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5 Keys To Exercise Selection

5 Keys To Exercise Selection

We've all been there as a student or young coach -- you find yourself in a situation where your mentor is positioned ominously over your shoulder and poses the question, "why did you pick this exercise over something else?". Inevitably, we all mustered up a rather unrefined response along the lines of, "well this movement is helping to strengthen ______ muscle and improve the stability of ______ joint."

While this sort of rationale is by no means wrong, it does leave much to be desired. It lacks depth and a robust appreciation for the "why" behind what we are doing.

Exercises are merely tools of the trade -- little more than heavy paperweights without the insights of an experienced coach or clinician. Just like a tool, an exercise is nothing more than a blunt instrument without skill and specific intent. To steal a quote from our very own Dr. Baker: "The 'best exercise' is the one that meets the biomechanical demands of an individual's target activity and is dosed according to their metabolic needs and abilities."

The knowledge trajectory of all coaches and clinicians must follow a similar path. We quite simply don't know what we don't know. It is through the continual cycle of exposure to new interventions and ideas, trial and tribulations, and personal refinement that we enhance our decision making capabilities.

The ability to refine and prioritize exercise selection improves significantly over time. This is much like a skilled marksman learns to hone in on his target from all distances and angles. In many ways, practice helps us filter through the noise and requires us to ask the most pertinent questions. There are literally millions of exercises being touted on social media and on TV. Seemingly every day there is a new rendition of an age-old exercise that "you just have to try!". The ubiquity of options can be paralyzing without access to a filter.

This ease of access to options is both a blessing and a curse. The reassuring side is that there is no perfect exercise for a given individual or situation, but rather a slew of equally viable options. By using the following questions as a guide, you can streamline you exercise selection process and drastically increase your odds of a successful outcome:

  1. What is the Intent? -- Think about both the macro and micro here. The macro would be what is the desired future outcome (ie increased force production, enhanced sports-specific qualities, improved body composition?). The micro would be ensuring that this particular intervention is doing something to facilitate said goal.
  2. What positions and muscles are being challenged? -- How am I recreating the necessary joint angles and positions required for this individual's goals and desired activity? This is when the discussion of biomechanics and joint forces becomes highly relevant.
  3. What is the desired speed of the movement? -- Tempo changes everything. How can I manipulate velocity to alter movement demands? Do I want to promote higher velocity with lower loads or lower velocity with heavier loads? If my goal is to enhance muscular force output, I will likely want to first promote the latter prior to the former.
  4. What is the desired intensity of the movement?  -- How difficult do I want to make this movement? How much stress do I want to impose on the system? This question asks us to assess factors such as Rate of Perceived Exertion, percentage of 1 rep maximum, reps in reserve, and a multitude of other qualitative and quantitative performance metrics.
  5. What is the dosage? -- How does the amount of work the individual is doing currently compare to what they have done before? Too much too soon often leads to burn out and lack of progress.  Progressive overload is king here -- consistency of execution and gradual increases over time will maximize outcomes.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I would argue that if you address even a handful of these questions, you will streamline your exercise selection process. Placing emphasis on training principles affords the ability to then mold the endless array of methods and exercises to your client's unique individual needs.

Author: Dr. Michael Reinhardt, DPT; Site Director, Rehab 2 Perform - Germantown


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