Exercise Selection 101: How to Order Your Training Program

Just pick some exercises, slap them together, and head to the gym and get after it. Sounds easy right? What at first seems to be a simple task can sometimes end up freezing people in their tracks. They’re stuck picking from a seemingly endless list of exercises, then trying to figure out which are best for their goals, then realizing they’re not sure what order they should even be in. Finally, they put something together and end up seeing an article online by some guy named Gary saying they are doing everything all wrong. And Gary must know what he’s doing because Gary’s got a six pack. So, what now? Start all over again? Live in constant doubt that your program’s not good enough? Give Gary a call and see if he can do your programming for you?

Look. I get it. Everything and anything about programming seems horribly complex when you first look at it. But once you start to break things down and learn the patterns behind how coaches/trainers are making their programs you’ll start to see that everything is the same basic pattern being expressed in slightly modified variations. I’m going to try and help you start to see that pattern by talking about the very first step to programming which is exercise selection. This isn’t everything you need to know to make a program, but it get’s your foot in the door. That way whether you’re trying to make your own routines, or just trying to better understand the rhyme and reason behind what your coach has laid out for you, things just seem that much less daunting.

Goals/Specificity:

On the most basic level exercise selection is controlled by what is called “specificity”. Specificity boiled down is choosing movements that are specific to whatever it is your goal is . As an example, if you want to be a powerlifter the most specific movements you can do would be the squat, bench, and deadlift. Say you wanted to learn how to jump higher, your training would revolve around dynamic power moves like depth jumps, static jumps, and some basic lower body resistance training. Basically…set a goal for yourself, then go about choosing the exercises that best support that goal.

Exercise Order:

Putting the exercises in order is thankfully straightforward (But do keep in mind there are a million exceptions to what I’m about to say). For those of you with competitive goals you will put those specific competition movements first, followed by close variations or assistance movements to support these competition lifts. You want to be as fresh as possible and able to put as much focus as you can into those movements that you will be competing with.

For those of you with more general strength and conditioning goals, the general rule is you will start with your biggest movements first, and work your way down to the smaller movements. Logically makes sense, right? You’re naturally going to need more energy for bigger compound movements, and less energy for smaller assistance work.  As an example, in an all chest focused workout, you could go barbell bench press, down to a dumbbell press variation, down to a fly variation. For a leg workout, it could go something like barbell squat or deadlift, down to RDLS or leg presses, down to leg extensions or hamstring curls.

If you have workouts that include both upper and lower body compound movements, it’s common practice to put the lower body movement before the upper body movement as lower body movements will almost always require more energy to complete (Again exceptions here are numerous). Don’t overthink this too much. What’s most important is letting big barbell movements/ anything remotely similar come first and then just dot in the smaller exercises as you see fit (Aka don’t get into a mental battle with yourself as to whether or not the dumbbell press should come before the dumbbell row, or if curl’s should come before the tricep extensions).

Strength First or Conditioning First:

This is another super common question when it comes to setting up exercises for a program and I’ll be honest it doesn’t really have a clear answer one way or the other. My general answer is if your goals are more strength based you lead off with the strength training. If your goals are more conditioning based, such as an endurance athlete, then you lead off with your conditioning work. Thing is I know people that love getting that pre-sweat going with a short conditioning workout before a strength session, and I know people that feel if they hit that conditioning before their strength work they won’t have an as successful strength session, so it really does just come down to personal preference in the end.

For you endurance athlete folks though, I’d probably suggest sticking with getting in your endurance work first before getting in strength work. There’s not going to really be an inherent benefit to strength work before conditioning for an endurance athlete, and there’s a solid chance that it’s going to impact how your endurance training will go, which should be your focus.

Adherence:

Adherence is a point of training that I often see get’s overlooked time and time again. Sure, it’s all fine and good that you wrote out the world’s most perfect training program that has ever been conceived, and it’s all fine and good that the program is fully supported by all the scientific research it possibly could be. But how good is that program really if you are dreading walking into the gym each day to do it? Or you are bored out of your mind each gym session? Or you’ve got a passion for something else entirely, but like, the research said this was the way things needed to be done?

Your program is essentially useless if you aren’t going to follow it. Yes, there is always going to be hard work involved in any sort of training program involving athletic aspirations, strength goals, or weight loss goals. But you don’t have to hate your program every step along the way. Find the styles of training that you like, don’t just take someone else’s word as to what is best for you, figure it out for yourself what is truly best. Start programming in movements that get you excited to head to the gym, as opposed to dreading your upcoming training session. Be realistic with yourself, maybe you’re on a time crunch and an hour and a half training session is only going to add stress into your life. Shorten it down, try an hour long training session, try a 45 minute long training session, bring it all the way down to a 10 minute session if you need to. Whatever is going to get you to actually do the program, do it.

I’d much rather see someone running a program that isn’t absolutely “perfect” or up to date on the latest research, but they are actually showing up and putting in work 4 days a week, as opposed to someone who has the “best” program out their but they are only showing up 1 or 2 days a week because they hate it or are bored on it. Plot out what exercises you are choosing for yourself, accordingly, and make it fun. Now I do have to say this isn’t a free pass to just completely avoid any and all exercises because they are “difficult” (when it comes straight down to it training is difficult not going to lie to you there, but that’s just part of the game) but rather that the exercises you are selecting aren’t making training MORE difficult because you’re bored doing them, it’s not the actual training you want to be doing, it’s above your current skill level, etc.

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.