What Makes A Good Exercise?

Don’t get lost in the exercise jungle, make an informed decision.

If you step into a good gym, it is quite possible to get overwhelmed by countless possibilities to train. Different machines, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, bodyweight exercises, there is much to choose from and you have to select an exercise for your training program. What makes a good exercise? What is “the best” exercise to grow your chest/booty/biceps? Read on to make an informed decision the next time you hit the gym!

Proper exercise selection is a huge topic in Menno Henselmans Personal Trainer Course and I was so happy to learn about it as it makes it much easier to pick appropriate exercises for my clients and me.

I’m going to present you several principles of exercise selection. Don’t obsess about them, use them to optimize and find holes in your training plan if you aren’t happy with the results you get in the gym.

The Limit Factor

The targeted muscle has to be the limiting factor for the chosen exercise.

When building muscles is your main goal, you have to focus on muscles not movements. Think of quads, biceps, chest. This is quite the opposite when you are training for sports performance like powerlifting where you have to focus on certain movements like squat and bench press to optimize performance.

An exercise that scores high on the limit factor makes sure that the target muscles gives out first when performing the exercise. If you are doing barbell squats for your quads but your erector spinae screams for mercy when your quads barely notice anything, you know that something is wrong. In this case the back squat is a lower back exercise and more of a warm up for your legs, which is okay, but you have to be aware of it.


Compound exercises are superior to more isolated movements for the chosen bodypart.

Compound movements have the advantage to stimulate multiple muscle groups with only one exercise. Imagine a pull up challenging not only your latissimus but also biceps and abdominals.

They are also a more “natural” way of training, spreading external forces better over multiple joints, keeping you healthy and improving overall strength development.

That doesn’t mean you have to ditch all isolation movements! Compound movements offer a big bang for your buck but not all of them stimulate all the muscle fibres of the target muscle. For example, if you do bench press for your triceps, you won’t be able to stimulate the long head of your triceps optimally because the bench press doesn’t allow for full range of motion for your triceps. This is the textbook case for adding an isolation exercise like an overhead triceps extensions to really hit the long head of your triceps.

Range of Motion

The more an exercise moves joints through their full range of motion, the better it is.

Our muscles are built to produce forces at any point of their range of motion. Therefore, if you are training with partial range of motion, you only stimulate a certain part of muscle fibres that produce the forces necessary for this partial movement and it leaves the rest of your muscle underdeveloped!

Yes, full range of motion makes an exercise more difficult and forces you to use lesser weight, but you should see it as an advantage. You need less weight to gain an overall better stimulus for growth, which makes the exercise much more save and less prone to injury. What’s not to love about that?

Partial reps may have a place in training as a form of intensification technique, but they should never be your default way of training. In case of an existing injury you might be forced to cut back on range of motion if it gives you trouble with your injury. It’s okay, just be sure to return back to full range of motion as soon as you are fit again.

Tissue Stress Distribution

The more an exercise’s stress is applied to its targeted structures, and the less stress is applied to peripheral tissue, the better the exercise.

A good exercise should put strain to a muscle, not to the structures surrounding it. If an exercise leaves your joints aching, kick it out and find a better way to train. Some commonly found problematic movements include:

  • Pushing behind your body like behind-the-neck-press and dips.
  • “Core” exercises that flex your spine.
  • Machines that force you into a movement pattern
  • Open kinetic chain exercises where only the weight moves and your body stays in the same place

Dynamic Contraction

Exercises that consist of an eccentric and a concentric portion are superior to exercises that are purely isometric, concentric, or eccentric.

Our bodies are made for natural movements and natural movement patterns. Therefore we are strongest and get the strongest with exercises that involve an eccentric and a concentric portion. Training that focuses on one or the other, like eccentric-only-training, isn’t as effective as “normal” training, even though it has a place in physiotherapy.

Strength Curve = Resistance Curve

The closer the resistance curve of an exercise approximates the strength curve, the better the exercise.

How do you know if an exercise matches your strength curve? If it doesn’t you experience the so called “sticking point”, a certain point during the movement where you seem to hit a wall and therefore have to stop the set. Think of pulling movements where the pull gets harder and harder the closer you pull to your body.

You can implement accomodating resistance with bands or chains to alleviate this problem and well designed machines are built to match the resistance curve to your strength curve, resulting in a “smoother” feeling.


The more precisely an exercise’s resistance can be determined, the better the exercise.

Getting stronger and building muscle are slow processes and one of the most efficient ways of getting better is progressive overload by slowly adding more weight to the bar/machine/dumbbell.

Thats why good gyms have a wide selection of dumbbells and micro weights that allow you to add weight to your exercises slowly. Imagine doing lateral raises with 5kg dumbbells. Jumping to 7,5kg is an increase by 50%! Even some machines have pretty big weight jumps, but sometimes you can get creative with small dumbbells that you attach to the weight stack.

Take Aways

I hope I could help you to make better choices for your exercise selection. Personally I think it is okay to stick to exercises that you really like and “feel” but if you are not happy with the results of a certain exercise, you now have the tools to pick a better exercise and make an informed choice.

To sum it up once more:

  • Pick exercises that really focus the target muscle.
  • Pick compound movements and supplement with isolation exercises as necessary.
  • Range of motion is king!
  • Keep your joints and ligaments healthy!
  • Choose natural movements with an eccentric and a concentric phase.
  • Avoid sticking points as much as possible.
  • Make sure you can add weight in small steps.

If you liked this article, make sure to like and share. There might be someone out there struggling with their exercise selection, so help them and share the beary wisdom 😉 ! Share also your opinion on exercise selection in the comment section: we would love to read your thoughts! 🙂

And if you need a coach to help you with your training, don’t be shy, contact me and let me help you.

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