Before we go any further, I need to do some housekeeping. I forgot to add something to the Exercise Hierarchy from part one.
When I added the turnover to the hierarchy for the snatch, I forgot to include the change in foot position. As the lifter performs the third pull, they shift their feet from a deadlift stance, to a squat stance (below). Fortunately, we can update Exercise Hierarchies as we update our own knowledge. With that out of the way, let’s continue!
In part one, we learnt about the concept of an Exercise Hierarchy and used it to understand new and unfamiliar exercises. By taking something complex and defining it in simpler terms, that complexity becomes manageable. In part two, I want to show you how that process can be developed to understand the relationships between exercises. Once understood, we can apply that knowledge practically.
Due to the length of this article, I’ve decided to split it up. This one will look at defining exercise variations and the relationships between them. Part 2b will look at practical applications for that knowledge.
Defining the Exercises
The exercises we’ll be working with are overhead-press exercises: the strict press, push press, push jerk and split jerk. We’ll look at them with a barbell, then with dumbbells. We’ll start by defining the exercise I assume is the simplest, the strict press.
Defining the Strict Press
The strict press has three phases: a start position, a concentric phase (overcoming resistance) where the bar is pressed overhead, and an eccentric phase (yielding to resistance) where the bar is lowered to the shoulders.
The start position contains static triple extension (hip extension, knee extension and neutral ankles), a neutral spine, and the front-rack position. The concentric phase maintains static triple extension and a neutral spine, but drives the bar overhead with shoulder flexion and elbow extension. The eccentric phase lowers the barbell back to the front-rack position via shoulder extension and elbow flexion.
Now that the strict press is defined, we have a point of reference for the remaining exercises. Instead of creating new hierarchies from scratch, we can use the strict press as a template and modify it to define the remaining exercises. To simplify things further, I’ll just be noting the phases of each exercise, and any new elements or changes.
Defining the Push Press
The push press has the same start position as the strict press, but it doesn’t go straight to pressing the bar overhead. Instead, it begins with a sequence of eccentric and concentric phases for the lower body. To keep track of the difference, I’ll prefix those phases with ‘lower-body’ and the overhead phases with ‘upper-body.’
The lower-body eccentric phase has triple flexion (hip flexion, knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion). The lower-body concentric phase has triple extension (hip extension, knee extension and ankle plantarflexion). Both maintain a neutral spine. Once the lower-body phases are complete, the bar is pressed overhead, just like the strict press.
Defining the Push Jerk
The push jerk is similar to the push press. It has the same start position and lower-body phases. But then it gets a little complicated. It combines the upper-body concentric phase with a lower-body eccentric phase. The bar is pushed upward as the lifter moves under it. That’s followed by a lower-body concentric phase to stand up and an upper-body eccentric phase to lower the bar.
Defining the Split Jerk
The split jerk is almost identical to the push jerk. All that changes is the combined phase and the final lower-body concentric phase. The combined phase now includes a leg split to a lunge position. The final lower-body concentric phase includes a leg recovery, where the feet are brought back under the body. Then the bar is lowered as per the previous exercises.
Comparing Barbell Variations
By comparing each hierarchy we can learn how they vary and why some exercises are more challenging than others. We can also chart their progression using the heuristic from part one: holding all other variables constant (load/reps/sets/duration/speed/rest), which exercise would be more difficult to perform perfectly? The result will be an exercise progression from least complex to most complex.
We’ll start by removing anything common to all exercises. We’re not interested in what makes them the same, we’re interested in the difference between them and how that affects complexity.
All exercises share the same start position and the final upper-body eccentric phase. Once those similarities are removed, the strict press has one remaining phase.
If we compare the strict press to any of the other exercises, it’s upper-body phase would get cancelled out. That phase is shared with other exercises, or replaced by a more complex phase that includes the same elements. It’s not clear which exercise is the most complex, but the strict press is obviously the least complex.
Let’s deal with the remaining exercises. All of them share initial, lower-body phases. Once those similarities are removed, the push press is left with one phase.
Comparison of the push press with any other exercise would cause its upper-body phase to be cancelled out. Therefore, the push press is more complex than the strict press, but less complex than the remaining exercises. Only the push jerk and split jerk remain.
The split jerk builds upon the push jerk by adding a leg split and leg recovery. Because it has additional tasks to perform perfectly, the split jerk is more complex than the push jerk. It’s therefore the most complex exercise according to our heuristic. Now we have our progression.
Comparing Dumbbell Variations
If we went through the same process with dumbbells instead of a barbell, we’d end up with the same progression. Changing the equipment might add new demands to the Exercise Hierarchy, but those demands are tied to the equipment, not the exercise. Whatever those new demands are, they’ll be consistent from one exercise to the next. As a result, comparison causes the equipment-specific demands to be cancelled out, resulting in the same progression.
Comparing Barbell and Dumbbell Variations
But what if we wanted to compare the dumbbell versions to their barbell counterpart, or compare the barbell progression to the dumbbell progression? They might look identical, but anyone who’s performed a dumbbell push press knows it’s more difficult to execute perfectly than a barbell push press. To understand why, we need to look at how equipment changes the demands of an exercise. Such comparisons are best done in the context of a one-rep-max (1RM) effort, where there’s no margin for error. This makes it easier to see what a lifter can and can’t get away with during the exercise.
Performed as a 1RM, every dumbbell variation limits grip width. The load must remain over the shoulders for the lifter to maintain control. In contrast, the barbell can be controlled with a narrow or wide grip. Another difference is freedom of movement. Dumbbells can move independently of each other, whereas the barbell must move as a unit. This makes the barbell easier to control.
Once the similarities are removed, the dumbbell push press is clearly more complex. It shares all of its elements with the barbell variation, then builds upon those demands. It requires greater control and excludes anyone without the passive range of motion for a narrow grip.
Comparing Barbell and Dumbbell Progressions
What if we wanted to compare a dumbbell push press to a barbell push jerk? We’ve established that a push jerk is more complex than a push press, but dumbbell variations are more complex than their barbell counterparts. So far, more complex exercises have built upon the demands of their peers. But now we’re comparing exercises whose demands diverge instead of accumulate.
The barbell push jerk introduces phases that aren’t present in the push press. The dumbbell push press introduces range of motion and stability demands that aren’t present in the push jerk. Even after the similarities are removed, it’s an unfair comparison with regard to complexity.
To compare the two exercises we’d need to make a value judgement relative to a specific individual. What will they find more challenging? Which demands matter most to the individual and their goals?
In this article we’ve developed the concept of an Exercise Hierarchy to help us understand the relationships between exercises. We started by picking a collection of exercise variations, then created a detailed hierarchy for the one we assumed was the simplest. This let us avoid the laborious and unnecessary task of defining each exercise in detail. We used that hierarchy as a point of reference and modified it to define the remaining exercises.
With each exercise defined, we compared them to learn how they vary and why some are more challenging than others. We also rank ordered their progression, from least complex to most complex, using the heuristic from part one.
Then we looked at how equipment changes the demands of an exercise and how that affects complexity. Doing so in the context of a 1RM made it easier to see what a lifter can and can’t get away with during the exercise.
Finally, we looked at what happens when exercise demands diverge instead of accumulate. In terms of complexity, divergent demands result in an unfair comparison. To compare them, you need to make a value judgement relative to a specific individual. What will they find more challenging? What demands matter most to that individual and their goals?
In part 2b we’ll look at how we can apply that knowledge practically. Hopefully it won’t take me another year to publish it!
~ The Critical Coach
P.S. If you enjoyed this, please share it with someone else.