Building Your Exercise Menu

Whilst browsing the internet, you’ll find hundreds of exercise programs. Many are random list of exercises. If you’re lucky, the author organized the list by body part.

Let’s forget about the minutiae and create system-based routines. It helps if you think of strength routines as dinner menus …

When I see programs like “Getting Jacked Like Wolverine” or “Ripped Like Captain America”, I get a deep urge to bang my head against a wall.

It’s a plethora of exercises, complicated set/rep schemes, 2 hour sessions 5-6 days a week.

And usually it’s all the same (and rarely what the actors were really doing). I don’t know about you, but I can’t do that stuff because either …

  • … I’m too dumb to wrap my head around those programs
  • … I’m too lazy to write it all down and take with me to the gym/park
  • … I don’t have all the fancy-schmancy equipment they talk about
  • … I’m busy, like, you know, everyone else and can’t train that often and that long

The same problem occurs when I try to be Jamie Oliver when it comes to cooking. I have to print out the recipe. When I grocery shop for the ingredients, it takes an hour to find all the things I never have around the house (cumin seeds, anyone?).

Then, at home, I watch the YouTube video several times again. The 15 minute meal is then ready after an hour of cooking (cleaning up after yourself is a real time suck if you’re not a TV chef).

By the way, this is one of my favorites:

That’s why I have some go-to meals and some basic ingredients around the house. I can always throw a few things in the pan and get cookin’:

  • Frozen veggies
  • Canned tuna
  • Eggs
  • Rice
  • Canned Beans
  • Frozen fish
  • Frozen berries
  • Whey protein

Except when I wanna impress my lovely girlfriend with my cooking skills, that’s pretty much what I eat. I can buy it in bulk, store it for longer and cook it when needed.

Back to strength training: Apply that same principle. Have some staple exercises. These can be different depending on the equipment available to you, your preferences and your body type.

My personal favorites are these:

8 exercises. These are convenient for me (I have kettlebells, a pull-up bar and rings at home). I feel badass doing them. They are effective.

That doesn’t mean I don’t train with other exercises, as well. But those 8 exercises are the ones I put my focus on.

You don’t have to use the same list. Find your own favorite movements. Just don’t make it biceps curls and calf raises.

Then, every training day, pick 2-4 exercises from that list and hit them hard. That’s your main dish. Do that 3-4 times a week, picking different items from the menu every time. That will get you 80-90% of your desired results.

It doesn’t have to be exactly 8 exercises. Why not 3 or 4 movements?

Strength training is a skill. Treat it as such. You wouldn’t start practicing the guitar by playing all the scales, advanced songs and writing your own music. Most people start with learning 3-4 chords. Then they find a few songs that they can play with those chords. The same works for strength training.

Over time you can build up your movement vocabulary. You can add exercises, tweak the ones you already know and build your own routines.

When you look at my list a little closer, you’ll notice a few patters. They cover the four basic movement patters: Push, pull, squat, hinge. For lower body movements, I have bilateral and unilateral variations. For upper body, I have horizontal and vertical movements. I have heavyish movements and lighter, high-rep movements.

I also chose “money movements”. These are the ones that deliver lots of bang for the buck. All 8 exercises are full-body movements that emphasize a certain muscle group. But they train the whole body.

Most reasonable training systems are developed around a few big-bang exercises. Powerlifters focus on the barbell bench press, squat and deadlift. Olympic lifters train and compete with the snatch and clean & jerk. When I train at the park, all calisthenics enthusiasts practice muscle ups, pull-ups, dips and front levers. Kettlebell trainees have the big six: swing, goblet squat, turkish get-up, press, clean and snatch.

Find your own favorite money movements. Get better at them. That’s really all there is to proper strength training.

Move freely