How To Choose The Best Exercises

Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S. 


A training plan is like a cooking recipe; a set of directions that when followed leaves you with your desired finished product. In cooking you end up with a nice steak dinner - In fitness a stronger, leaner and healthier self. As any top chef will tell you - the key to a great meal starts with quality ingredients.  Likewise the key to a good training program starts with good quality exercises. 

There are tens of thousands of exercises to choose from but the best all share a few things in common: 

  • They're based on movements

  • They're multi-joint exercises that use a lot of muscle mass

  • They're Tried and True

  • They accomplish a specific task, very well.

They Start As Movements

The foundation of exercise is movement.  Before you can run you must walk, and before you can walk, you must crawl. Likewise, before you can train like the guys & gals in the magazine, you must learn how to move correctly.

Movement is a complex process that requires the perfect coordination of hundreds of thousands of motor units(cells that control muscle). To help with this complex task, the body uses motor patterns.  Motor patterns act like a software program for your brain that tells it which muscles to use, in which order, and to what degree.

The body does not view movement as the contraction of a single muscle and neither do the best exercises. Rather it sees movement as a a series of muscles working together to create motion.  The best exercises reinforce and train these movement patterns.  Which in turn build bodies that function as well as they look. Without good movement, a person is unlikely to reach their full potential and to be at risk for pain and injury.

“Simply speaking, if you train the muscle you may not completely develop the movement but if you train the movement the muscle will develop appropriately”  - Gray Cook Physical Therapist and Founder of the Functional Movement Systems

With that in mind, I organize my workouts programs by movement, not muscles.  I start with a few basic movement patterns that serve as a foundation for all of the more complex exercises you may see in the gym. By including each movements pattern the body gets worked in a balanced and functional manner. The best exercises all fall into one of these movement patterns. 

Here is my breakdown of each basic pattern with an example of a corresponding exercise. 


They are multi-joint exercises that use a lot of muscle mass

If you take a look at exercises I provided above you'll realize that each movement doesn’t use just one muscle, but involves many muscles working at once over multiple joints. The squat, for example, involves all muscles that move of the ankles, knees, hips, and stabilization of the spine and torso. That's a lot of muscles!

The more muscle you use when you exercise the quicker you'll see results. You will burn more calories, elevate your metabolism, produce a larger hormonal effect and build more muscle. 

Most of us are already overworked and short on times, so wasting time is the biggest disservice we can do to ourselves. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is prioritizing exercises that work one muscle over those that work many. 

Those isolation exercises are accessories and should be done after the big multi-joint exercises.

Don't waste your time on a triceps kickback that works just one muscle. Instead spend your time on the push up that works many muscles. The push up will work the triceps but also the chest, shoulders, back, and core stabilizers. If there's time leftover, then finish things off with the accessory work.


They're Tried and True



The fitness industry has convinced us that there is a ‘secret’ to great results. Some special, new, innovative, exercise or protocol that will pack on slabs of muscle and make fat melt away.

The truth is there are exercises that bring those incredible results, but they’re not secrets. 

Multijoint movement based exercises are the key and most of the best ones you likely already know. Exercises like Push ups, squats, and deadlifts are all brutally effective exercises used to build the best bodies in the world.  While they may not be flashy there effective and have withstood the test of time because they work.  

So save the crazy Bosu ball balancing acts and frenetic jumping for your nephews next birthday party. Master the classics.  

They Accomplish A Specific Task Very Well.

Recap : The bulk of a good workout routine should focus on multi-joint exercises based on human movement patterns. If your time is limited, you will get more benefit from an exercise that works many muscles than one that works only a single muscle.  

The exception to this rule is when you have enough training time and would like to bring a specific body part up to par, strengthen an injured muscle or improve a specific movement deficit. There are great exercises that don't fit our guidelines above but still have a place in your programs.We call these exercises secondary or accessory exercises because they complement our big movements. 

Examples of accessory exercises include mobility drills and isolation work.  For accessory exercises, less is more. So you will want to pick the ones that accomplish the goal exceptionally well.

Examples :

Many of the clients I see have jobs that require long hours hunched over a desk. This posture produces certain movement limitations such as tight hip flexors, which can pull their pelvis out of position, inhibit their glutes from activating and contribute to lower back pain. There are many stretches to choose from and not enough time for them all, so I need one stretch that accomplishes the task extremely well. The one I use most often is a front foot elevated 90-90 hip flexor stretch. By elevating the front foot it adds an additional stretch for the hip flexors, making it an exceptional exercise and one of the best I’ve seen.  


Option 2, hit an accessory exercise that accomplishes more than one task - such as the bretzel. Thoracic mobility refers to the ability of the upper part of the spine to move(think mid-back to neck). It is important for preventing lower back strains and shoulder pain. There are several exercises I could choose from to work on thoracic mobility, however, I'm likely short on time so why pick an exercise that can solve two problems at one. An example of this scenario is a bretzel- an exercise the works thoracic rotation, but also involves a nice quad stretch.


Last example: Targeting a muscle. If you are doing big movements like pull ups, chin-ups, and rows your biceps will receive plenty of stimuli to grow. But let’s say you want to improve your biceps further or target the brachialis muscle -  a muscle in the arm that helps to give biceps their noticeable peak. To accomplish this, consider an exercise that targets that specific muscle such as the hammer curl. The hammer curl will accomplish the specific task exceptionally well.


Key Takeaways

Life pulls us in every direction like a child playing with silly putty. Working out is just one of the many tasks competing for our limited time and energy so it’s important that we use that time wisely.

Getting the most from your workout starts by choosing the exercises that make the best use of your time. Ignore the marketing, the flashy acrobatics, and the latest trends and start with the fundamentals. Choose exercises that use large amounts of muscles and move in a way that reinforces your health, not undermines it.

Fortunately, these exercises aren't new or secret and you can find them on the web. Use the guidelines I mentioned above to choose the best exercises for your program and then add in accessory movements judiciously.  

Training is like cooking  “You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients.” - Juila Child





ExerciseStephen Griffith