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  • Writer's pictureKevin Mullins

7 Questions for Building a Better Exercise

We all do it with something. We butcher an exercise. Whether it as complex as a deadlift or as simple as a tricep pressdown; we find ourselves doing it wrong. Rounded backs in deadlifts are obvious, as are buckling knees in a squat, or dancing feet in a bench press.

What about other movements though? Dumbbell Rows are often done with mass incorrection, as are shoulder presses, and even bicep curls. (Yes, you can actually do a bicep curl wrong).

Regardless of what you are doing you should want to do it to the best of your ability because it will allow you to get the most from it!

Progress is a process, so pay attention to the tension!

Today's blog addresses an a system of questions that allow you to inform yourself completely on a new exercise, or even an old one that you need to improve. It will make you take pause long enough to appreciate the physics and mechanics behind the exercise, as well as respecting it's intensity.

1. What movement is being conducted?

Before you even worry about the muscles being used in the exercise it is imperative to understand what movement pattern is being executed. Are you pushing or pulling? Vertical or horizontal? Is it hip dominant or knee dominant? Is there rotation or are you resisting it?

All of these questions are valid when understanding the purpose of a given action. If you are doing an overhead press you want to maximize your vertical drive. Therefore, any movement that goes horizontal or rotational is useless and is damaging your ability generate adequate force into the load.

Dan John, as well as most respected Strength coaches, classify human movement into seven distinct patterns. See this link to the Strongfirst site.

They are Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat, Carry, Rotation, and Anti-Rotation.

I personally prefer to seperate push and pull into their vertical and horizontal components so that there is a absolute clarity to my programming.

I don't ask for a specific shoulder press modality, rather I pencil in a vertical push for a given number of sets or reps. The client's goals, ability level, and previous lifts often dictate what modality I use.

Master the movement dimensions and you've already made a huge dent! Know where to apply force and put it all in that direction.

2. What muscles are most active?

Now let's talk muscles. When you are doing a horizontal pull you could be working a myriad of pulling muscles depending upon the path that the hands and elbows take.

For example, a standard dumbbell row should have the hands and elbows tight to the torso and not flared out to the sides. Furthermore, the dumbbell shouldn't drag your pulling shoulder towards the floor at the bottom, nor should it cause you to rotate at the top. Lastly, the elbow goes up and towards the hip pocket. This maximizes lat and lower trap activation.

To the contrary the cable face pull, another neccessary pulling exercise, calls for you to flare the elbows out wide as your hands drive towards your nose (assuming use of the rope attachment). The pull and squeeze at the finish emphasizes the rhomboids, rear deltoids, mid-traps, and a little bit of lats.

This example is just one of many in your current program that show the importance in understand how to move, and with what muscles. Once you know where you should feel it; chances are you'll feel it!

3. What position does my core need to be in?

I am a coach who talks about the belly button a lot. I see it as a body part that everyone knows where it is. Ask someone to touch their piriformis and you'll get a lot of befuddled faces, but the belly button...we know what that is at the youngest of ages.

So, this question is actually: Where is my belly button pointing?

Are you on your back such as a chest press, sitting down like in a shoulder press, or is a dynamic position such as a barbell deadlift. Understanding where your core is "pointed" is critical to bracing.

Bracing is the act of using internal pressure in the body, such as your breathe, to boost relative tension of the thoracic and abdominal cavities. The act of doing this aids in protecting the spine, boosting energy transfer from the floor to the limbs, and ultimately boosting your performance.

Image credit:

In the above picture, notice not just the details that StrengthTheory so expertly points out, but the serious difference in core position between these two lifts. Vastly different angles create vastly different levers.

Understand where your core should be braced, especially when attempting complex barbell lifts. In most of these movements your core will be pointing towards the floor in front of you. If you were to throw a protractor at these exercises you'd likely see that you're core position will fall somewhere in a forty-five degree range, again depending upon which exercise.

Simply put though, you don't want to deadlift with the same core position you'd overhead press with. Master the positions your core should be in, and you'll quickly master bracing. Master bracing and your spine will thank you.

4. Where does the load feel it's heaviest?

You should play with your weights a little bit. Unlike your food it is a perfectly acceptable behavior.

Everything that moves has a force vector. This statement may bother a PhD in physics because there is surely some contrarian arguement to it, but for the purpose of lifting fits better than lyrica pants.

There is an optimum path for every weight you lift in the gym. This is dictated mostly by limb length and alignment to the core. For example, you will always be able to bicep curl more than you lateral raise. Yet still, try and do a push up with your hands narrow and even with your bueno.

Assuming you know this and are doing your best to create optimal alignment it becomes important to know where the weight is toughest to lift. In a bicep curl it is at 90 degree relative to vertical. That's why so many repetitions cause you to fail half way up, which leads to make like Fat Joe and "lean back" to finish.

The conventional deadlift is at it's heaviest at the very bottom. When the weight is firmly glued to the floor. Tension in the body and pulling force have to be maximized in order to overcome the inertia of the weights taking a nap on the floor.

Eddie Hall crushing 1020 pounds. Notice the slow(er) pace at the very bottom, but hip drive at the top.

The squat....well...if you've ever squatted appreciable weight you don't need me to tell you that once you are in the's between you, the weight, and some Divine intervention for getting back up!

Understand the weights impact on your body, where you feel it, and how to optimize yourself to overcome it and you'll be amazed at your ability to see progress.

5. Why are you doing it?

This question is scientific and simple all the same. Why are you doing the exercise? Are you trying to burn fat, or build muscle? Could you be optimizing strength, or boosting endurance?

This clarity allows you to better understand weight selection, repetition speed, and rest periods. All of these factors have an interplay with your energy systems, which ultimately govern your ability to keep the desired intensity in your workout.

For example, if you are training a lift, which you have come to understand, for optimal strength you will not want to be placing it in the middle of a circuit. You might do fine the first time through simply because your fresh, but once that heart rate gets going and your body is playing catch up with oxygen you'll quickly find yourself failing...or hurt.

More specifically though, if you are trying to boost growth in a muscle and you simply heaving the weight around with wreckless abandon in an effort to get your reps in, then you will be sore...and disappointed. Repetition speed and appropriate load is critical for muscle growth. You want to feel your repetitions, and absolutely observe the previous four laws discussed in this article.

For fat loss, I like training multiple complex movements with sub-maximum weights. For example, I love doing conventional deadlifts at about 70% maximum for sets of six to eight and supersetting them with proper form overhead dumbbell presses with a similiar load and repetition profile. Throw in a plank or deadbug variation as active recovery and hit it again.


Understand why you are doing a movement and ensure that your operation matches your intention.

6. How fast should it be done to optimize it?

Speed kills. The adage finds itself in every sport. Speed also has the ability to thrill or kill in the gym. If you aren't doing a movement with a correct speed you'll either find yourself failing, or getting hurt from too much velocity.

I'll just say it. I hate any plyometric variation of the bench press. If I ever see you throw a bar in the air I will hit you with something. It's like people WANT fake teeth. You can simulate this effect with bands and chains for God sakes.

The idea that "throwing" the barbell will boost power in the horizontal plane is about as silly as believing that driving with a blindfold on will make you better when they take it off.

For most exercises we can keep it simple. Slow down. Get your old lady glasses on, turn on the Price is Right, and take your time. Feel each repetition. Do it correctly.

With O-lifts: Go faster. If you are struggling with a clean, jerk, or snatch...chances are you aren't getting enough acceleration. Dont muscle up the weights, rather focus on fluidity. This applies to many kettlebell lifts, slams and throws, and most plyometrics too!

2011 Olympic Snatch of 214kg. Notice the Speed.

The Big 3 require their own speed. You shouldn't move wrecklessly, but should still explode violently when the weight becomes it's heaviest. The bottom of the squat and bench should look like the Expendables 4. Muscles, explosions, and grunts. The deadlift requires a bit more calm before the storm, but should still involve an incredible amount of violence when you drive your feet into the ground and pull the bar into your body.

Understand the speed that the bar, dumbbell, kettlebell, etc. should be moving and you'll find yourself exerting better control on the resistance. Control, even when fast, is key.

7. When should the exercise be performed, should you superset it?

This one may seem like a no brainer, but you'll be surprised how many times I've seen people smoking triceps and then lying down on a flat bench press and attempting to hit a PR. There aren't a lot of good outcomes from this.

Just remember major movements come first, after activation and mobility. I'm a big believer that the big 3 are done alone, with the exception of a skilled client who should be working at a higher heart rate, and is under my guidance.

We never want to apply maximum, or even near maximum, effort from a state of exhaustion.

  • Deadlifts are done with deadbugs, or glute pull-throughs if anything at all.

  • Bench Press with planks, protraction/retraction, or band pull-aparts.

  • Squats are done with sitting on a plyometric box and crying. In all seriousness though, maybe some distraction, or pushups. I think squats crush the CNS, and so I like my clients to rest.

Arms though?

Superset those suckers all day, everyday. Barbell bicep curl (just not in the squat rack), and tricep overhead extension will have you feeling the greatest feeling in the gym.

Moderate load RDLs, Lateral ball toss, TRX Rows, RKC planks and swiss ball glute bridges are a great circuit for the backside.

Just don't be that person who tries to max deadlift after running 3 miles, doing fifty pull ups, and squatting too.

Make sure your program your lifts in appropriate places, and only add complexity such as supersets if it makes sense. Exhaustion leads to failure. Failure can lead to injury. Don't be silly.


When choosing your exercises, and going for your next lift, observe these seven questions. Master your movements, know your muscles, and understand how and why you are doing what you are doing. Often times our greatest weakness is our inability to be coached. Don't be that athlete, even if you are more of a mathlete. We can all do things better.


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