During my first couple years of training, I was always very much caught up in what exercises I “should” be doing. Every time I set foot in the gym I walked around with a mental list of 4-5 absolutely essential exercises that I absolutely had to do for any given body part. Every single time, no matter what, no exceptions. It’s chest day? Barbell bench, followed by incline barbell bench, followed by dumbbell flyes. It’s leg day? Better do back squats, deadlifts, and lunges.
I’m sure many of you at this point are thinking, “Well, yeah, those are all essential exercises to build your chest and a solid set of legs, so what’s the problem?” But imagine for a second you get in the squat rack and as soon as you run through your usual 135lb warm up, your hips start hurting, your knees start hurting, your lower back starts to feel tight and sore. Your form is flawless, but no matter what you try it just doesn’t feel good. So you head to the leg press and start repping out a couple plates, and everything feels awesome. Your legs respond right away with a full pump, your knees-to-chest range of motion feels effortless, and you’re able to stack those 45’s like the IHOP stacks pancakes.
So what do you do? Do you stick with your back squats because someone who was jacked once told you they’re better than the leg press for building muscle? Or do you do keep stacking those 45’s and keep that killer quad pump going?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned with my training is that your body responds better to different exercises on different days. For example, some days a straight barbell curl leaves my biceps looking like a couple of deflated balloons, while an alternating dumbbell curl makes them look like garden hoses wrapped around softballs. Other days, a barbell curl gives me such an intense pump I have to rest my arms on something because letting them hang at my sides is just too painful.
Despite what some people will tell you, the human body is not a machine. That’s why your left bicep is .0025 inches bigger than your right (don’t pretend you didn’t notice). One movement is not going to give you the same result every single time your body performs it. Does that mean you should keep doing it anyway because a Bodybuilding.com forum post told you it was what you should be doing? Of course not. Do what feels good and your body will thank you for it.
That said, it’s extremely important to learn the difference between an exercise not feeling good on a certain day and not wanting to do an exercise because it’s difficult. I’m not talking about skipping squats and doing bench press and bicep curls every day because that’s what “feels good” to you. I’m talking about listening to the queues your body is giving you and choosing the exercises that are going to allow you to stimulate a certain muscle group most efficiently on any given day.
Yes, the basics are there for a reason, and any good resistance training program should be built around those basics. But just because an exercise is labeled as “essential” doesn’t mean you need to do it if you’re able stimulate a muscle more effectively doing something else. Learn to listen to your body, choose exercises that will tune you into your mind-muscle connection, and watch your progress improve drastically.