Why Do You Prefer That Exercise?

by Mike Israetel | Jul 10, 2017

When I post clips of my training (which is pretty often and can be found on both my personal facebook page and on my IG page (@rpdrmike), I get numerous questions about the posts. And that’s great! That’s actually exactly why I post those videos; so that they can spur questions and be useful in expanding the understandings of those watching.

There has been one question I’ve been asked repeatedly lately that I can’t quite answer with much justice right there in the post, as the answer is a bit complex. Well, the FULL answer is a bit complex, but of perfect fit to an RP+ blog post! The question is “so what’s the advantage of this exercise?” Or, just as commonly, “what’s the advantage of this exercise over (insert related exercise here).” A common example is that when I’ll post my smith machine squats with close stance and feet slightly forward of center of gravity, many folks will ask some version of “so why this vs. traditional free squats” or “why are these better than free squats.”

In many ways (to be explained later), the very presumption of these questions is somewhat flawed. That presumption is that there is ONE BEST EXERCISE and it’s a job for sport scientist like myself to find it and use it exclusively. And if we’re using it on social media, it must be the best move for everyone and that everyone needs to switch to it ASAP and abandon their old related exercises for it. This notion is of course flawed, but as I stated above, it’s only somewhat flawed. There IS some truth to it that we must admit to before getting to the falsity of it.

The truth is that YES, there are some general trends in certain exercises being better than others. Generally (though not always), exercises that have the following features tend to promote better size gains than those that have the opposing features:

  • Stable exercises in which high forces can be exerted without too much correction for balance
  • Free weight or minimally restricted exercises
  • Exercises that allow momentum to be generated, especially on the eccentric phase
  • Compound exercises in which more than one joint is involved
  • Exercises that allow a full range of motion, especially those that allow for a loaded stretch and controlled contraction at the top
  • Exercises that let the target muscle group experience the majority of the loading (this is often a matter of foot position, hand position, and making sure machines are adjusted to your body proportions)
  • Exercises that don’t tire out stabilizing and supporting muscles long before the target muscles
  • Exercises that for the above and other reasons allow for bigger weights and thus higher forces to be used/experienced

If one exercise that you’re considering scores highly on those marks and another you’re considering for the same purpose does not, most times the one that scores highly is indeed better for promoting hypertrophy. If you compare high bar squats on a stable platform with bosu ball squats on a sandy beach, clearly, there’s almost never going to be a time when the latter is better. HOWEVER, when exercises are not simply dominant in the ratings vs. alternatives, some other factors come into play that bear consideration.

After we apply the above rules to ALL of the exercises we can potentially use in a program, our once grand list of perhaps dozens of exercises is whittled down to a “top 5-10” list of exercises that, while different from one another, are the cream of the crop for most effective. Of course, that still leaves us with quite a bit of options as to what to program at any one time, and leaves yours truly with some explaining to do as to why I chose smith machine feet-forward squats over high bar squats in a rack. The following are some of most important reasons for choosing certain variants over others:

Variation

If you do just one exercise for a week and then switch movements, you barely keep any gains you made from that movement. But if you wait 1 year to change exercises (or never do), then your gains from that exercise slow down significantly. Known as “training staleness,” your body develops a resistance to adaptations from a movement it is more than used to, and a change to the movement can make a big difference in elevating your gain rates. Of course, the new movement will eventually lose novelty and also become a poor stimulator of hypertrophy, so that it must also be deleted from the program and replaced with another move. What that results in is that every 2-4 months, you should be rotating in some moves and replacing the old ones with them. So to answer a first possibility of “why this exercises and not that one;” it’s because that one got old and this one is new!

Fatigue Management

Especially when you’re pushing other muscle groups in your program super hard, total fatigue from your whole program can be an issue. And even locally, supporting muscles (such as the lower back in leg training) can be so beat up that less fatiguing additions to volume are needed after the heavy hitters have been used. So if you see someone doing leg presses or lunges instead of squats or after squats (instead of just… more squats), this might be a big reason.

Injury Avoidance

Some individuals are ok with trading off a bit less hypertrophy for less injury risk, especially at certain times. For example, during the depleted times of contest prep, many bodybuilders will opt for less force-productive movements and go for more isolation or machine work just so that they can avoid getting hurt at the critical (and more injury-prone) pre-competition time. Nothing wrong with this, so long as they are aware of the tradeoff.

Injury Management

If you’re recovering from some bumps and bruises, some exercises might simply work around those hurt areas better and allow you to train as hard as possible without aggravating the area. For example, machine chest work might be better suited for someone who’s healing from a shoulder issue that is overly taxed if too much stability effort is required (such as with barbell or dumbbell presses). It’s not that the machine work is “better,” it’s that it’s better for stimulating without further hurting, allowing for a return to barbell and dumbbell work once a full recovery has been made.

Special Targeting (Strategic Variation)

Sometimes you choose a different exercise because it targets a different part of a muscle that even a generally better one does not. You’re strategically choosing to use it to bring up a needed area so that you can be better overall. Are cable crossovers better than dumbbell flyes? Unlikely. But can they perhaps tax the parts of the muscle closer to the middle of the chest better? Yes. Thus they are not “better” than dumbbell flyes and for overall pec hypertrophy, probably worse, but they are better for something specific that you might be trying to accomplish during your current training phase.

Phase Potentiation

You might be using some exercises to allow future exercises to give you more bang for your buck. By improving your quad strength in smith machine feet-forward squats and not being as limited by your lower back or posterior chain, you might be able to make better use of free squats later and grow your posterior chain more with them without your quads always being a limiting factor.

Personal Preference/Concordance

Some exercises just fit your body type better. They hit the muscles you want without causing as much joint pain as others. For other people, other moves might be much better instead. Just make sure the exercises is WORKING for you, and isn’t just one you’re good at or feels comfy but isn’t challenging you.

So next time you see a video and ask yourself “why is he/she doing that exercise instead of another exercise?,” check back with this blog post! And remember, there is no BEST exercise for every situation!