How do you judge one training movement as compared to another? What criteria should come into play when making these calls?

I recently had a conversation with a membership salesman at work regarding suspension training and exercise effectiveness. He was watching a trainer have a client do a suspended version of a pull-up with Blast Straps and asked me (and I paraphrase), “Wouldn't it be a great core exercise if you could put your hands and feet into a suspension trainer? Like that would take a lot of strength, wouldn’t it?”

Now, the above likely sounds very ridiculous, but I've actually seen people do it. In all honesty, I have even screwed around with it myself for fun. Aside from the balancing act it requires and the odds of getting contorted into pretzel, it’s essentially a circus trick “exercise” that really has no usage in a program of any kind. However, when he told me this I happened to have some downtime, so I sat down to explain to him (in detail) the difference between progressive movements, the fallacy of balance and core strength, and how it is easy to trick people into doing what I deem as being one-off exercises—exercises that are subjectively hard while doing them but actually improve nothing.

Thankfully, he was a good listener, and I could tell that he was really considering what I was saying. However, his misguided perception of exercise and training is one I encounter all of the time. The vast majority of people simply do not have the education to objectively understand why all exercises are not created equal. I would even argue that the majority of personal trainers do not understand this very well either.

Due to this, I created an informal series of charts a year or so ago that I called “The Exercise Hierarchy of Effectivity.” And yes, effectivity is a word I made up. You all can deal.

This hierarchy is one of the first things I teach to new clients, and anyone who has been training with me for a while becomes very familiar with it. By teaching that there is an actual scale of what movements have the most powerful training effect, I can teach my clients training comprehension in regards to why we do certain movements first; why we do things in a certain sequence; and why things like isolation movements, machines and cables, and prehab movements are not necessarily primary pieces of programming.

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While I know this might seem very straightforward and “no shit” for someone with a strength and conditioning background, this may be an extremely novel idea for the average person. At the same time, this also allows me to teach that there is a continuum of movement skills and that all movement is based upon four directional patterns of motion, which I teach as Hinge, Squat, Pull, and Press.

With the background underway, let's get to the details.

The Rule of Four

The hierarchy is constructed on the foundation of four quadrants of fundamental movement:

1. Lower Body
2a. Hip Horizontal Shift/Hinge=Deadlift Pattern
2b. Hip Ascension and Descent=Squat Pattern
3. Upper body
4a. Outward force chain Projective/Compressive Pattern=Press
4b. Inward force chain Tensile Pattern=Pull

Now, if anyone is wondering why I included the hip shift, force chain, ascension, descent etc., these are simply clarification terms for myself that fit within my personal conceptualization of movement. Having studied movement theory and choreography, I tend to view movement a bit differently than most. Therefore, these terms are not something you need to use if you utilize the hierarchy yourself.

To give credit where credit is due, while this hierarchy is of my own design, it has been heavily influenced by all of the following:

  • Dan John—In regards to quadrants of movement, armor building, and quadrants of sport
  • Anatoli Bondarchuck—In regards to the transfer of training, GPP and SPP development, and his own pyramid of exercise usage
  • Marty Gallagher—Whose own exercise tier system got me thinking about "grades" of movement long before I read any formal textbooks on exercise science
  • Dave Tate, elitefts™, and all of the training articles and logs going back about five years
  • My own formal and informal education in movement and dance theory, kinesiology, and choreography

Moving on to the Hierarchy (finally).

Tier 1 Movements Criteria

    1. Broad strength transference to most all-over exercises and dynamic correspondence to a multitude of physical activities/sports
    2. Trains the biomechanical totality of the neuromuscular pattern and is a compound/multi-joint movement
    3. Recruits the greatest percentage of muscle groups and muscle activation
    4. Has been demonstrably proven to increase physical strength relative to the pattern and to increase muscle cross-section
    5. Is readily progressable (I'm making up another word here) in both the short and long-term

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Tier 1 Breakdown

Why no Olympic lifts?

To avoid argument and confusion, I have removed the full Olympic Lifts from the pyramid. In my opinion, the coordination required for these movements is far too high to be considered foundational pieces of a program. Obviously, if you are an olympic lifter, then this would not be the case. Nor would it be the case if you are a qualified coach with the time to teach them correctly to your athletes.

Why are they all barbell movements?

Because of all the training implements available today. For decades, the 20kg/45-pound barbell has been utilized by thousands of coaches for millions of athletes. It has an anecdotal body of evidence that supports its usage over other training tools. For instance, it has been shown in EMG testing to elicit the highest levels of muscular activation, and from the perspective of training practicality, you can train everything with a barbell (so long as you know how to properly use it).

From a "broscience" perspective, I’ll take the athlete who can bench, squat, and pull, three, four, and five hundred pounds over the athlete who can do pistol squats, ring dips, and handstand pushups. I will readily bet that the former will be much bigger, stronger, and more powerful than the latter (feel free to disagree).

Hip thrusts are stupid. The glute-ham raise is better.

That's very eloquent of you. Most commercial gyms don’t have a glute-ham raise. A glute-ham raise can be as expensive as a barbell. If you have only the barbell, I consider the hip thrust to be a very effective movement, and I will personally say that I think it trumps everything else for glute hypertrophy. Again, feel free to disagree.

Tier 2 Movements Criteria

    1. More narrow but still relatively broad strength transference to other exercises
    2. More specific correspondence to specific athletics/sports. (This is where SPP movements are likely to be found)
    3. Trains the pattern to a relatively complete range of motion
    4. Recruits a large percentage of the muscle fibers that comprise the pattern
    5. Has been demonstrably proven to be “good” but not “great” at increasing physical strength relative to the pattern and to increase muscle cross-section*
    6. Is generally progressable in the short-term but may not be a progressive movement in the long-term

*Good and great being subjective

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Tier 2 Breakdown

In this tier, you are essentially working with the dumbbell, kettlebell, and body weight variations of the fundamental movements. This may seem like a cop-out (to throw everything  into one category). However, if you look at the tier, you will find that there is still not much variance in the exercises. While everyone has a personal favorite, there are really only four primary exercises for each category, and other exercises beyond that are essentially just permutations of the those four.

To address some likely critiques:

Why no box squats?

Box Squats I would consider a barbell variation, and I would put into Tier 1.

What about something like suspension training or sandbags/Bulgarian bags/medicine balls?

Suspension training is really just a variation on body weight training, so it's a Tier 2 variation. I'm not really sure how practical sandbags are on a programming basis unless you have access to a variety of them. That goes for most odd implements. For slam balls or medicine balls, I do not know if most trainees or coaches readily have access to them. I like them a lot, but I did not see them as being practical, at least economy-wise.

What about a leg press or hack squat?

Those go in Tier 3. This whole hierarchy is geared toward athletic training with a performance emphasis—not bodybuilding. It's not very common for a coach to give precedence to a machine movement over a free weight movement. This is not to imply that machines are not worth using. However, relative to movement capacity, free weights are generally always going to win out. I want my people to squat and squat well, something like a leg press is entirely adjunctive.

But there are thousands of variations to all of these movements!

Exactly. So the answer as to which one you should choose is “it depends.” It depends on who you are training, how you are training him/her, and what you are training him/her for.

Tier 3 Movement Criteria

    1. Narrow strength transference that transfers to one or only a few exercises
    2. Extremely acute correspondence, if any, to athletic events (very case-by-case)
    3. Single joint movement that reinforces only one aspect of a pattern
    4. Recruits a smaller percentage of muscle fibers and may often emphasize an angle-specific subsection of muscle fiber
    5. Has only a marginal increase in strength relative to its pattern, and may be more hypertrophy or joint reinforcement/preventive specific
    6. Is not readily progressive past a certain point relative to loading. Improvements are likely to be short-term and acute

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To address some likely criticisms and questions:

Leg presses can build more muscle than squats!

You could argue that they are better for quad hypertrophy, absolutely. Again, though, this is an athletic template, not a bodybuilding one. Any machine movement could potentially be excellent for building muscle, but machines also tend to have rather poor translation to actual athletic strength. Also, I think most would agree that your squat strength with a barbell will likely be a better indicator of lower body power than how much weight you can leg press. The same thing goes for machine chest press, machine pulldowns, and seated leg curls.

Why did you throw in corrective exercises into Tier 3?

Because corrective exercises are rehabilitative or preventive, and while they certainly can be a strong component piece to a program, they are also not always necessary. Thus, their usage is variable, and they should be used on a case-by-case basis.

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Putting it all together

To preface, this programming template is the one I have most commonly used, but it is not the only one I use. This is designed to maximize training economy and is best used for a basic linear periodization program. For block periodization, conjugate programming, undulating periodization, or even mountain dog training, the template would be adjusted. This is simply to serve as an example.

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Also, to address another question I know is forthcoming: If someone is not ready to use the barbell, then a Tier 2 pattern will replace it. This is obviously a coaching call that I make based on individual assessment.

This hierarchy is not meant to serve as the be-all, end-all of programming. Rather, it provides a sound overview of exercise effectiveness and what should be given priority within a program. I constantly use it as a teaching tool with my clients and as a reference point when designing my programs. I hope that it works as a useful tool for everyone’s own programming needs and perhaps makes you reconsider your own training economy. This hierarchy is designed to evolve as well, so any feedback would be welcome, positive or otherwise.