The recent article on exercise progressions briefly discussed what exercises worked well to build a progression. The more fundamental question is whether a particular exercise should be used as a main exercise (“primary movement”), or only in the role of an assistance exercise (or “ancillary movement”).
One of the biggest mistakes people make in the gym is to try to hit big numbers (either on the weight being used or the number of reps completed) on exercises that are better used as assistance – simply to help them with their main exercises. This will vary to some extent depending on the goals (or competitive sport) of each individual. A strongman competitor may use the farmers’ carry as a main lift, while a powerlifter may include it as a finishing movement as a way to build conditioning.
Outside activity-specific needs, however, there are guidelines to look for to tell you whether an exercise is better suited as a main lift or an assistance lift.
Is there a specified range of motion?
The squat is one of the most specifically defined exercises available. Whether it’s being performed unweighted (the “air squat”), with a dumbbell at chest height (“goblet squat”), or with a barbell, the move has the same parameters: start from a standing position, lower the hips until the thigh breaks the parallel plane (the crease of the hip is below the top of the knee), and return to a full standing position with the knees and hips fully extended. Determining whether a squat was successful simply means ensuring it met those points of performance (whether the squat was performed well is another question).
The goodmorning is another lower- and mid-body exercise performed either unweighted or with a barbell on the upper back. The goal in the goodmorning is to keep the knees slightly bent and focus on hinging at the hips to fully engage the glutes and hamstrings. For most variations, the back should remain locked in place (no rounding over through the spine). The hip flexion (hinging) should go as far as possible without the back rounding over.
The reason the goodmorning isn’t well suited as a primary lift is that the degree of hinging through the hips is dependent both on each person’s flexibility and on how much their knees bend – the deeper the knee bend, the further the hips can fold without the back rounding over, and the better the leverage (the more weight can be used). As a matter of fact, one of the hardest parts of keeping goodmornings consistent is the tendency of the lifter – without meaning to – to bend their knees further as they fatigue. In other words, as the lifter tires out, the body will find ways to make the lift easier.
Additionally, it is very difficult for beginning and intermediate lifters to determine when their backs start to round over without very stringent coaching at every moment. This gets into the next guideline:
Is it safe to use with maximum weights or reps?
One of the fundamental principles of strength training is progressive overload – gradually increasing the difficulty of a movement through added weight or repetitions, increased range-of-motion, less-favorable leverage, etc. One critical point in whether a movement is suited for use as a main exercise is whether it is safe to use for progressive loading.
Martial arts legend Bruce Lee was a big fan of the goodmorning, using it as one of his staple exercises. It was this exercise, at a weight close to his own bodyweight, that caused the nerve damage to his lower back, resulting in months of bed-rest, and pain that lasted the rest of his life.
This isn’t to say that the goodmorning, or any other exercise is bad or unsafe, but while exercises like the squat or deadlift put the body in a favorable position to bear the full weight of a max-load barbell, the goodmorning has very little margin for error. A slight misalignment may be all it takes to move the load off the hips and put it squarely on the spine.
Another exercise that is great for assistance work but not great as a main exercise is the simple plank. When done properly, the plank is one of the best core-strengthening bodyweight exercises available (see the video above), but as you can see in this video it’s all too easy to allow your back to sway, causing unneeded stress in the low back and losing the benefit of the exercise.
Does it transfer to other exercises or skills?
The deadlift is a great foundational movement for building strength. Furthermore, it generates neuromuscular stimulation through a large number of muscle groups (front and back of thighs, abdominals, low-, mid- and upper-back, and forearms are all directly worked). Between those and the general functionality of the movement (picking up heavy objects from the ground), the deadlift builds the kind of strength that transfers well into many sports AND real-life applications. Other exercises that transfer well are the pullup, shoulder press, and the ubiquitous squat.
The bicep curl is another popular gym exercise that’s both perfectly safe, and has a pretty specific range of motion. While there’s nothing wrong with having bulging biceps, the ability of the bicep curl to transfer into other areas is directly related to how much they’re limited by your bicep strength. In other words, since there is only a single movement being worked in the bicep curl, it won’t have nearly the carryover to athletic or real-life events that the deadlift or the pullup will.
It has been argued that there is no such thing as a bad exercise. The important thing is to determine in what capacity a particular exercise should be used. If it has well-defined points of performance, is safe to use in a progressive program, and carries over well to other applications, it is a great candidate as a primary exercise. If it doesn’t meet these three criteria, it doesn’t mean to throw it out completely – just to assign it the correct place as an assistance lift in your program!