One big problem that trainees have in designing strength training templates is the Exercise List. These tend to be lists of 35 to 40 exercises that the trainee is attached to for some reason and if he or she is not working hard on all of them then the program is just not right. But that is wrong.
Strength training is not like owning an ice cream truck. You don’t need all the flavors and push-ups too.
It’s true that there may be a whole lot of different movements you want to get better at down the line. No, you do not have to restrict yourself to just the back squat, deadlift, and bench press to do “strength training.” Right now, in fact, one of the prevailing questions on strength training boards is why would someone put the front squat up front? What does it do for you? Are you doing that for your quads?
Nobody asks this about the back squat. The answer? It’s okay to like what you like and be good at what you want to be good at. If the front squat thrills you and you want to put super heavy barbells on the front of your shoulders, then put the front squat up front and prioritize it. There is no better reason to do it than simply because you love it. You can count yourself “strong” from having a big front squat just as you can with the back squat.
So, it’s not about what you are allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do. It’s about not acting like a kid in a candy store, wanting some of everything and all RIGHT NOW!
The trick to strength training is only having a handful of “absolutely essential” exercises at any one time. Sure, there are certain things you will always do and that are there to achieve “balance” but even those things can be sprinkled in or left off some of the time without too much trouble. For instance, while most strength trainees should always be doing some type of upper body pulling exercise, like rows and pull-ups, you won’t fall apart on account of a row session here or there.
Now that leads us to a very important question. How do you pick those exercises which are a priority and those exercises which are just, well, exercises? What if I want to do very heavy rows? Ah, that’s where we get into trouble. See, some weight training exercises just aren’t conducive to hauling very heavy weights. That doesn’t mean it can’t and shouldn’t be done, just that it is the sort of exercise, using smaller muscle groups, that tends to lead to compensations that will quickly get you injured if you pile on the weight too fast. If you want to be a unilateral dumbbell row champion, you might want to cool your jets and think really hard about what we call a “risk-benefit analysis.”
While you may have seen certain people who can curl a gargantuan barbell, like some strongmen, for instance, isolated elbow flexion is not something that is conducive to sustained and upward progression in muscular strength. For all the “deadlift will kill your back” stuff out there, you would find it much easier to kill your biceps tendon because you went all wild on heavy curling then you would to kill your back, even if both exercises, the deadlift and the barbell curl, were trained in the same relative way. Therefore, realistically, the most important exercises are those that carry the biggest bang for their buck and they just so happen to be those which use the largest and most muscle groups. Pretty simple and straightforward. Given that, if you are a really smart person, and you think you can mitigate the risk involved and train in a way that can be sustained without injury, sure, be a barbell curling champion or a dumbbell row champion.
Out of Two Similar Exercises, Which is the Most Important?
Before I answer that let me explain what I mean by “important.” That is a shorthand way of saying “the exercise that is given the most attention in terms of priorities and being up front in the template.”
I’ll bet, if you really think about it, you can answer the question for yourself. What types of exercises, in a list of similar exercises, will tend to need the most of our “attention” in order to progress? Easy. The ones you’ve been doing the longest.
So you want to know if you can progress at both the front squat and the back squat at the same time? Well, who knows? It depends on how you train them at the same time. But how do you decide how to train them since they seem to be two sides of the same coin? You just have to realize that regardless of their similarities, you have probably been doing one longer than the other and you will have different needs related to each of them. Chances are, you’ve been doing the back squat the longest. If both the back and the front squat held the same importance for you, and you’ve been doing back squat the longest, would it make sense to put front squat up front in your training template? Probably not.
Chances are, you can progress in the front squat with a lower relative intensity (read median intensity) than on the back squat. That means you can lift a bit lighter and with higher volume on the front squat while still getting “stronger” at it. Being as fresh as possible for the back squat and being able to sustain the highest force possible for the greatest number of reps possible on any given day will make it easier to progress on the back squat. Therefore the back squat would be prioritized: placed up front in the week and up front on the given training day. Heck, some people may be able to place front squats right after back squats on the same day and still progress on front squats. Regardless, the work done on front squats will still be cross-training for back squats, to some extent.
The first thing to do, then, is to take that list of 40 exercises you have in front of you and separate out all the “fluff”. No, it makes no sense for upright rows to be second on your list. Pick the handful of things that you really want to haul some heavy weights with. Maybe that’s about four exercises. Now pick, if you can, two that are your absolute priority at this time. Three at most. Those exercises are the ones you will build your template around. They are like the King holding court on his throne. Anyone else who is in that court, they are there because the King suffers them to be there. Long live the King. Get it?
The Front Squat and the Quads
Since I brought up the front squat, I should clear up a little misconception. If I haven’t already, that is. Remember I said above that people ask whether the front squat is done “for the quads”. For some reason the front squats bit of emphasis on the quadriceps, relative the back squat, gets trainees all caught up in the thighs and they forget they are strength trainees, not bodybuilders.
The inevitable concern is that if you do more front squatting then back squatting, you will run the risk of not “hitting your hams” enough. How the back squat suddenly becomes a hamstring exercise is hard to say but it is probably because of the frequent dichotomies created in strength training and bodybuilding, which most trainees have almost been hardwired to address.
To answer the concerns about the hamstrings, any good strength training program should contain plenty of posterior chain exercises. These movements, like the deadlift and its variations, cable pull-throughs (hip pulls), dumbbell or kettlebell swings, etc. are more than enough to ensure your hamstrings, and glutes are happy and strong. It simply does not matter what specific kind of squat you do, in terms of general strength.
I’m New to Strength Training and I Don’t Know What Lifts Are Essential For Me
Usually, when people get into strength training their goals are fairly broad and nonspecific. This is, they just want to get strong, or strong and big. You’ll probably pick the basics, right? Squat, deadlift, some kind of press (probably bench press). Here at GUS, people even tend to prioritize weighted pullups.
Assuming some of those are priorities for you, there are a couple of questions that routinely come up. Okay, so deadlifts are a priority. What other exercises are then essential for me to do to develop my deadlifts? I have a simple answer for you that is only once sentence: The only exercise essential for the development of the deadlift is the deadlift. We can make a case for all sorts of other things on a general and individual basis, but you can NEVER say that another exercise is essential for the development of another. The only exercise that you can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that leads to progress on the deadlift is practice on the lift itself. Unfortunately, this does not strength coaches from prescribing a bunch of absolutely essential exercises that must be done if you want to get a strong deadlift, and there are many articles listing these exercises. I’ll write another post in the future to go further into this and make some logical (I hope) arguments, as to why it can never be proven the be generally true.
The other question is about how us veterans know what lifts we want to prioritize. Well, if we are competitive powerlifters we must prioritize the competitive lifts. And some, if not many powerlifters find that they are best at one or two of those, so they tend to spend more time on those lifts because this is the best way for them to get the biggest total possible. It varies. But if you are not a competitor, how you decide what lifts to do depends on why you do strength training. The problem with most strength training instruction today is that it is watered down and has nothing specifically to do with absolute strength. If you want to develop absolute strength, then, at any given time you will have to be working to put as much weight as possible on a certain lift, so as to get PR’s in that lift. Once you get a PR, you can say that you’ve increased your absolute strength, at least on that lift. Then later on you might work more on another lift. If this really is your goal, then what you will find is that as you progress and mature in your training, you will simply find that certain lifts or exercises just mean more to you for whatever reason. Sometimes we can’t put our finger on it. There is just something about particular lifts that we enjoy and we place more intrinsic value on the development of that lift. Some people are squat people, some are deadlift people. Some are bench press people, and some may be interested in front squats or even heavy kettlebell swings. Who knows? You may choose to express yourself in a way I’ve never even considered. And, sometimes those desires change. The point is that it becomes easier to choose after a while, but to get there you have to start putting weight on the bar, for whatever exercises you choose!