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An overview on how to classify and select appropriate
exercises for your training needs

By Rob Wagner

Editor's Note: Rob Wagner, the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Strength and Conditioning coach placed third in the International Powerlifting Federation’s World Championships, which were held in Trencin, Slovakia. Wagner, who resides in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, lifted in the 82.5k (181.75lbs) class in the open division. He squatted 337.5k (744lbs), which also earned him the gold medal in that event. Wagner bench pressed 195 k (429lbs) and deadlifted 290k (639lbs) to give him the bronze medal with an 822.5k (1813lbs) total weight lifted. This is Wagner’s 6th trip to the event and his best prior placing was 4th, which he obtained in both 1996 and 2001. He completed 8 of 9 attempts and was a near perfect 9 for 9 with the exception of his final deadlift of 295k (650lbs) which he nearly had completed until he lost his grip on the bar. The first place winner was Dmytro Soloviov from the Ukraine with a 837.5k (1846lbs) total while second went to Jan Wegeira of Poland with the same total. Soloviov took the gold based on his lighter body weight. There were over 150 lifters attending the meet representing 35 countries.

Sitting down to create a workout can be a pretty basic process or it can be a struggle. If your training goals are still the same then it shouldn’t be too difficult. However, changing these goals or deciding to implement new training concepts into the program can be a bear. To get the most out of the program you must make sure that you coordinate the appropriate exercises together in the framework of the workout. Sometimes this can get tricky. Whether you are a powerlifter or just trying to stay in shape, the planning of the program can make all the difference in the world in your lifting success. This article will introduce a system that will have you looking at your exercises and how you classify and structure them into your workout in a more effective way.

Typically here in the US we divide lifting exercises into core lifts (our primary exercises) and assistance work (everything else). In his book, “The Weightlifters Encyclopedia,” Dreschler (1998) defines the assistance exercises as any exercise that is not a classic competition lift. Unfortunately, this leaves out sport athletes, bodybuilders, fitness competitors or those that are just interested in staying in shape and looking good. These groups would typically view assistance work as those exercises they would use to help strengthen their weak points or help maintain the strong points of their training. There is still a bit of cloudiness over what makes a lift an assistance lift and what does not. It seems that certain assistance exercises play a vital role in your lifting development while some play a minimal role. In a 1993 article Louie Simmons first brought this to the attention of American Powerlifters, he refers to the more important assistance lifts in this article and subsequent others as special exercises. This term undoubtedly came from his reading of various Russian weightlifting and sports literature (Simmons, 2002). In Russia, competitive lifters and coaches had been referring to these exercises as special preparatory exercises. This terminology is abundant in much of the Russian literature on weightlifting and powerlifting (Medvedyev, 1981; Sheiko, 1998). The terminology that these authors referred to was part of a much larger sport training classification system of exercises. It’s structure was described by Matveyev (as cited in Medvedyev, 1989) as a system of exercises that is made up of competitive exercises and preparatory exercises. The preparatory exercises are divided into special preparatory (SP) exercises and the general preparatory exercises. The SP exercises can be broken into technical (auxiliary) exercises and the developmental exercises. This system is not only used by the weightlifters and powerlifters, but by the majority of sports programs in the country (Medvedyev, 1989; Siff, 2000).

Competition exercises
In the Russian system these are the actual exercises of the sport competition. They were considered the most important because the exercises provided the athlete with the specific requirements of the given type of sport. They also trained and developed the specific abilities needed in the sport (Medvedyev, 1989; Siff, 2000). According to Sheiko (1998) these abilities included things like speed, force, flexibility and endurance. These generally would be your core or primary exercises. In sports like powerlifting and weightlifting the competitive exercises are the competitive lifts, the squat, bench press and deadlift and the snatch and the clean and jerk respectfully. For bodybuilders or individuals lifting for recreation or for sport, I recommend using multiple joint or compound free weight movements for your competitive lifts. More specifically you can break the lifts down into three exercise groups, pressing movements, squatting movements and pulling movements. The use of these types of exercises is based on the idea that all three are multi joint movements and most of the exercises in each group can effectively place stress on a large population of muscles. When these compound exercises are used you ensure the use of the antagonistic and synergistic muscles as well.

For a bodybuilder the competitive exercises could be the primary lifts you use for developing (hypertrophy) or strengthening the large muscle groups like the quads or the chest. Stay away from the machine oriented lifts such as the leg press or chest press if possible. These lifts will fit better in the preparatory categories. Also avoid using any single joint exercises for the same reason. Using the incline bench press as a competition exercise would make a lot of sense for the bodybuilder who is trying to better develop or strengthen his/her chest and shoulder area. If you are a recreational lifter or an athlete it could be the exercises you focus on for your primary strength or speed-strength (power) development. These could be the same lifts as those mentioned for the powerlifter or weightlifters. Better yet, an approach for a track athlete might be to mix the two areas and use the power clean (a clean variation), the squat and the bench press as the competitive lifts. While the squat and bench press would develop upper and lower body strength the power clean will aid in developing the crucial speed-strength needed by most athletes.

Preparatory exercises.
Once we enter the realm of the preparatory exercises the classification of the lifts will be a little more complex. The preparatory exercises serve several different roles. In Matveyev’s definition there were 2 primary categories and then two sub categories. These categories and the roles they play are listed below.

Special Preparatory Exercises
The role for these exercises is to develop the techniques and actions of the competition lift directly. The exercises you would find in this category are those that are made up of the elements of the competition exercise’s variations and actions (Medvedyev, 1989; Siff, 2000). Again try to avoid the machines and stay with compound free weight exercises. If the use of machines is required it should still be of the compound movement variety like a leg press or chest press. The two sub categories of SP exercises are the technical (auxiliary) and the developmental exercises. The technical exercises are those that are variations of the competitive lifts and help to reinforce the mastery of that particular technique. Lifters will typically use heavier weight with these exercises, which will be specific in relation to the actions of the competitive lifts. The SP developmental exercises can be done with barbells, dumbbells, machines or other implements. These exercises can be significantly different in terms of technique from those used in the competitive exercises. The developmental exercises have more of a local effect versus a systemic one. They should be executed with weights lighter than those on the competition exercises due to their diverse technique structure. These exercises may also serve as an additional training means for the lifter in helping to develop tendon and ligament strength. All of the developmental exercises should be performed through as full a range of motion as possible and should be done in multiple planes of movement (Medvedyev, 1989).

In Powerlifting an exercise like the pause squat would be a SP technical exercise for the squat. The pause squat is performed technically the same as the squat the only change would be a static hold or pause at the bottom of the movement. The pause also helps to develop the strength (actions) coming out from the bottom of the squat. The idea is that by training the pause squat you will directly improve the squat. A lunge would be considered more of a SP developmental exercise since it focuses on the development of single leg strength which may contribute the overall strength of the squat. In weightlifting, a push jerk (a lift where the athlete dips downward slightly with the legs and drives the weight overhead to arms length without splitting or squatting fully under the weight) would be an example of SP technical lift since it is a variation of the jerk portion of the competitive lift and it develops the same actions (speed-strength & speed) of the competitive lift. Again this lift would be used to directly influence the performance of the jerk. A SP developmental exercise would be the clean grip BP, since it is technically different from the Jerk but it helps in developing lockout strength.

For the bodybuilder, a lift like a front press (military) would fit the bill as a SP technical exercise if we use the example presented earlier. This exercise is a variation of the incline bench press and it shares the same actions (placing stress on the shoulder muscles) as the incline BP. DB flyes would be a SP developmental exercise since it will focus on the chest area, with the use of DB and lighter weight. For the recreational lifter or athlete an exercise considered a SP Technical lift would be the power clean from the hang. This exercise would focus on the second pull of the clean from mid thigh to the rack. The SP developmental exercise is the jump squat. With the bar on the back the lifter would dip slightly to about quarter squat position and then jump forcefully upward. This would further help to develop explosiveness that could facilitate the power clean. Keep in mind the idea here is to use an exercise that will help develop the competitive exercise either by reinforcing certain technical aspects of the lift and its actions (the technical exercises) or by developing the actions or characteristics required by the lift, such as speed, strength, and flexibility (the developmental exercises). Below are some more examples of these exercises.

Click Here for Chart

In classifying the lifts in this manner you have a more concrete idea of where to place the exercises and what each exercises role will be. It may seem technical at first glance but by using the guidelines I have presented you should find that exercises actually fall into place rather well. In the next issue I will cover the vast array of general preparatory exercises and the multiple uses these exercises can play in your training program.

Dreschler, A. J. (1998). The weightlifting encyclopedia: A guide to world class performance. Whitestone, NY: A is A Communications
Medvedyev, A.S. (1989). A system of multi-year training in weightlifting. (A. Charniga, Tran.). Livonia, Michigan: Sportivny Press (Original work published in 1986).
Sheiko, B.I. (1998). Classification and the terminology of the exercises. In Powerlifting [On-line]. Available:
Siff, M.C. (2000). Supertraining (5th Ed.). Denver, CO: Supertraining Institute
Simmons, L. (1993). Assistance for the squat and deadlift. Powerlifting USA, (16)12, 22-23.
Simmons, L. (2000). Training organization part II. Powerlifting USA, (26)3.

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