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Select and Arrange Exercises

This is an excerpt from Weight Training-4th Edition by Thomas R. Baechle & Roger W. Earle.

Select and Arrange Exercises

The exercises you select will determine which muscles become stronger, more enduring, and thicker. In addition, how you arrange, or order, the exercises in your program will affect the intensity of your workouts.

Selecting Exercises

An advanced program may include as many as 15 to 20 exercises. However, a beginning or basic program (which is what you are following) need only include one exercise for each muscle group:

  • chest (pectoralis major)
  • shoulders (deltoids)
  • back (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids)
  • biceps (biceps brachii)
  • triceps (triceps brachii)
  • legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals)
  • core (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external and internal obliques, erector spinae)

In steps 4 through 9, you selected one exercise for each muscle group if you were new to weight training and one more *additional exercise if you were trained. You can now consider adding a second exercise for each muscle group or an exercise for a muscle not specifically worked in the basic program, such as the forearm. The result is an even more rounded program.

Also, if you are training to improve your athletic performance, consider adding one or both of the total-body exercises described in step 10. They train upper and lower body muscles simultaneously and involve quick, powerful movements that are important for athletes involved in sports such as sprinting, jumping, throwing, kicking, or punching.

Finally, you may also want to consider exchanging one of the basic exercises for one of the others described in each step, especially if the change means you will now perform a free-weight version of a machine-based exercise. Before making a final decision about which exercises to select, be sure you understand the exercise techniques involved and the following concepts and principles.

  • Apply the specificity concept. Your task is to identify the muscle groups you want to develop and then determine which exercises will recruit or use those muscles. This involves applying the specificity concept. This important concept refers to training in a manner that will produce outcomes specific to that method. For example, developing the chest muscles requires an exercise that recruits the pectoralis major muscle; choosing a leg exercise to train the chest muscles, for example, does not follow the specificity concept because muscles other than the pectoralis major are trained.


Even the specific angle at which muscles are called into action determines if, and to what extent, they will be stimulated during an exercise. For example, figure 12.1 illustrates how a change in body position changes the angle at which the barbell is lowered and pushed upward from the chest. The angle of the bar’s path dictates whether the middle or lower portion of the chest muscles becomes more or less involved in the exercise.

The type and width of the grip are as important as body position because they, too, change the angle at which muscles become involved and thus affect the training results. For example, using a wide grip for the bench press exercise places a greater stress on the chest muscles than using a narrow grip. That is why performing exercises exactly as they are described is so important.

  • Create muscle balance. It is important to select exercises that create strong joints, a proportional physique, and good posture. A common method is to choose exercises that train opposing muscle groups or body-part areas such as:
    • Chest and upper back
    • Front of the upper arm (biceps) and back of the upper arm (triceps)
    • Front (palm side) of the forearm and back (knuckle side) of the forearm
    • Abdomen and low back
    • Quadriceps and hamstrings
    • Front of the lower leg (shin) and back of the lower leg (calf)
  • Know what equipment is available. Determine the equipment needs for each exercise before making a final decision. You may not have the needed equipment to perform an exercise.
  • Determine if you need a spotter. Is a spotter needed for an exercise you are considering adding to your program? If one is needed but is not available, choose a different exercise that trains the same muscle group.
  • Know how much time you have to train. The more exercises you decide to include in your program, the longer your workouts will take. It is a common mistake to choose too many exercises! Plan for approximately two minutes per set unless you want a program that is designed to develop strength. If strength is your goal, you’ll need to plan on about four minutes per set because the rest period is longer between sets and exercises. Also, the more sets you want to do, the longer the workout will last. This is discussed in greater detail later in this step.
Arranging Exercises

There are many ways to arrange exercises in a workout. Their order affects the intensity of training and is therefore an important consideration. For instance, alternating upper- and lower-body exercises produces a lower intensity level on the upper body or the lower body muscles than performing all of the upper-body exercises or all of the lower-body exercises one after the other.

Exercises that train larger muscles and involve two or more joints changing angles as the exercises are performed are called multijoint exercises (abbreviated as “MJEs” throughout this book). This type of exercise is more intense than those that isolate one muscle and involve movement at only one joint (called single-joint exercises and abbreviated as “SJEs”). The two most common ways to arrange these exercises are to either perform MJEs before SJEs or alternate exercises that involve a pushing (PS) movement with exercises that involve a pulling (PL) movement.

  • Perform MJEs before SJEs. Performing all of the MJEs before the SJEs is a well-accepted approach. For example, rather than training the triceps with the triceps extension (a SJE) and then the chest with the bench press (a MJE), it is recommended that you perform the bench press exercise first. Note that although the overall size of the upper arm can appear to be large, the front and back of the arm are considered separate, smaller muscle groups. An example of the sequence for performing MJEs before SJEs is shown in table 12.1.
  • Alternate PS exercises with PL exercises. You may also arrange exercises so that those that extend (straighten) joints alternate with those that flex (bend) joints. Extension exercises require you to push, whereas flexion exercises require you to pull—thus the name of this arrangement is to alternate PS with PL. An example is to perform the triceps extension (a PS exercise) followed by the biceps curl (a PL exercise). This is a good arrangement because the same muscle or body area is not trained back-to-back; that is, the same muscle group is not worked two or more times in succession. This arrangement should give your muscles sufficient time to recover. An example of this method of arranging exercises is shown in table 12.2.

There are two more exercise arrangement options that need to be considered because they affect the intensity of your workout.

  • Sets performed in succession versus alternating sets. When you are going to perform more than one set of an exercise, you will need to decide if you will perform them one after another (in succession) or alternate them with other exercises. The following shows an example of two exercises performed for three sets in succession and alternated:
    • In succession: Shoulder press (set 1), shoulder press (set 2), shoulder press (set 3); biceps curl (set 1), biceps curl (set 2), biceps curl (set 3)
    • Alternated: Shoulder press (set 1), biceps curl (set 1), repeated until three sets of each exercise are performed

In each of these arrangements, three sets of the shoulder press and the biceps curl exercises are performed, each with a different intervening rest period and activity. Most people prefer the in-succession arrangement because it provides a greater (and more challenging) training effect.

  • Triceps and biceps exercises after other upper-body exercises. When arranging exercises in your program, be sure that a triceps exercise is not performed before other pushing exercises such as the bench press or the shoulder press. These two MJEs rely on assistance from elbow-extension strength from the triceps muscles. When triceps exercises precede pushing chest or shoulder exercises, they fatigue the triceps and reduce the number of repetitions that can be performed and the desired effect on the chest or shoulder muscles. The same logic applies to biceps exercises. Pulling exercises that involve flexion of the elbow, such as the lat pulldown, depend on strength from the biceps muscles. Performing the biceps curl before the lat pulldown will fatigue the biceps and reduce the number of lat pulldown repetitions that can be performed.

Read more from Weight Training: Steps to Success, Fourth Edition by Thomas R. Baechle, Roger W. Earle.

More Excerpts From Weight Training 4th Edition