Exercise Selection Specifics For Strength and Hypertrophy

We’re nearing the end of the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid series. Again, this was originally a concept developed by Dr. Eric Helms, but I’m breaking it down for a fresh beginner, so they can use it to design their own program. Let’s dive into how you should pick your exercises based on your goals. I broke it down by strength athletes and bodybuilders, because the recommendations are quite different.

Exercise Selection For Strength Athletes

When talking about exercise selection, the key here is, like our discussion on intensity: specificity. Your goal and sport are largely going to determine which exercises you should and shouldn’t be doing.

Strength athletes like powerlifters and weightlifters have a bit more rigidity in their programming because they need to excel on certain lifts like the squat, bench press, deadlift, or clean & jerk and snatch.

For this reason, much of the training for these athletes should be focused on improving those lifts either from a skill or strength perspective. Consider that these are sports; like football or basketball, there are certain skills that must be practiced to maximize your potential as an athlete. The big three lifts for a powerlifter and snatch and clean & jerk for a weightlifter are the skills they must practice to be the best. Lifting is absolutely a skill that needs to be improved over time to continue seeing results.

When it comes to exercise selection, this allows the strength athlete many options on which exercises they can do despite having a focus on certain lifts. For example, the deadlift can be broken down to multiple levels despite being a single movement. Some lifters struggle with locking out at the top; they can rip it off the floor, but the last few inches are the major grinder. Instead of simply deadlifting more, they can perform rack pulls to improve their power at the top of the lift. Additionally, they can also use bands to increase resistance at the top, so they can practice the sticking point without having to load the bar near the actual weight that they get stuck at. Those are just two examples, but every compound lift can be broken down with more specific exercises to enhance the athlete’s abilities and improve weak points.

Something to keep in mind is that it’s going to be ideal to focus on the actual lift as you approach meet day. It’s not advised to be using bands, chains, and complementary exercises like I mentioned close to the day of the competition. This is because as you approach the competition, you’re also likely dropping some weight and levers on your body are changing with the weight and fat loss causing some factors of your lift to feel different or off. You’ll want some time to account for this by practicing the competition lifts in their entirety. Of course, if you’re facing an injury and can’t perform the lift without pain, then you should stick to what you can do pain-free. In summary, the closer you get, the more specific and rigid you should be unless an injury is present.

Exercise Selection For Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders have the luxury (and curse) of having more flexibility with their training. Having more chance of variability is going to be important for a bodybuilder since their focus is on crafting a symmetrical and properly proportioned physique; with this comes benefits and drawbacks. The benefits being the increased flexibility allows them to use an endless variety of exercises to reach their goal. For a bodybuilder, no one exercise is required. If benching hurts your shoulder but machine pressing doesn’t, that’s perfectly fine and will work just as well to develop your chest. Another benefit is that variety is going to keep things interesting. It can get pretty mundane doing the same lifts over and over. Obviously, you want to have some repetition to track progression, but you have so much to choose from that a training block never has to be the same thing for the sake of improving a specific lift.

One drawback of less specificity includes a lack of focus/ambiguity. Since there is no specific lift that is necessary, it can be easy to simply go through the motions of exercises with no clear goal in mind since you don’t have to lift a certain weight on a meet day. To combat this, you can set your own strength or rep goals for lifts. For example, you can set a goal to leg press 5 plates on each side 20 times. Now, you have some structure to your training and can design weekly progression to reach that goal. Once you do reach it, set another goal!

Some quick rules of thumb for exercise selection for bodybuilders:

  • Since you are working to build a well-rounded physique, select exercises that are going to cover each muscle group. Don’t simply leave one behind. If a muscle group is too big and is throwing off your proportions, simply drop the volume to maintenance for some time to allow other muscles to catch up. See Dr. Mike Israetel’s posts on Maintenance Volume (MV) and volume landmarks as good baselines for determining your MV.
  • Find exercises that you enjoy. This is very important because if you pick exercises you feel are “necessary” but you hate them, you’re going to just go through the motions and not focus on the contraction or push yourself on it. Don’t underestimate enjoyment while you train.
  • Spend some time on the exercises you land on instead of bouncing around all the time. While you don’t need to lift a certain weight for any competition, spending 4-8 weeks on a static group of exercises will help you improve your skills of lifting. You can also establish familiar movement patterns and feel more comfortable in that exercise as you push yourself further. In addition, the more time you spend on a lift, the better you can establish a mind-muscle connection with it rather than focusing on simply doing it right, leading to additional hypertrophy!

Should bodybuilders do the big three lifts? I think so! They allow you to accumulate a lot of volume and train lots of different muscles at one time. If you’re strapped for time, compound lifts will be your best friend, but they are also useful for covering your bases. For me, I try to incorporate one heavy compound lift for that muscle group, then I’ll complement it with some isolation exercises so I can cover my bases and then hone in on the details.

That’s exercises selection! If you feel that I missed something or just have a question, shoot me a comment, and I’ll get back to you! Next week, I’ll probably finish this series off and aggregate rest periods and tempo together. Thanks for reading!

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