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Exercise Selection, How to Decide?

Exercise Selection, How to Decide?

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Every month, we try to read up on the latest and greatest in Exercise Science in addition to other related disciplines, such as nutrition, sleep, and stress management (both physical and psychological). It’s often hard to discern which articles to read thoroughly, which to skim through, or even skip reading altogether, because there’s only so much time in the day. We prefer to spend a majority of our time with our loyal clients, but it’s important to stay up to date with the latest and newest innovations and information related to our field. That being said, what was good for us yesterday is more than likely going to be good for us today, and tomorrow is looking pretty good as well. There’s not much in the field of Exercise Science these days that is proprietary, but sometimes creating a unique combination of concepts and/or altering specific protocols can be as patentable as a Shake Weight.

I was asked a specific question many separate times by several different students last semester at Butler University, during my time as an adjunct professor. It was one of those questions that maybe I thought I had a better grasp on than I actually did. There was an obvious disparity between my procedural knowledge (being able to perform it) and declarative knowledge (being able to describe and verbally walk someone through it), when it came to my ability to answer their question- “how do you know which exercise to do with someone?”

It turns out that the answer to this question, like most questions worth answering thoughtfully, is heavily dependent on certain variables and contains a high degree of nuance. As a way to efficiently organize my heavily contextual answer to this question, I came up with a Venn diagram to illustrate just how exactly I decide which exercise(s) to do with each unique client within each session. Full disclosure, however, even though my intent is to rigorously subject each exercise selection to this diagram, I don’t always succeed. We are all still works in progress.

Is the Exercise Safe?

First and foremost, I want to acknowledge that this question, like all components of the aforementioned diagram, is highly subjective and dependent on the unique abilities of the particular person performing the exercise. I am unequivocally certain, though, that a life worth living is never one hundred percent safe. From walking across a busy intersection, to flying somewhere you’ve never been, life is full of uncertainty and risk. That being said, I’d like to focus on the acute risks encountered by someone attempting a specific exercise, much like an actuarial scientist might assess the risk of an accident for an insurance policy. Risk versus reward and opportunity costs are two concepts that are regularly implemented when trying to determine if an 80 year old should attempt a box jump. To me, as a hired professional to help improve someone’s health, my first question should always be, “is the exercise relatively safe?” There will always be risks with all exercises, some infinitesimally small and some exorbitantly large, but ensuring that most clients, most of the time, will be safe from injury under our guidance is priority number one. Life overall, however, is full of risks, and each person’s level of risk aversion or tolerance will be vastly different and perhaps dependent on the stage of life they are in. I was perfectly happy to go skydiving with my wife when we were in our twenties with no children, but I’m not so sure we would do the same if we had kids.

Is the Exercise Effective?

Second in the diagnostic toolbox, is another highly subjective term, effectiveness. In order to know if something is effective, we must first have an idea of what the end goal should be in addition to ways to evaluate progress towards that goal. If the goal is to increase someone’s squat depth so they can more easily pick up things off of the floor at home, we may choose specific exercises for this person related to mobility, motor control, and/or strength. Generally, we can determine the relative effectiveness of our exercise selection by measuring particular metrics before and after the intervention, but more times than not, improvement or positive change doesn’t happen in a perfectly linear fashion. The question of whether or not an exercise “works” to achieve a desired outcome may not be answered within a single session, or even within the month, but knowing with a fair degree of certainty that our exercise selection can contribute to the chances of success is many times the best we can hope for. We have to balance how effective an exercise is with how much time it can take to master a particular motor skill. For someone with endless free time and/or financial means to commit to learning certain exercises, we may be able to prescribe more in depth exercise choices and explore those more thoroughly, but for most people, effectiveness must be evaluated with the very real constraint of time.

If someone comes to us with the desire to increase overhead mobility, but can only see us once a week, it may be more effective, given the circumstances, to prescribe a variety of simple exercises that are relatively easy to reproduce outside of our guidance instead of a more complicated exercise regime that may or may not be more effective. The theory of Occam’s Razor is a helpful guide when it comes to exercise prescription overall. Just because an exercise is more complicated or utilizes more accessories does not guarantee it to be more effective, oftentimes simple will suffice.

Is the Exercise Engaging?

This last point of emphasis is equally important as the first two, but for a slightly different reason. The word “engaging” could mean a variety of things, but I like to use it to determine if an exercise will be fun, exciting, and/or novel. In all reality, the best kind of exercise is the kind you actually enjoy doing and have access to on a regular basis. An exercise protocol could be both safe and effective, but if either the instruction, environment, or the exercise itself isn’t stimulating or engaging then the likelihood of sticking with it diminishes over time. We as a species are wired to pay special attention to novelty, so sprinkling it in throughout sessions (as long as the exercise still remains safe and effective) is a great way to increase the enjoyment of not only the specific exercise but the session overall. A front plank isn’t necessarily the most engaging exercise, as you are supposed to be still in a comfortable position for a seemingly endless 60 seconds. But if we could add in a time specific goal, change the music to something the client likes, or increase the difficulty through the introduction of arm/leg movements, that boring plank could transform into something a bit more engaging (I’m sure there are some people reading this thinking “yeah right!”)

The Bottom Line

While we as Personal Trainers like to think that we are making positive change through effective and sensical exercise program design, the bottom line is that we provide a personal service. That very real fact is in essence the umbrella in which the previously mentioned components of exercise selection reside beneath. Both Taylor and I strive to create an experience each and every session that our clients both enjoy and are challenged by. Physically exerting oneself isn’t always the most pleasant experience, but framing an increase in difficulty as an opportunity for growth instead of another mountain to climb is what we aim to do within each appointment we have with a person. We want you all to be safe under our watch, to grow physically and mentally, and above all else, to provide you with the most professional, engaging, and invigorating experience possible. If you know someone who could benefit from working with us at Woodworth Wellness, help spread the word and let’s all continue to create positive change in our community.

Yours in Wellness,