Exercises Are Tools: Which exercises are right for you?

Up until recently, exercises have been used almost exclusively as tools for improving performance in another (usually unrelated) discipline. It is really only with the addition of ‘the sport of fitness’ that people exercise to be good at exercising.

Before we go further, let me clarify what a tool is.


A tool is anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose.

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Athletes use exercises to be faster off the line or to jump higher or to be stronger than the opposition and gain the upper hand in sport. Arnold used exercises to achieve the greatest physique of all time and dominate the Olympia stage during his reign. Fighters use exercises to improve their power and stamina and control the fight in the octagon. Even powerlifters use exercises to build their main lifts (why do you think it is called assistance work?). Hell, you probably use exercises to look better naked.

The Seahawks aren’t beating the Broncos because they are better benchers, nor does any team beat any other team because they are better lifters. At this point you might be screaming “Heresy! Performance in the gym is crucial!”, and though I agree, bear with me.

Does a 500lb squat make a good football player? What about a 315lb power clean? No? How about a 405lb power clean? Well, what does make a good football player then?

A good football player is measured by how well he plays football. Period. Numbers can help, but the athlete who is better at their sport is the one who gets drafted, not the one with the highest total.

Now you are thinking “Well, duh…”, but this is something often forgotten. When renowned strength coach Mike Boyle dropped barbell back squats in favor of Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats with his athletes people freaked. How the hell can he do that? You NEED to squat to get big and strong! This is MADNESS!

So Boyle calmly collected himself, looked back at his team, and responded with “Madness? THIS IS SPARTA!”, and kicked the naysayers into a bottomless pit. And then Hollywood based a movie off of his bad-assery.

They had it coming.

Actually, Boyle made his decision based on careful thought, deliberation, and results.

What he knew is that the back squat is a tool used to build other elements in an athlete. It’s not about how much they can squat, it’s about how well they can play and continue to play, injury free. If Boyle found a tool for his athletes that keeps them injury free, produces the same (or better) performance as the traditional back squat and has less associated risk, why would he not use the superior tool?

Boyle used the appropriate tool to develop the necessary qualities of his athletes for them to be successful in their chosen discipline.

That sentence is gold. Read it again.

Just to be clear, I didn’t say performance in the gym doesn’t matter – it does. The outcome of sport can be determined by ability in the gym but it isn’t because of the poundage lifted, it is because of the specific qualities of the athletes developed by the tools.

Imagine two identical football teams, both with equal skill, but on one of the teams the players have never worked out a day in their lives. Sure, they are skilled players, but come the snap they are going to get massacred by a bigger, stronger, faster, more powerful team. It would be like Alistair Overeem fighting toddlers, and nobody stopped Overeem from juicing.

What separates these two teams is that one team used tools to round out the necessary qualities that make a football player good at football, while the other relied solely on skill and left all the other qualities undeveloped. In this case the qualities are strength, explosiveness, power… qualities that can be well developed under a bar.

We use tools with all our athletes because we know that simply practicing ones sport is no longer adequate preparation to compete at an elite level. Every position in every sport has a unique subset of qualities that all need to be honed and polished for an athlete to be the best. Everyone is getting faster, everyone is getting stronger, records are getting shattered and the competition is getting fiercer.

Let’s bring this to your training. What do you want to accomplish?

— Do you want to put on mass?
— How about build strength?
— Maybe you want sculpt your abs so that the second you take off your shirt every girl at the bar offers to buy you a drink.

I would argue that there is no better tool than the barbell for building mass, increasing strength, dropping fat, and improving power. We have been using barbells for generations, and they remain the tool of choice for coaches everywhere. There are lots of other, more specialized tools such as bands, chains, Indian clubs, etc that all have purpose, but the barbell is the do-it-all tool. It is the Crovel in the zombie apocalypse and your survival depends on it.

What I am getting at with all of this is that at the end of the day exercises alone don’t matter. Exercises are simply tools that help people accomplish what was never thought possible. Though some tools are more bad-ass than others (i.e. Squats, Deadlifts, Klokov Presses, etc.), you need the right tool for the job and it has to be used properly.

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There are many different tools at our disposal and though the barbell is the most versatile, I don’t want you to get hung up on specific exercises.

If I told you I had two identical clients, both able to Deadlift triple bodyweight, but one of them used Romanian Deadlifts to build their Deadlift and one of them used Deficit Deadlifts, would you care? Do you know which is better for building the deadlift? No, you would think they are both equally strong, and that I am a kick-ass trainer.

The best tool is the one that develops the intended qualities for the person in question.

I want you to think of the tools in your toolbox:

— How many do you have?
— Which ones are the best for developing the qualities you want to develop?
— Which ones are simply your favorites?
— Do you actually know how to use them?
— How does what you are doing in the gym help you reach your ultimate goal?

If you only have a few tools in your toolbox, I encourage you to learn some more.

If you can’t identify which ones are best for helping you build the necessary qualities I encourage you to do a bit of experimentation and see what works for you. If something doesn’t, drop it.

If you always do your favorite exercises, I encourage you to try the things you rarely do. They will probably develop the lacking qualities that are holding you back.

If you don’t know how to use some tools, ask for help – it’s what The Viking Empire is here for.

Maybe your body prefers a high-bar squat instead of a low bar squat. Maybe you need to get off the treadmill and lift a barbell. Or, maybe, you need to drop squatting altogether and start training a la Boyle.

Just keep a bottomless pit nearby to kick the naysayers into.

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Photo Sources: tirebench, squat


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