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  • Writer's pictureKevin Mullins

4 Foundations of a great exercise

In the last year I've become a master instructor and new-hire mentor for Equinox, two roles that put me in a position to shape newer trainers minds and careers. I've greatly enjoyed the challenges of breaking down things that I understand and rebuilding them in someone else's language. They say you never really learn until you've taught anyway...

One of the most common coaching points I've discussed in my time with individual trainers, or with an entire class, is the significance in exercise selection. Training a client is a complex integration of the major physical sciences, paired with equal parts sociology, psychology, and even a bit of communication theory. Sprinkle in some business management, marketing savvy, looking the part, and genuinely being a likable person and you've got what it takes.

Yet, ultimately your longevity and success in the industry falls on whether or not you write great training programs. These programs are more than just fancy spreadsheets with exercise names, rep counts, and percents of load. They are the blueprint for a successful project, and as such, require the individual elements within it to be just as refined as the master plan.

These individual elements are the exercises you choose to do during a training session. Not all exercises are created equal though, and many will fly directly in the face of what your goal is in the first place if you don't fact check them in a world full of #fakegainz.

We've done a great job as an industry of weeding out the dipshits who tell us to do everything on a BOSU ball, or have us avoiding deadlifts and squats because "they are bad for the knees". Yet, there is still so much conversation about what exactly makes a great exercise. Now, I won't pretend to be the judge and jury in regards to exercise efficacy, but there over ten-thousand hours of actual training sessions behind these thoughts, so feel free to judge yourself.

Utilize these four principles as you critique the exercises you use in your programs.

1. Relationship to a basic movement pattern

Most, if not all, exercises in a program need to be based on the eight essential movement patterns of the human body. These patterns, vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull, squat, hinge, lunge, and rotation, are the integral foundations of all human movement.

Thus, when picking an exercise for yourself or for a client it is imperative to ask yourself if you are doing something that the human form is supposed to do. Or, are you simply throwing spaghetti at the wall in hopes that you elicit some sort of response. The one thing about the basic movement patterns, especially when considering the addition of loaded carries, is that we have the science to show they create outstanding results in a variety of desirable ways.

Want to lose weight? Hinge and carry your ass off while also pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging and rotating.

Want to get bigger muscles? Hinge and carry your ass off while also pushing, pulling, squatting, and lunging heavy things for lots of reps.

Want to get stronger? Hinge, Squat, Pull, Push and carry your Ass off while also doing some lunging as a great accessory.

Want to be a better athlete? All of the above with the addition of unloaded explosive drills that are based upon many of the basic human movements.

Specificity is still key though, and speaking in broad brush strokes is great in conversation, but useless in programming. So, diving deeper when can say a trap bar deadlift is a specific variation of a loaded hinge, while a pistol squat is a unloaded, unilateral squat. A barbell bench press is an excellent horizontal push exercise, while a reverse lunge to shoulder press unifies the lunge and vertical push patterns effectively.

All of the aforementioned specifics would look great in a program.

A burpee to jumping jack for reps does not. Nor does the leg extension for high load. A program full of single joint movements strong together to "create-a-burn" can be fun for a newbie, but it'll only slow their progress towards actual results. Avoiding the major movements in favor of more arms and abs and crazy-ass-porno-like abduction machine sets is not generating results....

It's delaying them.

Now, that doesn't mean a biceps curls isn't a great exercise if you are looking to improve girth of the upper arm, strength in a chin-up, or just want to leave the gym looking like an Adonis balloon after your workout.

The same goes for the booty building bootcamp that happens when a group of people find mini-bands and a mirror, an abduction machine, and a fixed-weight barbell. Let the bootybuilding show begin...after you've done some other things.

In short, an exercise should elicit effects in and out of the gym.

2. Availability (Progression/Regression)

It amazes me how many trainers go for pinnacle, or near-pinnacle exercises with every single client they train. Doesn't matter if you're an old lady or a true brochacho - this is a barbell and you are going to hold it, press it, pull it, and place it across your back every time!

An exercise must be tailored to the person doing it. A perfectly performed goblet squat will cause significantly more beneficial progress to occur than a half-assed (literally) barbell squat with minimal depth. Especially if the person performing isn't perfectly sure what a squat is anyway.

Thus, a foundation of exercise selection is its ability to be scaled up or down depending on a client. Every exercise should be thought of as a ladder leaning against a wall. What rung are you aiming to reach, and more importantly, where do we grab the ladder and begin? Sometimes you'll grab too high and that's OK - you just need to know what you need to do go back down and earn the rungs below. Just the same if you go too low - reach higher.

A squat can be bilateral or unilateral, loaded or unloaded, and be assisted or resisted. It can utilize dumbbell(s), kettlebell(s), a barbell, bands, perpendicular cable resistance, a TRX, machines, sandbags, and even a fellow human on your back. The squat can go to a box, a bench, ass-to-grass, or just a few inches to train vertical jump patterns.

You can add chains and bands to make life suck or hold your clients hands to provide unwavering care and stability. You can squat heavy or for repetitions. You can squat and jump in the air or on a box.

Before this reads like a Dr. Seuss book - you get the point.

A great exercise is one that is capable of regressing and progressing seamlessly to the needs of the client.

3. Vulnerability

A great exercise also holds a level of vulnerability. The exercise should challenge a specific aspect of fitness that makes the client, or yourself, feel at risk of failing. NOW, to ensure this doesn't fly in the face of my previous point of scaling an exercise appropriately, I'm referring to fatigue, or subtle failure in this instance. No exercise or program should come close to typing out an obituary. We aren't looking for true failure, rather one that is relative.

Failure in a barbell deadlift would look like a great set with well-coached form that ends a repetition or two earlier than planned due to fatigue.

Failure in a push up would be the struggle to finish a repetition due to finally aligning the elbows and slowing down the repetition speed instead of bouncing out of the bottom.

The vulnerability of a well coached exercise could also be referred to as the "area for desired improvement" since they are often one and the same.

We deadlift to improve performance in the posterior chain, so it shouldn't be surprising that weaknesses, and ultimately failure, will occur here.

A farmer's carry with challenging resistance is meant to push the grip capacity and core control of the user, so the hands and lumbar spine will present themselves as areas of vulnerability.

To the contrary, an exercise that doesn't provide much inherent vulnerability would be machine exercises such as the leg extension, leg press, pec deck, etc. The failure on this machines would come in the form of poor execution (flinging heavy weights on extension or rounding spine on press), to simply equating a tired muscle to an excellent exercise.

The same idea goes for arms and abs exercises that are done in isolation. The vulnerable point of the body is often NOT the point of emphasis. For example, many abdominal crunches and raises put the lower back at risk of excessive extension or flexion. This is an undesired compromise. Many biceps curls force the shoulders into internal rotation and the thoracic spine into flexion. This is also an undesired compromise.

That doesn't mean you can burn out your quads on a drop set of leg extensions, or that you have to start wearing long sleeves because you always skip arm day. It just means that creating a muscular fatigue "sensation" doesn't qualify an exercise as great inherently, and therefore, exercises like these should be used in small doses.

A great exercise is one that challenges something to the point of it needing to adapt.

4. Applicability of the Exercise to Actual Goals

Lastly, an exercise must be applicable to someone's goals. It must possess the versatility to be utilized in a myriad of ways to reach unique outcomes. The major movements (hinge, pull, squat, etc.) can be applied to any training goal if the proper variables are tweaked.

A great exercise can be done as a straight set, as a part of a superset, a circuit, or any other programming scheme. It's variability allows for quick changes to be made in intensity or complexity based upon the goals of the individual. Upping the load and dropping reps can make someone stronger while keeping the load moderate and adding in complimentary movements can create a density circuit that builds muscle and shreds fat.

Under this foundation - a biceps curl isn't great. It doesn't exactly help you move better, lose weight, or gain gross strength. It is mostly useful for creating hypertrophy of the biceps. Again, it doesn't mean that it has no place in any program. In fact, it has plenty of space in a program that is solely aimed at increasing skeletal muscle mass and reshaping the physique.

Thus, every exercise is valid if the goal is to maximize the benefit it provides en route to your master plan. If your goal is a bigger butt, then spend some time with that mini-band and smith machine. If you want a bulky back then you'll want to hit as many rows and pulldowns as possible to overload the stubborn lats.

Yet, for most clients, and most of us in general, the applicability of these hypertrophy and "shaping" exercises is minimal. Our efforts are best spent observing the four foundations of an exercise and looking for the major movements that challenge multiple aspects of our human unit at once.

An exercise can't be great though if it doesn't get you closer to your goals. So, unilateral squatting a client who just wants to get hyuuuuuuuuge isn't going to always be your best selection. Just as trap bar deadlifting everyone you meet is likely to miss the mark too.


A trainer is judged by their ability to string exercises together and create a program that elicits all of the desired effects on a continual basis. Utilize these four foundations to make exercise great again.


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