September 21, 2014

How To Determine The Value Of An Exercise, And Whether It Is The Best One For You

Get Results, Or Die Trying

Progression is the name of the game, to which every single decision, as it relates to a strength training program, should be built upon. Progression in this context is best quantified by the following criteria – this criteria also happens to determine whether an exercise can be classified as one with a high, or low, rate of return on investment (ROI), and if it has a lot of room to grow (how high it’s ‘ceiling’ is):

·         An increase in the amount of weight lifted for a given number of reps

·         An increase in the amount of reps performed with a given amount of weight

·         Increased density – performing the same amount of work in less time, or performing more work in same amount of time

*The first two best categorize an exercise’s room to grow, while all three can effectively gauge an exercise’s rate of ROI in relation to the goal.

The purpose of any training program/session should be to make improvements in one, if not all, of the above areas – although improvements in each area can’t be expected every workout, an increase in any one of them should be the goal, as that would be considered satisfactory to most, depending on your current level of fitness (beginners being more likely to make progress across the board, while experienced lifters are less likely to do so).

To ensure progression, not only do you need an effective progression model, to which all training parameters are based upon, but you must also select the exercises that offer the greatest opportunity to experience such progression – those which provide the most return per investment of time/effort.

The rate/frequency in which an exercise can be ‘progressed’, as defined by the criteria above, determines its rate of ROI value. The more often it can meet the progression criteria, the greater it’s rate of ROI. If it can’t meet the progression criteria frequently, its rate of ROI is lower and therefore should not be the cornerstone in which a routine is built around.

Return On Investment (ROI) – You Don’t Get What You Put In

An imbalanced relationship exists between input and output – you don’t always ‘get what you put in’. If that was the case, then it wouldn’t matter which exercises were performed, just as long as some were used, the results would be the same as doing anything else, but this just isn’t the case. In fact, in some cases you may put in a lot more and end up with a lot less, and in other cases you may put in a little and get back a lot. This is especially true as it relates to exercises, and exercise selection.

For example, there are a seemingly infinite amount of exercises designed to strengthen and develop each muscle group, but the result (ROI) from doing each of them can differ dramatically, as some exercises simply have more ‘room to grow’ than others. Therefore, it is of great importance to identify which exercises heavily tip the scale in favor of offering the greatest rate of return per investment of time and effort, for you.

Room To Grow

As stated above, the height of an exercise’s ceiling, defines its room to grow – height meaning the ability, and frequency, in which weight can be added, or more reps can be performed. Exercises that allow for the largest, most consistent increases in the amount of weight used, or reps performed, have the most room to grow, as they have a relatively high ceiling – these are cornerstone exercises which routines should be built around.

On the flip side, if an exercise has a ‘cap’ on how much weight can be used, or how many reps can be performed with a given amount of weight, then it has much less room to grow, as they have a relatively low ceiling.

Practical Illustration

Here are some practical examples to help illustrate the point – on the left are exercises that offer a low ROI, with little room to grow, and on the right are exercises designed to target the same muscle group with a high ROI, with greater room to grow:

·         Leg Extension/Lunge Variations – Squat/Front Squat

·         Flat/Incline/Decline Dumbell Flye/Cable Crossover/Pec-Deck – Flat/Incline/Decline Barbell Press

·         Straight-arm pulldown – Pull-Up/Chin-Up

·         Lateral/Front/Bent-Over Dumbell Raise – Overhead Barbell/Dumbell Press

·         Pressdown/Kickback – Close-Grip Barbell Press/Dips

While this is not a complete list, there are some commonalities that can be misleading, standing out among them is that the exercises on the left are primarily isolation movements, some performed with cables or machines, while the exercises on the left are all free/body-weight, compound movements.

This is not to suggest that isolation movements, or those performed with cables or machines, have no place in a strength training program, but rather that they should be used secondarily to exercises which provide a much greater rate of ROI, as long as they serve a specific purpose (to pre-exhaust for example).

Cable and machine based exercises are relatively capped in terms of home much weight can be used, as they are limited by how much weight the machine can hold, or the amount of plates above the lowest pin position on the cable stack. While it is possible to use some creativity and come up with ways to attach more weight to a cable stack or machine, this is a rather shortsighted perspective, as it does not change the fact that these exercises simply have a lower ceiling than compound free/body-weight exercises.

How To Evaluate The Value Of An Exercise

An exercise is easily evaluated by asking the right questions – these questions being:

·         Highlight a baseline by asking – How much weight, or how many reps with a certain weight, can I perform now?

It’s important to know where you’re at now, as it will influence the answers of the following questions.

·         Identify an exercise’s ceiling, and rate of ROI, by asking – Assuming a plateau is avoided by following an effective progression model, how much more weight, or reps, is it possible to perform in 1, 5, and/or 10, year(s) from now?

Some examples of exercises with a high ceiling, and high rate of ROI are the bench press, squat, and deadlift. The amount of strength that can be gained, determined by how much more weight can be lifted, is generally very high, especially compared to baseline numbers. With a well-planned progression model, it’s not uncommon to be able to increase bench, squat, and deadlift numbers by several hundred lbs.

Some examples of exercises with a low ceiling, and low rate of ROI are the flyes, lateral/front raises, and pressdowns. The amount of strength that can be gained, determined by how much more weight can be lifted, is generally very low for these exercises in comparison with baseline numbers. Even with the most effective progression model, it’s not likely to be able to increase flye, lateral, or pressdown numbers by even 50 lbs.

·         Further evaluate by asking – How much of a difference will it make if is possible to make a substantial amount of progress (lift more weight, perform more reps) on this exercise?

Just because it may be possible to make substantial and considerable improvements in terms of lifting greater amounts of weight, or perform a greater amount of reps than is currently possible, does not mean an exercise is of high value. Improving by leaps and bounds for exercises with a relatively short range of motion (ex. calf raises), or which stimulate a relatively small amount of muscle mass (ex. leg extensions) won’t make much of a difference to the end result.

On the flip side, just because an exercise has a small range of motion, or stimulates a relatively small amount of muscle mass, does not mean it is of low value, especially if the musculature in question does not receive relative optimal tension during cornerstone movements (ex. leg curls). This is an example of an exercise with a low ceiling and rate of ROI which has a specific purpose for being a part of a training program, and can have a profound effect on the end result.

·         Further identify an exercise’s rate of ROI by asking – If an exercise has a low ceiling, and not much room to grow in terms of being able to increase the weight or reps, is it at least possible to decrease the amount of time it takes to perform the work, or perform more work in the same amount of time?

If an exercise has been ‘maxed out’, and adding weight is simply out of the question, and the reps are already as high as can be without having a counterproductive training effect, the only real value an exercise can have as part of a training program is to increase the demand placed on an isolated compartment of a muscle, which is done by increasing the density of the workout. When the density can no longer be increased (as the rest intervals can only be decreased so much before it negatively affects performance, if it doesn’t, you’re basically performing one really long set which would indicate that a heavier load can likely be used) a safe bet is to increase the weight by a small margin and start over.

Are You Buying In To What You Are Doing?

For some, this perspective on the importance of exercise selection may completely change, for the better, the way you shape your workouts, while for others, this may reinforce that you’re time and effort is being invested in the most effective way possible. In either case, the greatest benefit that could possibly come from knowing, and understanding this information, is increased buy-in to your training which comes from knowing you’re time and energy is being spent wisely. Buying-in to your training is created by better understanding why what you’re doing works, or is going to work. The greater you buy-in to what you’re doing, the is greater effort you put in, and when you put in maximum effort, in conjunction with selecting the exercises which provide the greatest return, they combine for a greater end result, and ultimately provide the best possible return on your investment of time and effort.

If you have any questions about which movements may provide the most return per investment of time, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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