Choosing The Best Movements For Building Muscle [Exercise Selection 101]


Working hard in the gym and kitchen, but still not seeing the results you want?

Then there's likely an issue with your exercise selection.

If your goal is to achieve a lean, strong body composition, some exercises are inherently better than others.

Today's blog gives you the complete thought process & system behind the exercises we program for our online clients

If you're chasing a better body composition and want to get MORE out of each training session, this blog is a must read.

1. Target Muscle Group Is The Rate Limiter

When the goal is building lean muscle, you want the "rate limiter" (the thing that forces you to eventually stop a movement) to be the specific muscle group(s) you're targeting. 

Let's say you're doing heavy Farmers Carries to train your core, and refuse to wear wrist straps. As a result, your grip always gives out long before core fatigue would cause you to stop the movement.

Thus, this has become a pretty shit exercise for actually building a stronger core... but if the goal was building grip strength, it'd be a great fit.

Some common examples of rate limiters on exercises that are stopping you from building lean muscle:

—> Grip strength - See example above.

—> Unstable exercises - The classic example of doing squats on a bosu ball applies here. You don't "fail" the movement because of fatigue in your quads, you fail due to a lack of stability.

—> Core strength - Let's look at the Birddog Row:

Great movement for core stability? Absolutely.

But if you were programming this as one of your primary rowing variations, it just wouldn't make sense. The rate limiter is your core, not your lats or rhomboids.

—> Cardiovascular Fatigue - The most common example of this is simply cutting rest periods too short between sets, or stringing together too many exercises in a row with inadequate rest (this is a big part of why I always prescribe specific rest periods for my online clients).

2. Compoundedness

Credit to Menno Henselmans for this term (which I'm pretty sure isn't a real word).

Basically, compoundedness means that a movement works multiple muscle groups & joints simultaneously... A.K.A. compound movements. 

Compoundedness is important because it leads to more "bang for your buck" & efficiency when it comes to building muscle.

To illustrate, let's compare Leg Extensions vs. High Bar Squats. 

To get the same magnitude of training stimulus from 4 sets of High Bar Squats, you would have to do MANY more sets of Leg Extensions. So from an efficiency perspective, programming at least some or the High Bar Squats makes sense.

(*Note: I talk a lot about the High Bar Back Squat in this blog, but realize that you could plug in any variation of the squat pattern here the meets the Exercise Selection 101 criteria... Hack Squats, SSB Squats, Leg Presses, etc.)

Now, this isn't say that you shouldn't do isolation exercises. They're an important part of a program designed to help you build lean muscle. But most of us simply don't have the time required to build the body composition we want through a program composed purely of isolation work.

When you start online coaching with us, your program is build primarily around compound movements (check out this blog to learn the framework we use). This allows you to efficiently accrue the volume (number of hard sets) needed across a training week to progress your entire body. 

From there, isolation movements are the "icing on the cake", to add a bit of extra volume to weak point or body parts you want to build.

3. Range Of Motion

Typically, the greater the range of motion an exercise allows, the more effective it will be for stimulating muscle growth.

Let's again use the High Bar Back Squat as an example:

The High Bar Squat is a movement we program for online clients to target the quads.

The role of the quads in the squat is knee extension... a.k.a. straightening your legs/standing up from the bottom of the rep.

The more knee flexion (bending at the knee) you can achieve on the way down (which will also equal a lower squat), the more quad stimulus you'll get from every single rep, because your quads are being forced to work through a greater range of motion. 

So let's say you could either...

Option 1.) Squat just to 90 degrees with 225 lbs on your back for 8 reps at 1RIR (rep in reserve).

- OR -

Option 2.) You could squat well below parallel with 185 lbs on your back for 8 reps at 1RIR.

Option 2, despite being less load, would still stimulate more muscle growth in your quads due to the greater range of motion.

As an added bonus, a movement with a greater range of motion (again, consider the example of deep squats vs. squats to parallel) will also be less taxing on your joints and nervous system, because you're using a lighter load (but achieving the same or better stimulus). Thus, the "stimulus-to-fatigue" ratio of a movement with a larger range of motion is better.

4. Eccentric Component

The eccentric portion of a movement is typically thought of as the "lowering" part of a movement, whereas the concentric portion of a movement is the actual "lifting" portion of the movement. 

It's pretty rare that most movements are missing the concentric focus... but many movements are noticeably missing an eccentric, OR many lifters aren't intentional about controlling the eccentric portion of the movement.

The problem here is, we know that muscle damage has a strong correlation with muscle growth. We also know that the eccentric portion of a movement is where a large degree of muscle damage is happening. So movements without a controlled eccentric will be much less conducive to muscle growth.

To illustrate this point, let's compare two movements that appear very similar, but would create different outcomes as far as muscle growth - the Conventional Barbell Deadlift vs. The Romanian Deadlift.

—> Conventional Deadlift: Likely your strongest lift - it allows you to pull A LOT of weight, and is also very fatiguing. 

That said, the muscle building stimulus provided from the amount of fatigue generated isn't that high (a Barbell Deadlift from the floor is essentially an isometric for your upper back, your hamstrings never reach their fully stretched position, and there's no "eccentric" component, as most people just drop the weight).

So, a lot of fatigue, but not that much stimulus as far as building muscle goes.

—> Romanian Deadlift: You achieve a much greater range of motion, and a maximal stretch on the hamstrings with this movement. There's also a strong focus on the eccentric portion of the lift. 

But, the weight you lift + the load on your spine is much less. So the movement has a lower "fatigue cost" but likely creates more "stimulus" for most.

If you've done both of the movements, you'll know - your glutes and hamstrings straight up just feel much more "disrupted" after a Romanian Deadlift.

So specific to hamstring and glute growth, we know that the Romanian Deadlift is likely a better option.

On another note, many trainees simply fail to focus on the eccentric portion of a movement as much as the should. It's smart to focus on controlling the eccentric of each rep for 2-4 seconds. 

5. Ability To Overload

Finally, we know that the ability to progressively increase load on a movement over a long period of time is essential to stimulating continuous growth from said movement.

One problem with many movements is simply how difficult they are to add load to over time.

Consider the Push-Up vs. the Barbell Bench Press.

The Push-Up is harder to load in small increments (or much at all outside of weight vests), whereas the Barbell Bench Press can be loaded in very small increments, and thus is easier to progress long-term.

This is especially important for online clients that fall into the intermediate+ category, as microloading (increasing load via very small increments) is often the only realistic way to add load.


Now that you have a good understanding of the keys to smart exercise selection, let's get into a bit more real-world application.

Let's say you're trying to build your quads, and are trying to decide between....

A Goblet Squat vs. a Box squat vs. a High Bar Squat.

Remember, you're looking for a movement that ticks these boxes:

✅ Target muscle group is the rate limiter

✅ Compoundedness

✅ Solid range of motion

✅ Eccentric component

✅ Ability to overload

If we look at a goblet squat, 4/5 of the components are there... but upper back strength is almost always the rate limiter when loads are held in the goblet position, rather than quads.

If we look at the box squat, right away we see that range of motion is severely limited by the box... so again, probably not the best option specific to building lean muscle. 

If we look at the High Bar Squat, we see that it effectively ticks all of these boxes, and is likely the best option of the three.

Apply this methodology to the movements you program going forward, and you will see drastic improvements in your ability to build lean muscle and improve your body composition.

If you're ready to take the guesswork out of achieving your best body composition ever, click here now to apply for Online Coaching with us. You'll get fully customized training + nutrition protocols fit to your specific goals & lifestyle, and expert guidance through every step of the process.

About The Author

Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram for more educational content.

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