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The best damn exercise

(doesn't exist)

If one question pops up a lot in any trainer’s week, it is: ‘what is the best exercise for X or Y?’. The well-intended answer often involves lists of so called superior exercises, backed by arguments of electrical muscle activity or ability to improve posture. Although this may help point some in the direction of sound exercise selection, reality is a lot more nuanced. Of course some movements offer more diffuse benefits and others have a poorer risk versus reward ratio, but it is often a matter of context. Good or bad exercises don't really exist. Allow me to explain.

photo by @wearebru

Weight training is little more than repetitively going through some arbitrary movement patterns, with the goal of improving joint function while strengthening the muscles and connective tissues. Of course some exercises tend to do a bit more for one or the other, but one exercise that hits all the best angles and all the best functions does not exist. Our musculoskeletal systems are simply too complex to be nurtured by one movement only. Fortunately we instinctively know this, so we tend to come up with programs that contain multiple movement patterns, which leaves plenty of room for complementary exercise selection.

"Our musculoskeletal systems are simply too complex to be nurtured by one movement only."

Favoring any single exercise over another is therefore kind of futile. Let’s take upper body pressing as an example. Probably the first movement that comes to mind is the bench press, an upper body staple in any serious trainee’s program. And for a reason: it's a great exercise for seriously loading the triceps, shoulders and chest. A limitation however is that due to the nature of lying on your back while pressing, the shoulders are best kept in retraction (pulled backwards) in order to protect the anterior shoulder capsule. While this is in essence just fine, always pressing like this will mean that protraction (pushing the shoulders forward) is not trained. And this may result in underdeveloped Serratus anterior muscles, which sets you up for increased risk of injury down the road.

The Serratus anterior muscle

So….we need to include protraction into pressing! Great. Let's swap the bench press for push-ups or landmine presses. These exercises do allow one to move through full retraction and protraction, which circumvents our bench pressing limitation. Also, stability of the midsection is trained, so this must be superior. Right? Well, it depends. If you’re not very strong yet and little loading is required to bring about gains, then these are fantastic exercises. But what if you’re trying to maximally develop your pecs, or if you are strong enough to bench press over 1.5 times your own bodyweight? In such a case, stability demands during 'free moving' exercises like the landmine press will be so high that it becomes almost impossible to hit the tension levels required to strengthen the primary pressing muscles. I guess we may need the bench press after all.

"Exercise selection should be a dynamic and constantly evolving process in which there is no place for dogmatic adherence."

There are tons of little examples like these in which a certain exercise is fantastic in scenario A, but may be redundant or plain harmful in scenario B. Moral of the story is that any exercise has the potential to be great, and that all of them have limitations. Full range may be good, partial range may be good, machines may be good, free weights may be good, and bodyweight movements may also be good. Sometimes overall benefits are a bit higher, or the risk to reward is a little less favorable, but there’s only a perfect exercise in the context of a specific person at a specific moment.

What is a good choice of movement depends on context, the rest of the program, your past program, your future program ánd your individual needs. Exercise selection should therefore be a dynamic and constantly evolving process in which there is no place for dogmatic adherence. The best you can do is make an educated guess as to what it is that you may benefit from most. Anything after that belongs to the land of wishful thinking, and this can only be reached after traversing the treacherous mountains of trial and error.

Enjoy your holidays!

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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