program design

Create Your Own Workout - Part 3: To Isolate, or Not To Isolate?

We've touched on the importance of placing a major emphasis on compound movements rather than isolation exercises when writing your programs in Part 1 and Part 2. To start out today's post, let's review a couple of definitions:

  • Isolation Exercises: Movements that incorporate a single joint and target the musculature that performs the given joint action.  These are generally lower skill movements such as bicep curls, lateral raises, and hamstring curls.
  • Compound Exercises: Movements that incorporate more than one joint. These movements are more complex and activate a wide variety of muscle groups such as squats, deadlifts, and KB swings.


We want to be as efficient as possible when designing our weight lifting routines.  No one wants to spend more time than they need to in the gym, and choosing exercises that will give us the most bang-for-our-buck will help us reach our goals faster and more effectively.  

Compound movements help us do just that.  They target a large amount of muscle, inducing an anabolic training effect that is much more potent than that of localized strength work, while also mimicking movement patterns that every human being should perfect and strengthen.  Taking this into account, exercises such as the squat, deadlift, pullup, and pushup should make up the majority of our strength work.  We should never be programming isolation exercises as the "main lifts" of our program.  This is how you spin your wheel and make little, if any, progress in the gym, just like the people in the video below:

Are isolation exercises worthless?

I don't think "worthless" is the correct term, but, in my opinion, isolation exercises are very, very, very optional.  There are a few instance where they may be useful.

  • For bodybuilding purposes isolation exercises can be useful for bringing up lagging muscles.  If you have poorly developed biceps, then throw in some bicep curls at the end of the workout.  The extra work will be useful, but if you're not already performing rows and pullups, then you might as well go home and eat a cheeseburger.  The compound movements absolutely must be in place before layering on isolation exercises.
  • To activate a muscle with poor tone or motor control.  For a physical therapist or personal trainer who uses a protocol such as NKT, we often find muscles that exhibit poor function.  For some reason or another, the wiring in your body is malfunctioning, preventing the nervous system from effectively communicating with your muscles.  This is often the case for the gluteus medius, a muscle on the back and outside of your hip responsible for hip stability, abduction, and rotation.  The reason behind this faulty wiring will need to be saved for another post, but a glute med activation drill in this scenario may serve you well
  • For ego purposes or simply for enjoyment.  I'm not gonna lie, bicep curls are kinda fun.  Plus, they give you a reason to wear tanks such as this one:

5 Quick & Random Training Tips

Note from Stevo: First, a HUGE congratulations to my wife, Kelsey, for becoming SAPT's latest performance coach. You can read about the new sister website to SAPTstrength, and see Kelsey's bio via the links.

1. How and when you do your abdominal training in a given week is actually fairly important. For example, if you decide to do standing rollouts 24-48 hours before a heavy deadlift session, chances are your deadlifts are going to suffer greatly, and perhaps even be risky to attempt (it will be much more difficult to stabilize your lumbar spine).

This is because rollout variations place incredible eccentric stress on the anterior core, inducing large amounts of soreness and requiring a longer recovery period. The only caveat to this rule would be if your name is Ross Enamait.

Other abdominal programming faux pas I can think of would be pairing an anterior loaded barbell variation (i.e. front squat or zercher grips) with an ab exercise, and/or placing a hanging leg raise before or alongside a farmers walk. The former is a blunder because anteriorly loaded barbell movements already place considerable demands on the core musculature; the latter isn't the greatest idea because your grip endurance is going to become an issue. Spread them apart to receive the maximum benefit of each.

2. If squatting is problematic for you, you don't need to force it. At least not initially. While the squat is a phenomenal movement and undoubtedly should be a staple in one's strength and conditioning program, I'm finding that more and more people need to earn the right to back squat safely, much like the overhead press. This may be due to structural changes (i.e. femoroacetabular impingement) or immobility (i.e. poor hip flexion ROM or awful glenohumeral external rotation and abduction).

If this is the case, simply performing a heavy single-leg movement as the first exercise in the session will work perfectly. You can use anything from forward lunges to bulgarian split squats, but my favorite is probably the barbell stepback lunge with a front squat grip.

You're still receiving the benefits of axial loading due to the bar position, you can still receive a healthy dose of compressive stress in your weekly training (if you're deadlifting), and yes, you'll still be exerting yourself. I recommend performing these in the 3-6 rep range to allow for appreciable loads.

And, keep in mind, when I said "if squatting is problematic" at the beginning of point #2, I was referring to structural, mobility, and/or stability abnormalities that may make it unsafe for you to squat for the time being. I wasn't, of course, implying that if it's "just too hard" that you shouldn't do it. There's a pretty thick line between one being contraindicated for an exercise and someone who's simply unwilling to to do a lift because it takes mental+physical exertion.

3. If your wrists bother you while doing pushups, try holding on to dumbbells. It will take your wrist out of an extended position into more of a neutral one, greatly reducing the stress on that joint.

I also like holding on to dumbbells because they allow you to use a "neutral grip," thus externally rotating the humerus, giving your shoulder more room to breathe.

4. Think twice before consuming dairy as your pre-workout fuel. This may seem obvious, but frankly I still talk to people who consume cereal before a morning workout, or down milk shortly before an evening training session. Your stomach isn't going to like this while doing chest-supported T-Bar rows, anti-extension core variations, or anything for that matter.

Another tip: don't shove a bunch of doughnuts down your pie hole before training. I thought this one would be no-brainer, but I actually had a kid vomit after pushing the prowler at a sub-maximal intensity. Upon asking him what he ate beforehand, he said, "Umm, well nothing all day, and then I ate a bunch of doughnuts before coming here." Fail.

5. Figure out for yourself what training split is best for you personally. For example, I feel that training upper body the day before lower body affects me (negatively) more than if I do it the other way around. However, I know others who feel the exact opposite. Also, for those of you who utilize a bodypart split, and train deadlifts on "back day," be sure to take into consideration when and how you'll do squats on "leg day," due to the beating your spine will receive from both exercises.

A Little Sage Advice on Program Design: Is Exercise Selection Really the Most Important Programming Variable?

When most people think about designing training plans, they think of the process as nothing more than a matter of choosing which exercises they are going to do on a given day. This may work for a little while, but what happens when progress begins to slow, or if you"re working with an athlete or client that only has twelve weeks to maximize their physical preparation? Can you just slap a bunch of exercises down, hoping it will work?

Or, even if you"re just seeking to look better and move better, and you"re spending 3 hours a week in the gym, don"t you want to know that your time is being optimally invested, and not spent?

Treating exercise selection as the most important programming variable can be quite the imprudent approach, given that exercise selection is only ONE piece in the programming puzzle; and, in fact, is probably the last on the list.

Let"s look at the list of variables you have to "play with" when you sit down to create a program:

  1. Training Type. Examples of training type would be jumping exercises, running exercises, change-of-direction work, resistance training, and skill work (ex. practicing your sport-specific drills, such as hitting a baseball, or drilling hip escapes and passing an open guard in Jiu-Jitsu). This must be decided first.
  2. Intensity (neural, muscular, mental, and metabolic factors)
  3. Volume
  4. a. Number of Reps
  5. b. Number of Sets
  6. Tempo
  7. Rest Periods
  8. Exercise Selection

As you can see, exercise selection is last on the list! Not only that, but there are quite a number of critical factors before exercise selection.

Much more important than the exercises you choose is HOW you choose them to impose a specific demand to each of your body"s systems, creating the desired training effect.

To help make my point....what if I told you that the same exercise can be applied in completely different ways, thus developing diverse adaptations and ultimately leading to an entirely different result?

Take the squat, for example. By manipulating the loading, repetitions, sets, tempo, and rest periods for just that one exercise, we can create entirely different adaptations:

  • Maximal Strength
  • Alactic Power Output
  • Aerobic Anaerobic Endurance
  • Static Strength
  • Explosive Endurance
  • Aerobic Power Recovery Rate
  • Lactic Capacity

And, because I"m cool like that and am feeling a tingling sensation within my "giving spirit" with the holiday season upon us, I"ve provided you a few video examples:

Maximal Strength

While there"s some wiggle room here, this method is used performing 1-5 reps with a heavy load; the purpose being to stimulate the nervous system to improve maximal muscle recruitment. Here is Ryan hitting a 375lb squat on Thanksgiving morning:

**Aerobic Anaerobic Endurance; Static Strength

With a tempo squat, you enhance the body"s ability to delay fatigue, maintain power output over an extended period of time, improve anaerobic endurance, and develop static strength. This would be important for endurance athletes, military personnel, fighters, and yes, even field athletes.

Here I am using a 2-0-2 tempo...two seconds down, no pause at the bottom, two seconds up, and no pause at the top (I am admittedly performing the concentric portion a bit too quickly in my demo). Constant tension and slow movement is key here:

**Aerobic Power

With a squat jump, and using the right work:rest ratio, you can augment the fast twitch fibers ability to produce maximal power over a longer period of time. You can also train them (the type II fibers) to recover casino online more quickly betwixt explosive bursts of high power output:

*Imperative Note: Do NOT even bother with squat jumps (let alone loaded squat jumps) until you can squat at least 1.5x your body weight with good form*

Lactic Capacity

With a static dynamic squat you you can help your body learn to delay fatigue by boosting the buffering mechanisms of the lactic energy system. Do two reps, then hold in the stretched position for ten seconds, then two more reps, then hold for ten seconds, etc. etc. etc. One set of these babies should last 3-5 minutes! (Hint: this equals MAJOR suckitude). Work your way up to 10 minutes with a light weight, then slightly increase the weight and go back to 3 minutes per set:

**With the tempo squats and squat jumps, it is of extreme importance you utilize the correct number of sets along with the proper work:rest ratio to elicit the correct adaptation. Don"t just go hog wild here. You must also be sure you place them in their proper context within the grand program design structure, and know how/when to use them;  however, I"m not going to delve into that now.

As you can see, the basic squat can be used for a myriad training tools, and the demos I gave are just the tip of the iceberg. Nonetheless, I hope that this at least helped you understand that good program design is much more than slapping down exercises on paper. A squat performed with a particular load, tempo, number of reps, number of sets, tempo, and specific rest period will evoke an entirely different adaptation than doing a squat with a different all-of-those-things-I-just-listed.

When I write programs, the actual exercise is usually the LAST thing I put down on the paper; I decide how I"m going to manipulate the first five variables on the list above, THEN I put down the exercise I want to use to obtain the desired training effect; be it for someone training SAPT or in my own training.

Wednesday Musings: Thanksgiving, Exercise Selection, Pizza is a Vegetable?!, etc.

I know most of you have already hit the road or are soon initiating your plans for Thanksgiving, so I hope everyone has a great time with family and friends. Here are a couple random thoughts before I get my own eat on this weekend: 1. SAPT Thanksgiving Lift. Tomorrow at 8am. I've been looking forward to this since, oh I don't know, 364 days ago when the last one ended? As I mentioned, along with the video footage on Monday, please feel welcome to join us, even if you're not an "SAPTer." We don't bite, I promise. We even wrote a few sample workouts and conditioning options for those of you looking for something different.

So, come on out and wobble before you gobble.

2. Exercise Selection. Is it really the most important programming variable?

The other day I got thinking about, how (correct me if I'm wrong), it seems that most people tackle their training merely by choosing which exercises they are going to do. When in fact, I would argue that this is a short-sighted approach given that exercise selection is only ONE variable when it comes to intelligent program design. And, I will go so far as to say that choosing the exercises is pretty far down the list of primary factors to consider.

Programming for athletic performance, fat loss, muscle gains, etc. is much more than just picking which exercises to do on each day of the week. For example, when I write programs, the actual exercise choice is usually the last thing I put down on the paper! I'm not going to delve into detail here, but it's an idea I have for a future blog post.

3. Pizza is now considered a vegetable? I read this post by Tony Gentilcore earlier this week, and, if anything, it just made me sad. In short, the government as mandated that pizza can be served in schools as the one serving of veggies each day for the children. I'm not going to rant here, but I may or may not have thrown myself in front of a school bus after finding this out.

Juliet (of HeyJoob) then brought up a great question: "Where is the line drawn between the government supporting its economy/freedom vs. the health of its people?"

However, I would argue that the gov't isn't even supporting its economy in this case, given that we'll have millions of kids with diabetes, needing health care, in the next decade or two.

Okay, maybe I just went back on my promise and ranted a bit. I apologize, I'm better now.

Before I go though, watch the video below by Jamie Oliver if you haven't watched it is THE best speech on obesity I've ever seen:

^^^Seriously, watch Me^^^

4. Sarah had a fantastic post yesterday on both life and training lessons she has picked up over the past thirty years. You would be remiss not to read it if you haven't yet.

Click Me ==> 30 Years, 30 Lessons <== Click Me

5. Speaking earlier of exercise selection, Rob Adell snatches 319lbs. Makes you think twice about obsessing over a sub-par bench press when there are people throwing 319lbs over their heads, right?!?!

Oh, and this kid is only 20 years old:

THAT's how to demonstrate athleticism and power, and THAT is an example of someone who should be performing a barbell snatch.

6. Have a Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.