Imagine you are walking up the gym to train. You tear the door off the hinges, chug some pre-workout (coffee with a little protein being my personal preference), and pull out your phone to load up your Power Athlete program of choice. After hitting a warm-up and some movement prep, you head to the dumbbell rack to start the main movement of the day, a heavy dumbbell bench. You grab the 100s, and are pumped to find that they are flying through the ceiling on each rep. These aren’t going to cut it for a heavy set of 5. You’ve reached the end of the rack. What do you do?
Or…you’re a coach, programming for athletes remotely. You love the belt squat, but know that most of your athletes will be training with limited equipment in the garage, or at the globo gym. Without an engineering degree and trip to Home Depot, the belt squat just isn’t an option. What do you do?
In either case, to quote one philosopher, “ya done messed up, A-a-ron!” You’ll need to call in a substitute for the movement in question. Scroll through the message feed on any one of Power Athlete’s programs, and amongst all the encouragement and trash talking, you’re guaranteed to find multiple questions along the lines of “I don’t have X, is Y a good substitute for Z?”
Rather than present a prescriptive table of movements and potential substitutions, let’s use the Power Athlete Methodology to develop a principle-based framework for making such decisions.
NOTE: This approach is only useful in the context of training a well-designed program. If your goal is just to exercise, then exercise substitutions don’t really matter. Just go to the gym and get sweaty. If your goal is to enter a stress-recovery-adaptation cycle (training), then you’ll want your session to elicit a stimulus as close to the intentions of your program as possible. Read on.
To start, we need to take a step back and consider why we are doing any of this in the first place. Why do we lift? Adding load to movements allows us to challenge a set of postures and positions. Any exercise substitution should aim to challenge the same postures and positions as the prescribed lift. This is why most of the time, for example, the leg extension is a poor substitute for a back squat. While both require contraction of the quads, sitting in a cushioned seat while thumbing through Instagram is a much different posture and position than squatting and standing up again with the weight of the world on your back.
Using this mindset, we need to think of the exercises in our program as movements, rather than the muscles required to complete them. Forget about “leg day” or your “bench session”. Instead,consider which of our seven primal movement patterns (squat, step, lunge, vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull) you are challenging on each rep.
Once we’ve decided which of the primal movements to focus on, we need to ask: why was the original movement prescribed? What purpose does it serve in my training? What physiological adaptation is the exercise attempting to drive? Depending on the volume, load, and intent, we can use the same exercise to develop power, strength, or hypertrophy, or the development of glycolytic or aerobic capacity. Consider the clean and jerk. Performed on a weightlifting platform it’s about developing power, but performed as part of a lengthy set to exhaustion, it becomes an attempt to develop “increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains”. Stay true to the objective of your program by using your exercise substitution to pursue a similar training stimulus. This concept, aka the SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) principle, is a cornerstone of the Power Athlete Methodology.
Posture, Position, & Range of Motion
In addition to using the same primal movement to challenge the same posture and position, does the exercise substitution you are considering allow for a similar range of motion as the prescribed lift? Again, this is a place where many machine-based exercises fall short. A lying hamstring curl and an RDL both “work the hammies”, but the RDL does so by extending the hip, not by flexing the knee. The posture, position, and range of motion are totally different.
Volume & Load
In pursuit of a training stimulus to preserve the intended adaptation, does the exercise substitution allow you to mimic the volume prescribed? The sets and reps in your program are written to deliver a specific stimulus. The desired adaptive response to each exercise will be achieved only if your effort is constrained to a specific volume and load. For example, performing 50 box jumps for time is a much different stimulus than a 3×3 max effort box jump, even though the movement is superficially similar. The former taxes glycolytic capacity, while the other is an expression of power.
While matching the volume with our exercise substitution, we must also seek to apply a similar load. In most cases, the volume and load will be inversely related, but this really depends on the exercise selection. A single pistol squat standing on a bosu ball might be just as difficult as a 1RM back squat, but the ability to load the latter will lead to an entirely different training stimulus.
Everything is a Compromise
As was true with the 2015 version of Point Break, the remake is rarely as good as the original. More often than not, substitutions will require compromise. Apply the framework below to guide decisions where compromises should be made. Revisiting one of our initial scenarios, if I’m looking for a heavy set of 5 on the dumbbell bench, I might assume that this movement and rep range is meant to develop strength in the horizontal press. In this case, I could look to a swiss bar, or even a barbell, loaded to achieve that rep range. While the prescribed dumbbells add the additional challenge of instability, we can sacrifice this feature of the movement to keep the reps heavy.
Do I Really Need a Substitute?
A final point worth making here is that because exercise substitution is ultimately a game of compromise, it’s worth asking: is this an exercise I see myself using frequently? If so, consider fixing the problem by being creative with what you have (which might also require tapping into your inner MacGuyver and that trip to Home Depot), or opening up your wallet to purchase a new piece of equipment.
1. Which of the primal movement patterns (squat, step, lunge, vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull) am I challenging with this exercise?
2. What training stimulus is intended as a result of this exercise?
3. What posture, position, and range of motion should I be using to perform this exercise?
4. What are the prescribed volume and load?
Which exercise substitution allows me to challenge (1) and elicit (2), making the fewest number of compromises in (3 & 4)?
Don’t eliminate exercises from a well-designed program due to a lack of equipment, or blindly ask your gym bro for another movement to “work the legs”. Let SAID be your guide. By understanding the purpose of each exercise included in your program and using the framework above to choose where compromises are best made, we can make intelligent choices as we unlock our athletic potential, regardless of the equipment available to us.
Are you looking to apply a principle-based approach to ALL aspects of your training? Dive into our Methodology Course at the Power Athlete Academy for a deep dive into the foundational principles of strength and conditioning. These principles provide a basis for all of our programs here at Power Athlete, and provide you the tools you need to critically evaluate ANY system of training.
EDU: Power Athlete Methodology
BLOG: The Essential Equipment for Your Home Gym by Tex McQuilkin
BLOG: Principles of Training: Science vs. Practice by Tex McQuilkin
BLOG: Drive Adaptation, Enhance Performance by Don Ricci
PODCAST: Prioritizing Programming with Limited Time & Equipment
MA, MEd, MS, CSCS
Block One Coach Bryce Wolcott wandered back into the weightroom over 15 years ago as he began his career as a high school science teacher and wrestling coach. In addition to promoting scientific literacy in the classroom, he works with Dr. Tom Incledon at Causenta Wellness in Scottsdale, AZ as a strength coach and nutritionist. A lifelong learner, Bryce holds master’s degrees in Biology, Secondary Education, and Medical Nutrition.
Bryce utilizes the Power Athlete Methodology in the gym to optimize the performance and improve the quality of life of the diverse clientele at Causenta: from athletes to cancer patients. He also works with the doctors there to design and implement integrated nutrition and supplement strategies for clients, based on an extensive panel of biomarker tests.
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