In this article we will discuss how to go about choosing exercises when designing a routine. Since this article focuses primarily on exercise selection, things such as volume, intensity and rep ranges will not be talked about in detail, but will be touched on briefly.
While there are some foundational ideas that should be adhered to in order to optimize progress, often times what's "optimal" is only better by a small margin and trading out "optimal" for something more preferential to the individual is a better idea for long term progress and adherence.
Commonly used exercise classifications
Exercises are commonly categorized into three different groups based on the muscles they target and synergize with. These groups are called push, pull and legs. Pushing muscles include the chest, shoulders and triceps. Pulling muscles include the biceps, lats, traps and other back muscles. Legs include all of the leg muscles including the hamstrings, glutes and sometimes the core muscles as well. "Upper body" would simply refer to combining push and pull muscles into one workout and "Lower body" includes the legs and often core as well. While these are not perfect classifications, they make things easier when designing a routine and deciding which exercises should be used on a given workout day.
Use compound movements as your foundation
Compound movements are movements that use multiple joints throughout their range of motion. These are exercises such as the bench press, squat, deadlift and overhead press to name a few. The reason that compound movements should be used as the foundation of your workouts are because they target multiple muscles in one movement and are much easier to apply progressive overload (one of the key fundamentals to long term progress) to.
These movements will be the most time efficient movements you can perform, because they build multiple muscles at once and will produce much faster strength gains than isolations movements.
Perform compound movements first
While not always the case, depending on which muscle groups you plan on hitting that day, it's recommended that you start your workout by performing 1-3 compound movements for each muscle category. If your workout for the day focuses primarily on pushing movements, then you'll want to use 1-3 compound movements such as the bench press and overhead press. The reason we start the workouts with compound movements is because they are harder to perform than isolation exercises and you'll need to be as fresh as possible so you can perform well on them. Poor performance on compound movements can result in poor progress.
The tried and true compound exercises that are known for their ability to build lots of strength and muscle are the bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press, pullup and barbell row. While not completely necessary, these movements should typically find their place in your routine one way or the other for optimal progress. However, there is no need to do the basic variations of these lifts. There are variations of these lifts that can be done that are just as effective and may be better suited to your individual needs or preferences. It's a good idea to choose variations that you personally enjoy performing and can progress on long term without pain or discomfort. Below I will list some variations of each lift and the group they typically belong to.
Bench Press (Horizontal Push)
- Conventional Bench Press
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Floor Press
- Low Bar Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Box Squat
Deadlift (Pull / Legs)
- Conventional Deadlift
- Sumo Deadlift
- Stiff Leg Deadlift
Overhead Press (Vertical Push)
- Standing Barbell Overhead Press
- Seated Barbell Overhead Press
- Dumbbell Press
Pullup (Vertical Pull)
- Neutral Grip Chinup
- Lat Pulldowns
Barbell Row (Horizontal Pull)
- Pendlay Row
- Seated Cable Row
- Dumbbell Row
Loading scheme recommendations for compound lifts
While most rep ranges build similar amounts of muscle, it is usually a good idea to train compound lifts in a moderate to heavy rep range, because it is much easier to gain strength on compound movements than it is for isolation movements. If your goal is absolute strength, you could go as heavy as 1-3 repetitions on occasion with most of your sets falling around 5-6 reps. If your goal is more hypertrophy oriented, then I'd suggest 6-8 reps on average with some sets going lighter on easier training days around 10-12+. Rep ranges are mostly preferential and anything outside of the extremes (6-30 reps) are fine.
Volume recommendations for compound lifts
For the context of this article, volume refers to total amount of sets done. For compound lifts, you typically want to use low to moderate volume, because they are much more fatiguing than isolation movements. If your goal is more strength focused, you can go on the higher end of volume with each compound lift and if your goal is hypertrophy, you'll likely want to cut back on compound lift volume and get more volume in with isolation movements. This works out to be roughly 3-6 sets for hypertrophy focused approaches and 2-4 sets for strength focused approaches. Again, these are just rough approximations and will depend on each individual's needs.
Using isolation & accessory exercises to accumulate more volume
Once you have chosen your compound movements, now it's time to move on to deciding on what isolation and accessory movements you want to use in order to target muscles you want to strengthen and grow. In order for a muscle to grow optimally, it must be targeted with an adequate amount of volume. The amount of volume required to grow optimally exceeds that which you could perform on compound movements alone, because they generate much more fatigue. This means that in order to grow a muscle optimally, you'll need to not only perform compound movements that target this muscle, but also isolate the muscle with additional exercises. It is typically recommended for hypertrophy that you perform at least 10 sets per week for a muscle to grow optimally.
A good starting point is to choose 1-2 isolation or accessory exercises that target the muscle groups that you're working that day. For example, if it's a push day, you can choose 1-2 exercises each for the chest, triceps and shoulders. For muscles that you want to target with high volumes, it may be better to use two exercises and for muscles that don't need as much volume, you can get away with one. Splitting up high volume between two exercises is more practical, because doing 8 sets is much easier if you're doing 4 sets of two different exercises as opposed to 8 sets of the same movement. Not only can that become redundant and boring, but you miss out on the ability to target the muscle from slightly different angles when using multiple exercises.
Choosing exercises you can FEEL in the targeted muscle
You should be choosing exercises that you can actually feel in the targeted muscles. This will be highly individual and is the reason why there is no "best" movement for each muscle group that works for everyone. It's highly suggested that you try a large variety of exercises to determine which exercises cause the targeted muscle to feel fatigued and/or pumped. For example, for one person barbell curls may hit their biceps extremely hard and cause them to fatigue a lot, while someone else may not feel much in their biceps from barbell curls and would be better off using dumbbell curls or cable curls to target their biceps. Don't waste your time using a movement that you don't feel stimulating the muscles you want to target just because it worked great for someone else. One thing I will note, however, is that sometimes it may take multiple training sessions for you to get the groove with a given movement before you feel it in the muscles you want to target, so don't be quick to toss out an exercise immediately after trying it only once.
Choose exercises that have a good Stimulus to Fatigue ratio
Stimulus to fatigue ratio simply refers to the ratio in which an exercise stimulates a muscle and causes fatigue. An exercise with a better ratio will cause a lot of stimulus in a muscle and will generate little overall training fatigue. Most isolation exercises will cause very little overall training fatigue while generating a lot of stimulus on the targeted muscle, but if you run into an exercise that seems to just beat you up, tire you out or just feels bad to perform due to joint pain or other similar issues, you may want to consider using a different exercise, even if the exercise seems to stimulate your muscles a lot.
It is important to note that this is more important for hypertrophy than it is for strength. Some movements that are great for building full body strength, such as the deadlift, have a relatively bad stimulus to fatigue ratio. Deadlifts may build lots of muscle, but they come with a lot of overall systemic fatigue accumulation in the process as well. So they may be better suited for strength goals than for hypertrophy goals -- that's not to say that they can't have their place in a muscle building routine.