as occurs during a freestanding squat.
The bottom line here is that free-weight exercises should always precede machine exercises, and athletes should limit their machine training to no more than 25 percent of the total work performed.
Myth #2: If an exercise is good for a beginner, it’s also good for an advanced athlete. Just because an exercise is effective for a beginner, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good for an advanced athlete. This fact is part of the concept of specificity. In this particular context it means that, as an athlete progresses in training age, their exercises have less carryover to their sport.
Examples include pulls, such as the snatch-grip and clean-grip pulls used in weightlifting. The problem is that weightlifting requires precise attention to actively getting under the bar – you have to pull the weight and then catch it. By fully extending and using your traps and arms, you essentially have to drop under the bar using the force of gravity, as these muscles are done working.
Another problem with pulls, and this is backed by Soviet research, is that the technique of pulls changes dramatically from that of the classical lifts when weights are used that exceed the 1RM of the classical lifts. Essentially, the maximal weights prevent the hips from moving as quickly during the part of the pull after the bar passes the knees. It’s not surprising that the problem with pulls has created disagreement among coaches: the Bulgarians say to not do pulls at all; others, particularly some Russian coaches, advise minimizing the poor carryover to performance in pulls by not exceeding 90 percent of the 1RM in the classical lifts.
Myth #3: The repetition protocol doesn’t affect exercise selection. If you are committed to performing specific set-rep protocols, you may have to limit your exercise selection. For example, it is difficult to maintain proper form with certain exercises for high reps, thus affecting the training stimulus and increasing the risk of injury. It is difficult, for example, to maintain proper form for more than 3 repetitions in the clean and jerk or more than 6 reps in the front squat.
Myth #4: There isn’t one single best exercise for a muscle group. The squat may be considered the king of exercises, but there is no such thing as a “single best” exercise. Relying on only a few exercises for a workout can lead to overuse injuries, muscle imbalances and slower progress. A great success story about the effectiveness of variety is Larry Scott.
In 1965 Scott won the first IFBB Mr. Olympia contest; he defended that title the following year. Although Scott was known for his amazingly full biceps, which resulted in his favorite exercise, the preacher curl, being nicknamed the Scott curl, much of Scott’s success was attributed to overcoming the challenge of having relatively narrow shoulders.
Scott believed that working the many different “heads” and functions of the deltoid muscle requires a large variety of exercises. He was right. Rather than the three heads of the deltoid that are often described by many trainers, the muscle actually has seven heads (deltoids 1-7, anterior to posterior), which perform these functions: abduction, flexion, horizontal adduction, internal rotation, extension, horizontal abduction and external rotation. If you look at Scott’s training programs, you’ll see that he tried to work all areas of a muscle’s strength curve with a variety of implements, including dumbbells, barbells and pulleys.
Myth #5: Machines are easier on the body than free weights are. Despite the best efforts of machine designers, some machines place considerably more stress on the body than free weights do. For example, the leg extension creates unnaturally high shearing forces that try to pull the joint apart. Likewise, the Smith machine squat can be very hard on the patellar ligament and the anterior cruciate ligament, both of which act as stabilizers for the knees. Although some individuals can perform these exercises without any problems, this is more the exception than the rule. Further, and this especially applies to the leg extension, these exercises have little carryover to athletic performance.
When determining which exercises to use in your workouts, the question you must ask is “What is my training goal?” Answering that question, while keeping these myths in mind, will help you design workouts that are best for you!