31 DoB: 26. How to Pick High Value Exercises

Getting strong, getting massive, and getting durable - aspects of fitness that can take aaaaages to develop, and along the road there’s a lot of ways to go wrong.

Even when  we’re going in the right direction, it doesn’t mean we’re going about it in the quickest or most efficient way possible - like trying to drive offroad when there’s a perfectly empty and smooth road next to it.

Usually it’s because there’s so much information out there that some of it’s going to be right, some of it wrong, some of it useful to us and some of it completely irrelevant.

The wrong information we can spot pretty quickly, the science doesn’t add up and there’s probably some memes floating around, but the irrelevant stuff can still trip us up.

Not because it’s wrong, but it’s not giving us the stimulus we individually need. It might be good information, but inappropriate for our situation.


Whether we’re just starting our or been at it for a while, we always need to be thinking about how consistent our training is with our ultimate goal.

We can’t learn Spanish by taking Chinese classes.

So if you want to get strong, you need to work with heavy weights. Want big muscles, we need to be working with multiple reps and sets. Want to run for longer, we need to practice running for longer.

Basically, if you want to get better at something, just do the thing.

Scientifically, this is known as the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands Principle (or SAID Principle for short). By practicing a movement (like squatting heavy, performing multiple reps or running for a long period of time), we teach our bodies and neural pathways to get more efficient at performing that movement. This helps to increase our coordination, get nerves firing quicker or more efficiently, and ingraining the patterns of how we move to make it second nature.

The more often we practice the movement, or similar movements, the more our body adapts and gets better at it, increasing our performance. So instead of wasting time and resources, our body knows exactly how to get down and do what it needs to do, freeing up the resources to make more progress.

This is the basis for “newbie gains” - it’s not so much that they’re genetic freaks, it’s that their bodies are getting more efficient at the movement. Instead of wasting energy wobbling all over the place and figuring out how to move each joint, they’re becoming more skilled at the movement, able to apply the force where they need it instead of holding on and hoping for the best.

Practicing the movement or skill itself is usually enough for starting out. As it’s new, it will provide enough stimulus for our body to say “WTF is this? Hold on, I need to work this out” and we can make some great progress. Even the weak areas can be worked on without needing accessory exercises, instead by focusing on dialling in your form - things like keeping knees out to activate glutes more, moving slower at certain points to feel the contraction and maintaining good posture while running instead of letting it slack.

As we get more proficient at the movement, the progress will start to slow down. Here we can still improve our efficiency using the SAID Principle, by using exercises that are super similar to the main movement - activating the muscles and moving the joints in a similar way for greater carryover.

For these, think of exercises like: close grip bench press, foot width apart when squatting/deadlifting, pauses, drop sets, super sets, interval training and adding resistance (inclines, running with a backpack).

These are far superior to isolation exercises as they activate similar neural pathways and mechanisms to the main goal movement - isolation exercises might make a muscle a little stronger, but it won’t be as strong as working it as part of a team.

Just like team sports, we can have a couple of individual all-stars with OK chemistry, but they don’t stand a chance against a well oiled and cohesive team of linked individuals acting as one.

Isolation exercises can still be utilised, more so in the bodybuilding/hypertrophy side of things, but they are more small detail work than broad strokes. If we can fit them in that’s cool, but we’re better off spending our time performing exercises and movements that will have huge carryover.


Starting out/New to the movement

Strength: Stick to the main movement(s) you want to get improve. This will be the main competition lifts (e.g. squat, bench, deadlift, snatch, clean and jerk, strongman movements). Progressively overload using techniques such as adding weight, increase reps/sets, add pauses, slow down eccentric parts of the movement, reduce rest time, focus on speed.

Build Muscle: Stick to compound movements (exercises using multiple joints) for each main part of the body. Using dumbbells, barbells or bodyweight (whichever is appropriate to your strength level) this will mean exercises such as bench press, overhead press, rows, deadlifts, squats and lunges. Progressively overload using techniques such as adding weight, increase reps/sets, add pauses, slow down eccentric parts of the movement, reduce rest time, focus on speed.

Endurance activities: Stick to the main movement - if it’s running, practice running. Same goes for swimming, cycling, athletics etc. Nothing fancy, just go out and perform the activity for a certain time or distance. Challenge yourself each session by using techniques such as: increasing the distance you go, the pace/speed that you move at, and shortening the rest or stopping periods between sets/laps.

Old hat/Been at it a while

Strength: Add in exercises similar to the lifts you’re working on. Always think “am I moving in a similar way to the main lift?”. Utilise exercises such as: varying your hand placement on the bar, varying your stance, shortening or increasing the distance the bar travels (using deficits and safety pins of rack), adding bands/chains. The main lift still takes priority, these accessory exercises are just that, accessories. Progressively overload them in the same way as before (weight, reps/sets, pauses, speed, reduced rest).

Build Muscle: Add in exercises that are similar to the main lifts, but at slightly different angles. By adding more compound exercises, we’re hitting more muscle groups, and by utilising slightly different angles we can give the muscles a slightly different stimulus to grow, while increasing the total volume that they get hit with. The exercises from before still take priority, we’re just adding these into the workouts afterwards. Utilise exercises such as: incline bench, front squats, leg press with different stances, hands at different widths on the bar. These are similar to the strength building exercises, but by maintaining a higher rep range we tax the muscle more (encouraging it to grow) than the nervous system (which focuses on getting the muscles fibres acting quickly and forcefully to get momentum behind the bar for a limited amount of reps). Progressively overload these exercises in the same way (weight, reps, sets, pauses, changing speed, reducing rest time).

Endurance activities: Add exercises or sessions that make the main movement harder. Think about things like adding inclines, weight (backpack or drag for swimming), incorporating sprints and interval work (moving as fast as possible, resting/recovery pace, then back to sprinting), and running on different surfaces (mud, grass, road, through shallow water, sand).