Competitive Olympic lifters, for example, must include lots of quick lifts and build their pure strength work around the snatch and clean and jerk. Powerlifters, too, must organize their programs around the three tested lifts. Other athletes have to build agility and running drills and provide sufficient time to practice their chosen sports, while people seeking greater strength so they look and feel better don’t have to do any of the previously mentioned exercises.
One of the great things about weight training is the wide selection of exercises to choose from. On the flip side, however, the great number of productive exercises means you must spend time sorting through them and choosing only a few, for it’s not possible to do them all. This process is very confusing to many people, so you should find the following guidelines very helpful.
1) Alternate exercises to prevent staleness.This is perhaps the easiest idea to get a handle on. Say, for example, that you need more work on your middle back and want to maintain proportionate strength in that area. You also know that bent-over rows, deadlifts and snatch-grip high pulls all hit your middle-back muscles directly. Obviously, you can’t do all three movements in the same week, but you can alternate them on successive weeks and end up with a more complete middle-hack program.
2) Work larger muscle groups before smaller ones.This is one of the most important rules you can follow. I see many bodybuilders do a full segment of triceps and biceps exercises, then move to the flat bench and attempt an extensive bench pressing routine. They get very little benefit from their chest work simply because they’ve already exhausted their smaller muscle groups, which happen to play a major role in the heavier exercise. If they switched the order of exercises and did their arm work after their benches, they’d get a much more productive workout.
The same concept holds true for the back and legs. I catch my athletes performing their calf raises before they do squats or power cleans so they can get them out of the way. That approach always has negative consequences, though, for the calves are vital to the success of the two heavier movements.
3) Do heavier movements before auxiliary exercises.Every year I write the various programs for the different bodyparts, listing them in the order in which they should be done, but occasionally athletes alter the sequence because a station they need is busy. My two auxiliary exercises for the back are chins and lat pulls. When the weight room is exceptionally crowded, athletes often do those movements before going to the heavier back exercise for the day. It never works, for their backs become fatigued and can’t respond as they would if the trainees had performed the exercises in the correct order.
Not only should you work the primary, or core, exercise for a specific bodypart before the auxiliary one for that area, but you should also complete all the core exercises in a workout before you do any of the auxiliary movements.
“Does it really matter if I do some triceps work before my heavy pulling exercises?” I hear you ask. “After all, I really don’t use my triceps when I do deadlifts or shrugs, do I?” In fact, you do. Try performing either lift with an injured triceps and you’ll discover that very quickly.
There’s also the factor of energy expenditure. The exercises you do at the beginning of a session are always going to get more energy than the ones you do later on. The large muscle groups require a great deal of energy, but you can still work the smaller ones effectively when you’re running out of gas. You can coax your biceps into doing another rep or two, but few can convince themselves to grind out another rep in the deadlift when they’re weary.
4) Do high-skill exercises before pure strength movements.This is perhaps the most abused of all principles involved in setting up a strength program. There are a number of coaches who send me their programs to critique. In nearly every case the exercises are fine but the order is confused. Some have their athletic teams do several pure strength exercises such as squats, deadlifts and bench presses and finish with jerks from the rack. These are all useful exercises, but if they changed the order and had the athletes do jerks first, for they’re a high-skill movement, then the total session would be much more productive.
High-skill movements are those that require a great deal of coordination, timing, speed and athleticism. Pure strength exercises can be done in a more controlled fashion, and in most cases that’s exactly how they should be done. There are several degrees of high-skill exercises, beginning with the two contested Olympic lifts, the snatch and clean and jerk. You should always place them first in any program that includes them. Next comes power snatches, power cleans, drop snatches, hang cleans and hang snatches and, finally, snatch and clean high pulls and front squats. All the rest are pure strength movements, including deadlifts, bent-over rows, shrugs, bench presses, inclines, overhead presses, dips, squats, hinges and leg presses. There are others, of course, but you get the idea. If it’s an explosive movement, it’s a high-skill exercise.
The reason you must give priority to the high-skill exercises is that they need so much more attention from your nervous system. Consequently, your body has to be at its physical peak when you do them. If you’re tired and try to do heavy power snatches, high pulls or jerks, you’re not only going to be ineffective, but you’re also going to use faulty form and create bad habits.
There’s an exception to this rule. If you’re extremely weak in your legs and they’re holding back your progress in all your other lifts, give them priority, at least until you bring them up to par. Even though you plan on doing some snatches or cleans at that workout, it’s still better for you to do your squats first. The high skill lifts will suffer, but this is necessary if you’re going to bring your leg strength into proportion with the rest of your body. Then you can change the order and do the high-skill lifts before the squats.
5) Do the more difficult exercises earlier in the week, when your energy level is higher.This is where the heavy, light and medium principle comes in. Attempt to cheat on this principle for very long, and your progress will come to a grinding halt. That’s a good reason to place the high-skill exercises before the pure strength ones in your weekly training schedule.
6) Don’t adopt another person’s program without giving it some thought.Problems often arise when one person uses another’s program without taking the time to analyze if both parties have the same needs. Sometimes people select a series of excellent exercises from a magazine article, do all the recommended exercises religiously but make very little progress. The trouble with copying another person’s program exactly is that everyone has slightly different weak arid strong points. That’s the reason it’s so important to understand the basic principles of organizing a program and then be able to adapt them to your unique situation. This is a basic truism of weight training that’s all too often overlooked, but it is absolutely critical to progress.
7) Give priority to your weaker areas.Put your ego on the back burner and be very truthful. All too frequently people build a program around their stronger areas and neglect the groups that really need the hardest work.
I do understand how difficult it is to perform exercises in which you’re weak in front of training mates, for I’m faced with the same problem. My training mates always thoroughly enjoy the fact that I’m weak in any lift, as it gives them some degree of revenge for all the abuses I pile on them. I also know from experience that if I work an exercise long and hard enough, I may eventually be able to do more than some of the guys who give me static.
The very best way to improve a weak area is to give it priority. As indicated above, that simply means you do the core exercises for that bodypart first in your routine, when you have the most energy. It also means you can do more total work on the exercise. You can give priority to your shoulder girdle, or upper body, and legs, on every training day, but the back is a different story.
I believe the lower back is best worked on the light day, which is typically Wednesday, with either stiff-legged deadlifts or good mornings. If you perform either of those exercises first, before squats, the squats will suffer. What’s more, the two exercises work much better when you do them directly after squats. So if you decide to focus on your back for a time, only give it priority on your heavy and medium days. That will still be sufficient to get the job done.
Sometimes people really don’t have a weaker area. In that case they may decide to concentrate on improving one bodypart for a few months and give it priority until they reach their goal. If you’re not certain about what to put first in your routine, always select squats. Strength training is synonymous with squatting. If you improve your squat, you become stronger, period. The squat fills the requirements for the first exercise in other ways as well, as it is, without question, the very best movement for thoroughly warming the body and getting all the necessary juices flowing. It’s also the best exercise to do first psychologically. Once you train yourself to start with squats, you’ll get stronger and maintain that strength for a very long time.
8) Always do one core exercise for each major muscle group, shoulder girdle, back and legs, which includes hips.Any program that neglects any of those areas is going to be deficient, for it will result in disproportionate development.
Exercise selection depends on a number of factors, such as your present physical condition. If, for example, you’re starting back after an extended layoff or have decided to try a strength routine for the first time, you should select different exercises from what someone who’s been training seriously for a long time would chose. Beginners are better off sticking with basics, which means full-range exercises. The big three (the power clean, bench press and squat) and any variations thereof were created for beginners. They still till the needs of any beginner at any age. More advanced strength athletes need to incorporate more specialized exercises into their routines and they also need to do lifts that allow them to overload their major muscles.
Exercise selection is often dependent on a person’s physical limitations. These might be the result of a recent injury or an old, recurring one. If you’re in the process of rehabilitating an injury, you’d be foolish to try and follow the same routine you used when you were completely healthy. You must give your undivided attention to rebuilding the hurt area and bringing it up to par. If an area of your body hurts whenever you try to do certain exercises, you have to adapt your routine or suffer dire consequences.
I’ll use the rotator cuff as an example, for that seems to be a prevalent area for injury in the ’90s. Let’s say you find that any form of flat benching gives you a great deal of pain while you’re doing the exercises, as well as later on that night. Naturally, you must eliminate them, at least for a time. In some instances you can reinstate the exercise that hurts an injured area if you do it with light weights and a sensible amount of work.
Dips also aggravate your rotator cuff but not nearly as much as the flat benches. You can do overhead presses and inclines without any pain at all, however, so you must design your shoulder girdle routine around those two exercises. If you work them diligently, you will be able to maintain a strong upper body.
The trick, if it can be called that, is to experiment and find one or two exercises that work the major muscle groups without irritating the injured area. Granted, that’s not always so easy to accomplish, but I have a number of older friends who have devised unique movements that get the job done nicely. Many tend to avoid all exercises that involve the injured bodypart, fearful that they might be doing more harm than good by trying to work the muscles or even the adjoining muscles. So a person who has lower-back problems stops doing back exercises, and the individual who has sore knees forsakes all leg movements. That’s a mistake. When you allow entire groups of muscles to become weak through inactivity, you’re eventually going to experience a whole new set of problems. I’ve observed that serious trainees can always find something to do if they think through their particular problem and apply what they know about training.
9) Tailor your program to your current needs. A routine that served you well during the winter may not work at all in the summer.When it was cold, you had plenty of free time and could easily get to the gym four times a week, but the summer is a different story. There are vacations, friends coming in for their vacations, grass to mow, kids to coach at Little League, and you’re lucky if you can get in two workouts a week. If you try to stick with your four-day-a-week routine, you’re going to get frustrated because you simply cannot cram all those exercises into two workouts. Instead, alter your program. Drop all the auxiliary work for a time and concentrate on a few primary exercises. Then, when you have more time to train again, you’ll have maintained a solid strength base and be way ahead of the game.