I'll have to admit that my mind was elsewhere. We were all sitting in the lounge at the Los Angeles Strength Seminar and everyone was drinking wonderful things like beer and bourbon, often together. One lovely young woman was drinking a wine spritzer. I can allow that, if you're a lovely young woman.

Where was my mind? Deep in the Velocity Diet. I spied a woman eating a wonderful chicken salad with a hint of garbanzo beans and, dare I say, black olives. Oh, and the way the olive oil dribbled off the edges of the leaves...

You see, during the V-Diet, you start to wander off during discussions and check out the goods. I used to check out women, now I look to see if they're really enjoying their black olives. "You know that I would, wouldn't you, you little minx you? You and your lentils... "

Sorry, back to the point. As I sat there fantasizing about a four-egg omelet and bacon, a fellow participant asked, "Do you have your kids do good mornings?" In the past twenty-four hours, I'd been asked a number of questions about great exercises... that I simply don't use. Now, to pull my mind off those lovely ebony orbs (damn, the lady had a lot of black olives in her salad) I tried to refocus.

Good and Bad Exercises

As I started talking about teaching 65 high school kids the good morning, it occurred to me that I actually had some strong beliefs about a lot of exercises. Listen, it's rare to find a universally good or universally bad exercise, but what makes me pull the trigger on one lift for a group and dismiss another lift?

Seriously, why do I think walking lunges are a disaster, but Bulgarian split squats are great? When asked if I have my athletes do dips, I can say "Don't do dips" so fast that it sounds like "doughnut drips." Hmmm, tasty. So what's my problem?

First, and this is really important, I don't think there are really any "bad" exercises. Oh sure, there's some guy out there who just got "certified" and we're going to hear that this or that exercise is considered dangerous by the NCAASPRQ-whatever association that has "over a dozen members." How dare they knock my beloved one-legged Hungarian batwing arm crushers!

The moment I write that leg lifts are bad because they overwork the psoas, somebody's going to have a new study showing that the psoas is under-worked and we need to overwork it. Trust me, this kind of thing happens all the time.

The young people reading this should know that all the following are bad for you: squats, bench presses, deadlifts, snatches, cleans, lat pulldowns, curls, leg extensions, and basically anything that Arnold did while he trained.

Of course, now they're all good for you, except for the exercises you don't want to do. "Oh, I could easily squat 700, but don't you know that squats are bad for you?" You see, that's why I don't run. Running is bad for you! At least, that's what I tell everyone...

Second, when I test athletes, I only look at three things. Let's go over those.

The 3 Tests

First, I like to test the deadlift. Without straps, from the floor, the deadlift might be the single best measure of absolute strength. The learning curve is about five minutes, although I realize that superlative performance requires a bit more technical rigor. If you have a bad grip or a bad "core" (God, I loath that term), the deadlift will expose it and any other weakness immediately.

The second test is the bench press. Again, the bench is pretty easy to learn and it's fairly popular (yes, I'm serious, many people are now bench pressing in gyms across the world). As a coach I can get a sense of things quite quickly in regards to upper body strength.

A warning: I like to joke that most strength coaches have huge biceps from "spotting" the bench. If your coach has a huge deadlift too, you might have an awesome bench.

If someone touches the bar besides the lifter, I don't count the lift. And I don't care how many times you call me "bro" or "bra," any help on the bench makes it a missed lift. Yes, I know, you didn't need your best buddy to touch the bar on your bench; you would've gotten it by yourself, bro. Right. Keep believing, bro.

Finally, I use the standing long jump. The vertical jump just doesn't have enough "inches" to work with to measure progress, and it's often hard to gauge improvement. The SLJ is a great tool for checking to see if what you're doing really is making the athlete "do."

That's it: three tests. It's funny, but when I started coaching, I had a bucket of measurements. Max snatch, max clean, 5RM back squat, 40 time, and on and on and on. Then I realized that most of these tests had a large measure of skill involved.

So? Well, as my athletes got better at snatches or cleans or whatever, the tests improved, but not necessarily the performance on the field of play. So I tossed each measurement away one by one, until I realized that the simple three I had left told me what I needed to know: the athlete got stronger (or didn't) and the athlete could apply (or not apply) this force quickly.

The Formula

So, how do I determine whether or not to include an exercise with my athletes? Well, I've actually come up with a "formula." Now, someone can make this into a spreadsheet with algebraic notations, but I keep it a bit simple here:

1. What's the learning curve of the exercise? If it takes a year or two to master a movement, like the Olympic squat snatch, the learning curve is a long gentle climb. The two-hand kettlebell swing? Five minutes maybe, if you really have someone who just doesn't get it.

Note: There are some excellent reasons for taking two years or more to master certain things. More on that later.

2. I coach in big groups. Can this movement be done with at least five people doing it at once, usually ten or more? If I have ten boxes, then box jumps are great. I can have ten athletes moving at once. If I have one box, I can't have a class of 65 doing box jumps!

Walking lunges with a class is a nightmare because there's no way to house that many walking lungers. (I agree, you can. But try it.) Bulgarian split squats simply need a dumbbell or kettlebell and a place to prop up that back foot.

3. In math, there's a great term for the point here: the lowest common denominator. You decide to teach the good morning to 50 sophomores. You're going to have 50 sophomores, ages 14-15, put a loaded barbell on their neck and lean forward to work the spinal erectors. Right.

Folks, half the class will roll the bar straight over the backs of their heads before you can tell them to "look up." Many will lock out their knees and not let go of the bar until they face plant. Now, use your imagination to think what the dumb kids will be doing...

Listen, the good morning is a great lift and I've had my athletes do it for years, but not in a group setting.

4. Finally, will it impact the athlete? Will it make him better? There are some great exercises that may or may not help. Which press is best? Incline, decline, flat, military, or the dumbbell variations? Which? Pick one.

You see, that's the issue: pick one press. Oh, go ahead, pick a "vertical push" and a "horizontal push" if that's on the list, but really, why do so many people do so many kinds of pushes? How can you tell which exercise is working unless you have the courage to cut down the number of exercises so you can figure out whether or not it works!

And there's the great rub: all this works, but does it work toward your goals? And, as part of this, does it hurt you or hurt your goals? Many teens complain that dips hurt their sternums (I was one of them.) Now I discover that pull-ups kill my elbows. If your program is based on nothing but dips and pull-ups, people are going to be hurting and not training.

A Three Week Approach

At the Los Angeles Strength Seminar, I presented the following info about how to teach a number of lifts over a three week period:

A Three Week Approach to "Learning" the Lifts:

Workout One Workout Two Workout Three
Buttkickers High Knees Strides
Snatch DL Clean DL Classic DL
Power Snatch from Hi PS from Hang PS from Floor
Military Press Push Press Push Jerk
Strict Curl Cheat Curl Chin up
Workout Four Workout Five Workout Six
Starts Speed traps Long Sprint (200s)
Jefferson Lift (Straddle DL) Goblet Squat Back Squat
Power Clean from Hi PC from Hang PC from Floor
Bench Press Lockouts Chain Bench Press Towel Bench Press (Board)
Pull-ups Bent Row Renegade Row
Workout Seven Workout Eight Workout Nine
Bounding Box Jumps Depth Jumps
Front Squat Overhead Squat Zercher Squat
Clean Grip Snatch from hi CGS from Hang CGS from Floor
Jerk One armed Press SeeSaw Press
Two Hand Swings One handed Swings DARC Swings

I won't describe each, but the first exercise is a movement exercise building up to plyometrics; the second is a big lower body lift from deadlifts to squat variations; the third exercise is a way to teach the quick lifts; the fourth lift is a push, and the last lift is a pull, of sorts.

You may have never heard of some of the lifts and you may have mastered the bulk of them. The point is this: would doing each lift for one workout ever constitute "mastery?" Nope, not even close.

It's funny because I love this three-week approach. I do. And, I can make it work... with one or two athletes. But with a group? No way.

Exercise Selection

Let's get back to the points concerning exercise selection. Some of you are making a living training people: not all, but some personal trainers actually make a living doing their job. There's a word in your title: personal. Many of your clients think that "personal" means "Me only!" If you can get eight people a day to pay you one hundred dollars an hour for your one-on-one coaching, quit reading now and enjoy the fruits of your labors. You're in rare air.

One-on-one training is wonderful, if the trainee can afford it and the trainer can train the trainee. I guarantee that a few hours with a decent coach is pure gold for your long term goals. But what about the real world?

Let's take a few examples and look at how I approach exercise selection:

The Two-Hand Swing

1. Easy to learn. Women love the lift, too. "Coach, I can feel it burning fat!" (This is an actual quote and I wish we could transform this "feeling" into a pill.)

2. I've had groups of 65 people all doing the two-hand swing at once.

3. The idiot factor is low. My kettlebell instructor friend told me about a trainer who just let the 'bell go on the way up. But that's pretty good – only one idiot story.

4. Beyond burning fat, my athletes tell me that this lift helps in the jumping sports (basketball and volleyball) as you can do a lot of the jumping motion without dealing with landing. This is a big issue in sports where you jump and jump and jump. After a while, the body seems to start breaking down from all the landings!

The Good Morning (Standard Knees Bent Version)

1. Easy to learn, but people who watch the lift immediately say, "Won't that hurt our backs?"

2. If you have a nice setup, it can be used in large groups.

3. We have a high idiot factor with this lift. Many people despise having weight on the back; now we're using the head to brake the bar from rolling forward.

4. If you're also teaching squats within one workout, half the group will do good morning squats and the other half will do squatting good mornings. Carryover to sports and physique training? Probably fine, but there are dozens of other low back exercises that work just as well... maybe. I like the Romanian deadlift better because I think I teach it well.


Why don't I teach the dip?

1. It's easy to learn.

2. If you have the dip racks, it's easy to teach in large groups.

3. Occasionally someone drops through the dip racks, but that's just funny.

4. Carryover to sports: Well, I remember an old college strength coach telling me that athletes who dip don't hurt their shoulders.

So why don't I teach dips? Well, I do, except not with high school kids. Most of the class will complain "Coach, dips hurt me right here" and point to their sternums. In the growing adolescent, the bottom position of the dip seems to "rip" the breastbone apart.

So, I learned this from my athletes: no dips. Rule number one of strength and conditioning: don't hurt your athletes or do things that hurt (unless it has a ton of value).

Back Squats vs. Front Squats

1. Front squats are hard on the wrists at first. Back squats hurt the upper back/neck for many. I find that if you teach front squats (or overhead squats) first, back squats are a breeze. But for an experienced lifter who's done heavy back squats, transitioning to front squats is hell. Not only does it hurt the wrists, but it hurts the ego (and I've been there).

2. If you have enough racks, either lift is fine. I do like front squats because you rarely need more than one spotter.

3. Idiot factor is very, very high on both lifts. Don't believe me? Ask anyone at any "fitness center" to squat.

4. Some argue that front squats somehow magically carry over to sports better than back squats. I think that it might be true, but I think squatting is a really good idea and I'd rather have an athlete do some kind of squat than never squat fearing lack of magic carryover. So, squat – somehow – away!

Bulgarian Split Squats

1. Balance is an issue for the first few reps or days, but most people get it quickly. We also teach three positions to hold the weight: on the chest (goblet position), in a dangling arm (suitcase position), and arm extended overhead (waiter position). The three variations seem to reinforce everything we're trying to do.

2. Again, if you have 64 dumbbells or kettlebells, you can train 64 people. All you need is 64 places to put the "up" foot.

3. So far, so good. No idiot stories. I'm sure somebody has a story, but for some reason Bulgarian split squats have been story-free for me.

4. I know a lot of people who insist on one-legged work and this is the only lift I trust. Lunges, reverse lunges, leaping lunges and all the rest just don't seem to be effective with my athletes. It's probably because of the disdain I have for the term "lunges." It has that whole "go for the burn" Janefondaesque mindset of most of the fitness community. Yeah, go for the burn, and toss in her videotapes and books, too.

For someone not training large groups or simply training alone, I can bet you've used a similar process. In my home gym, I never bench press (I fear someone in my family finding me dead with a bar across my throat) and I tend to be a little more careful than at other gyms. My fear of dropping a loaded bar on my Mazda 6 is part of the issue, so I think things through a bit.

Closing Wisdom

For the general fitness enthusiast, there's some wisdom here:

1. If you're really interested in a lift that you might see here at T-Nation or in a magazine or book, but your attempts are clearly life threatening, maybe a little coaching is in order.

2. After you get some coaching, ask yourself the question: is this exercise going to carry over into my athletic goals?

3. Finally, every so often, ask the question: is this really helping me toward my goals? Now, before you dismiss everything difficult like squats and deadlifts, use a bit of common sense, but if something just doesn't seem to pay off like that brightly colored article in the fitness magazine said it would, consider moving on.

A little thinking can go a long way in our training.

Dan John is an elite-level strength and weightlifting coach. He is also an All-American discus thrower, holds the American record in the Weight Pentathlon, and has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting and Highland Games. Follow Dan John on Facebook