Jerva Performance

Exercise Selection for Training

◆ ☕️ 7 min read

Selecting tools to help you target your training goals can be an overwhelming experience. The abundance of exercises in existence raises the question of what to choose and what to throw away.

Proper exercise selection requires in-depth understanding of what the task requires and knowledge of human anatomy and movement to be able to pick tools to achieve that task.

I deeply despise the concept of “must-do exercises” for whatever goal. Unlike what some coaches might lead you to believe, there is never an absolute answer to anything. The context is king.

A way to simplify exercise selection is if we stop thinking about specific exercises and adopt a more fundamental approach to understanding movement patterns.

We can use kinematics, which is a subdiscipline of mechanics describing the motion of bodies, to start categorizing human movement into patterns.

Firstly, anyone that has had any experience with anatomy should know there are 3 anatomical planes of motion:

The planes of motion are an essential consideration when preparing athletes in the weight room. The majority of conventional gym exercises focus on motion in the sagittal plane, whereas most sports require more than just that. Not considering the importance of the two other planes takes away from the athlete's physical preparation. For sports like tennis, lateral movements in the frontal plane along with rotational motion when hitting the ball are both important. This can't be ignored.

The understanding of the fundamental planes of motion will allow us to better categorize movement into patterns as follows:

Hip-dominant exercises #

That category would involve any exercise predominantly focusing on movement from the hips. From a biomechanics perspective, these are exercises that mainly cause a horizontal displacement (backward and forward movement) of the pelvis. This is where the deadlift and all different deadlift variations live, such as the Romanian deadlift. It also includes kettlebell swings, hipthrusts, and different bridge variations.

Hip-dominant exercises are primarily sagittal plane exercises and often utilize a bilateral stance (that is – feet next to each other). Different unilateral stance variations, such as a single-leg Romanian deadlift, could be incorporated if necessary. If that is the case, the tradeoff in stability needs to be considered. If the aim is to lift heavier load and produce more force, bilateral stance options provide more stability and are therefore superior for this aim.

Knee-dominant exercises #

These are all of your squat variations. As the name suggests, these exercises focus on movement from the knee. Biomechanically, squats predominantly cause vertical (up and down) displacement of the pelvis.

Squats also commonly work the sagittal plane and use a bilateral stance.

Lunge variations would also be categorized as knee-dominant, but they would utilize an unilateral stance. Additionally, lateral lunge variations could be included to achieve movement in the frontal plane.

Push exercises #

This category refers to upper body pushing motions. Both vertical and horizontal variations should be trained. Vertical push exercises could be different shoulder press patterns, horizontal would be a flat bench press, or a push-up. Incline push variations hold a spot between those two depending on the angle used.

Push exercises commonly focus on the sagittal plane. Single-arm variations can be used to also involve the transverse plane, if deemed necessary.

Pull exercises #

This category refers to upper body pulling motions. Again, both vertical and horizontal pulling patterns are of relevance. Vertical variations include the classic pull-ups and cable pulldown, horizontal pulls could be any of the row variations, like a barbell bent over row, or a dumbbell single arm row.

Pulling can also be done either with both arms synchronously or with single-arm variations, to involve rotational motion.

Core exercises #

These include anything that targets your core musculature, like your abdominals. Core can easily be trained in a variety of planes. A classic sit-up would work the sagittal plane, throwing in a rotational movement would help you move in the transverse plane.

This would cover the majority of your basic strength and accessory work you might do in the gym. For athletic purposes, additional categories of relevance could be change of direction, triple extension, and throwing movements. To cover your conditioning needs, you might have a category specific to locomotion.

Change of direction movements #

Change of direction and agility movements are of relevance to many sports and can involve movements incorporating all of the 3 movement planes. Drills can be designed for a specific sport to target coordination and teach the athlete control over their center of mass at different movement velocities.

Triple extension movements #

Triple extension refers to the sequential extension of the ankle, knee, and hip joint. Whether you’re running or jumping, many sport’s movements require the athlete to be able to explosively triple extend.

Training triple extension also brings up the relevance of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). SSC refers to how a muscle is able to perform more work if it is allowed to stretch and then immediately allowed to shorten in comparison to only shortening it. Whereas the exact mechanisms are debated, one contributor to the SSC effect is likely the tendon’s ability to store elastic energy during the stretch and then release it back again directly after when the muscle is contracted. As with triple extension, SSC is utilized in all running, jumping, and sprinting motions, more specifically within the interactions between the calf complex and the Achilles tendon.

Triple extension and SSC training couldn’t be properly prescribed under any of the listed categories, thus they deserve a place of their own. Different jump exercises could be incorporated to target those aims, through either bilateral or unilateral stance options alongside sprint drills. Similarly, plyometrics and Olympic weightlifting derivatives could be used to train those qualities in a ballistic fashion, to achieve high speeds of movement and high power outputs, as is often necessary in sports.

Throwing movements #

Throwing movements are for the upper body what triple extension is for the lower body. Throwing utilizes the sequential extension of the upper limbs, often with additional torso rotation. Whereas the majority of SSC research has focused on its presence in the lower limbs, SSC action also exists in the musculotendinous units of the upper limbs.

This category would primarily be your ballistic medicine ball throw variations. Single-arm throws would allow for rotation of the torso, while the stance can be varied to throw from different positions. More stable, bilateral positions might be used earlier in the training plan to develop high power production capabilities. More sport-specific positions might be used closer to the competition.

Locomotion #

Locomotion refers to your general movement and would include things like running and cycling for conditioning purposes. After picking the tool, you would prescribe specific intensities, durations, rest periods and so on to make it target your energy system development goals.

No matter how you might decide to categorize exercises, having a finite number of predefined overarching categories to throw exercises into will make the planning process simpler. You will still have to consider as much detail as you can when choosing specific exercises, but the established subcategories make that process easier.

Once you’ve decided on specific exercises based on the movement patterns, stances, and planes of motion, you can go on to order the exercises in a logical manner within your training plan.

Whereas you can design yourself a template for exercise selection based on the information I’ve provided above, basic knowledge of human anatomy and biomechanics is still essential to make safe exercise choices.

Anatomical knowledge helps you guard against some absolute fuckery that exists in the exercise world. The first thing that comes to mind is what they call the curtsy lunge. Not sure who popularized this, but if I had to take a guess, it must have been a clueless fitness influencer.

Curtsy lunges cause extreme knee valgus (inward movement of the knee). The stress placed on the ACL and MCL ligaments of the knee along with the meniscus is in no world worth it to perform a fucking curtsy lunge, especially if you intend to add load beyond just your bodyweight.

Fortunately, it's uncommon in the sport performance scene, but it relates strongly to general population training, specifically to women. Everyone who prescribes curtsy lunges to their clients deserves a special place in hell. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Stick to biomechanically sound lunge variations.

I hope this article has shed some light on how you could categorize your exercise selection process to achieve your training aims. Additionally, the illustrative example has hopefully cemented the importance of anatomy and biomechanics in this whole process.

As always, thank you for stopping by and feel free to get in touch with further questions.

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