Written by Chad Wesley Smith
This concept is crucial for understanding athlete qualification and exercise selection.
Consider a pyramid: broad at the base and narrow at the peak. This is the concept that you must understand when considering exercise selection for your athletes.
The base of the pyramid is broad, it is occupied by the most athletes (beginners), and it can fit the most exercises. When an athlete first begins their training, there is a very large pool of exercises that can help them improve. Think back to your first months of training the squat and all the things that would cause your numbers to go up; squat, front squat, box squat, leg curls, back raises, lunges… and the list goes on. This is true in the narrow context of a single exercise or physical quality, as well as the broader sense of developing overall athleticism for the youth athlete. The young athletes – those at the base of the pyramid – need to be exposed to a wide variety of movement patterns so they can develop general abilities (GPP) before progressing to more specific means (SPP).
Ilya Ilyin, one of the greatest weightlifters of all-time, shared a story about his start in weightlifting at a seminar I was able to attend. Ilya, through a translator, told us that he began training for weightlifting at 6 years old and that he ‘would run around the gym and do all the exercises.’ Now certainly that statement doesn’t give a ton of detail, but what I would understand it to mean would be that he was doing a mix of weightlifting, bodyweight drills, gymnastics, running, swimming, jumping and throwing. When Ilya was at the base of the pyramid, he performed a broad spectrum of exercises, all of which built his strength and laid the foundation for his eventual Olympic success.
Just because there are tons of exercises that can contribute to your success early in your lifting career, that doesn’t mean you should just do them all. Sport practice is still the most important thing in any athlete’s success, and if your goal is to squat, bench, or deadlift more then you need to practice the squat, bench, and deadlift. I would suggest rotating your exercise variations while keeping the primary movement omnipresent. For example…
Week 1 to 6
Squat, Front Squat, Wide Stance Squat
Bench, Incline Bench, Floor Press
Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, Pause Deadlift
Week 7 to 12
Squat, Olympic Squat, Box Squat
Bench, Closegrip Bench, Reverse Grip Bench
Deadlift, Deficit Deadlift, Trap Bar Deadlift
Week 13 to 18
Squat, Pause Squat, Front Box Squat
Bench, Widegrip Bench, Bench Paused Off Chest
Deadlift, Block Pull, Medium Stance Sumo Deadlift
Rotating exercises in this fashion will allow you to develop your technique and specific strength in the competitive lift while also developing the general, well-rounded strength you’ll need for long term success.
The tip of the pyramid is narrow and focused, occupied by the most elite athletes of their respective sports. Very few exercises can fit onto the top of the pyramid. In fact, the tip will only occupied by the competitive exercise at varying intensities.
In powerlifting, Andrey Malanichev lives at the top of pyramid; totaling 2469 pounds raw with wraps, Malanichev’s training is devoid of variance-rather he squats, benches and deadlifts exclusively.
We discussed earlier how Ilya Ilyin, when he entered the training world at the age of 6 at the base of the pyramid, did an extremely broad and generalized program of ‘running around the gym and doing all the exercises.’ By the time he was 18, he ‘had no relative weaknesses’ and went to a Bulgarian System style of training, training multiple sessions per day with only the snatch, clean & jerk, and squat.
It is important to understand that you and I are not Ilya or Malanichev, and the degree of specificity that they use in their training isn’t necessary for us. This is one problem that the internet has caused in training – access to what the absolute best in the World are doing. It is natural to be interested in what training the strongest athletes in the World are doing, but you need to be interested in what they did to get there; not what they are doing now, but rather what they did 5, 10 or 20 years ago.
So if you aren’t Andrey Malanichev and you aren’t stepping into the gym for the first time ever, how do you know how qualified you are and how much specificity you should be using? Well, within the context of this article it is very difficult for me to assess your qualifications, so I wont try to make a claim like “if you can lift X amount then you are at this level” or “if you have been lifting for X amount of years then you are at this level” because such statements simply aren’t universally true and they leave too much room for error.
I will just tell you to be honest with yourself, and wherever you think you fall in this pyramid, you’re probably a little bit lower than that.
Make sure to consider qualification within the context of the entire world of your sport, not just your gym or friends. You also must consider your own potential (which is admittedly difficult to analyze). Obviously not everybody has the genetics to become the greatest of all-time.
What makes one exercise more specific than another? Specificity is characterized by similarity in the direction, duration and velocity to the competitive exercise. More simply, the more it looks like the competitive exercise, the more specific it is. While this idea is simple to understand, it’s application is anything but obvious and straightforward, especially for sports. Take, for example, a football offensive lineman, for whom pushing a sled is clearly more similar to the sport than a bench press; this concept is a bit more difficult to see within such a context.
A cambered bar box squat and an Olympic squat are both squats and there are many similarities between them, but what makes one more specific to the competitive lift than the other? Both lifts change the leverage point of the lift and both likely change the depth you are squatting to, but common sense and intuition tell us that the Olympic squat is more similar to the majority of raw lifters squatting style than a cambered bar box squat is. A simple rule of thumb is that if the variation requires something beyond your body, a straight bar and plates (ie. Specialty bar, box, bands, chains, boards) it is likely less specific to the competitive lift.
This article isn’t designed to tell you how many exercise variations you should be using, or which variations those should be, because there isn’t an easy black-and-white answer to those questions. Hopefully, though it has gotten your wheels turning about exercise specificity and how to guide the training of you and your athletes toward long-term success.
Q: When should dynamic effort work be included in a program and what type of work should it be?
A: I don’t think it’s correct to think that there are certain thresholds in which X exercise or Y method should be implemented because there are principle that should be guiding any athlete’s training, and those are unique to certain exercises. With that being said, in regards to dynamic effort work, if you are trying to impart maximum velocity to the bar with all your reps, then you are probably ok without doing any directed speed work.
Q: How often should you change your exercises, both primary and accessory?
A: Many people are under the incorrect impression that if they fail to constantly change exercises that they will accommodate to their training and progress will halt.
That will not happen.
My entire powerlifting career has focused on the squat, bench and deadlift as the primary exercises for every session and my progress has not halted. The body doesn’t understand exercises, and it doesn’t know the difference between bars. It just knows stress and changes to loading strategies (sets/reps/percentages), and small leverage changes will create a new stimulus for you and allow you to continue to make progress. Now, I’m not saying that you must always do the same exercises, but you want to make strategic selections based on your needs. So if you choose a certain exercise to bring up your floor strength in the deadlift, use it for 3-6 weeks or once you feel it has accomplished its goal and a new relative weakpoint has arisen. For assistance work, and by that I mean things besides variations of the primary exercises or large compound movements like military press or bentover rows, I think you could do a different exercise (for the same muscle group) every week if you want because those movements are all very general anyways and you shouldn’t be training them with such high intensity that constantly new stimulus will induce much DOMs.