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Exercise Selection: How to Use the Sensory to Intensity Spectrum

Sep 24, 2020

Have you ever gotten stuck when trying to choose what exercise to do?

You're staring at dozens of options, but don't know which one will do the trick…

  • Should I do a back squat? What about a front squat? Or maybe a zercher squat? Or how about a hack squat?
  • Should I do something unilateral or bilateral?
  • Should I worry more about load, velocity, or feel?

And then once you choose one, how do you know if you've made the right choice?

Do you have an "exit strategy" in place to quickly adjust on the fly if things aren’t going well?  (This is huge if you want to choose exercises that boost performance without creating pain).

I've been doing this for years now, and even I hit this wall sometimes.

This is why I built a system to make exercise selection much easier using my sensory → intensity spectrum.

Obviously, having a strong background in anatomy and biomechanics is a prerequisite to get really good at exercise selection. Still, I'm going to teach you a system that's simple to follow and brings you close enough to the right answer.

It may not be the "perfect" answer. But you won't be off by a factor of 10.

I’ve written this post to take you behind the scenes on the proven 4 step process that I’ve used for years to choose exercises that blow up performance without making you feel like a dumpster fire. 

By the end of this article, you’ll have a complete roadmap for choosing exercises that prioritize performance without putting you in pain.

 

How to use the sensory-intensity spectrum to nail exercise selection in 4 simple steps

 

Step 1: Understand the sensory → intensity spectrum

Exercises fall on a spectrum that runs from intensity on one extreme to sensory on the other extreme.

And we can use both load and velocity as a proxy to determine where an exercise falls on the spectrum.

As load and velocity increase, you shift to the intensity side of the spectrum. As load and velocity decrease, you shift to the sensory side of the spectrum.

Here's a handy table to help with the distinction:

Pay particular attention to the example portion in the above table.

Notice how the exercises are coached and cued vastly differently?

The sensory exercise is very technique oriented with an emphasis being placed on finding and feeling abs, hamstrings, quads, and glutes. If it was an upper-body exercise, the emphasis may be on feeling abs, pecs, and triceps. The point is the same regardless:  sensory exercises are all about FEELING.

The intensity exercise, on the other hand, doesn't mention any specific muscle groups. It's all about generating as much force and velocity as possible, and when that's your focus, you won't be able to feel specific muscle groups. You'll feel everything.

Now, while you have nearly limitless options for placing exercises on the spectrum, here's a basic example to get you started.

Note how bigger, bilateral movements (i.e. where load and velocity are highest) fall toward the intensity side, while smaller, unilateral movements (i.e. where load and velocity are lowest) fall toward the sensory side.

It's important to consider that the same exercise can move across the spectrum purely based on how you decide to load, coach, and cue it.

Just think back to the example descriptions of sensory and intensity exercises. I could easily cue the SSB squat like I did the Zercher squat, thus shifting it towards the sensory side of the spectrum.

Again, you have LOTS of options here. Just focus on understanding the PRINCIPAL of the matter and everything else becomes easy.

Step 2:  Decide what the goal of the exercise is

Before we discuss "deciding what the goal of an exercise is", I think it's important to quickly zoom out and go over planning a training cycle.

Planning a training cycle is a funneling process.

You start with the big picture in mind and slowly work your way down to the specifics. 

While my categorizations in the above graphic aren't the perfect textbook answers, they at least get you to categorize training into different blocks of time.

You start thinking about the training meso. What is it you want to accomplish over the next 12-16 week period. Do you want to focus on strength, hypertrophy, power etc.?

Once you have clearly defined goals for the training meso, you can move to the training macro and begin lining up the 4-week training blocks that make up the 12-16 week meso. For example, if you want to focus on strength, then you will accumulate intensity over the course of the 12-16 weeks. Meaning weeks 1-4 may be in the 60% range while weeks 8-12 are in the 80% range. Or you can use an RPE based system and have weeks 1-4 be an 8 rep wave and weeks 8-12 be a 4 rep wave. Lots of options so hopefully you get the gist.

Once you line up your training macros, then it's about choosing the correct weekly training split for your goals. In other words, deciding how to distribute your stress load over the course of a training week. How many lift days will you have? How many conditioning days will you have? Etc..

Lastly, you come to the training day where you must assign a training day template that aligns with the overall goals of the training cycle. For example, I have different training day templates for athletes, vs powerlifters, vs bodybuilders, etc. They each have different requirements so my training day template reflects that.

The reason I wanted to briefly touch on planning a training cycle is that deciding what the goal of an exercise is takes place at the daily level. But you can't get to that level unless you've checked off the pieces higher up the funnel.

In other words, you can't plan a training day if you haven't already planned the meso, macro, and micro.

Alright, let's get back on topic and discuss choosing a goal for an exercise, and to do so, we'll use my apex athlete daily training template. 

It looks like this:

Notice how the day is broken into blocks.

There's a prep block, agility block, power block, main lift block, and accessories block.

All you have to do is ask yourself one simple question - do you want that block to be more intensity biased or more sensory biased?

And as a basic rule of thumb, you can assign 2-3 intensity sections for every training day (which I've already done for you in the above example).

Remember, these categorizations lie on a spectrum, so don't think of them as absolutes.

Once you assign an intensity or sensory bias, it becomes much easier to select an exercise.

For sensory sections, you're aiming at things that are lower load and lower velocity. Unilateral movements go really well here as well as varying stances (things like half kneeling, tall kneeling, short seated, etc.).

For intensity sections, you are dialing up load and velocity. This is not the place to be a kind human being. This is animalistic rage mode. This is go time. So, make sure you pick something that allows that to take place, and it will almost always be a bilateral movement. The only time I've used a unilateral movement here is when I have baseball players hit really heavy SSB reverse lunges (I'm talking 400 for 2/side).

Let's fill out our sample training day with exercises just to be thorough:

 Step 3:  Can you perform the exercise maintaining "the stack?"

"The stack" is your first exit strategy, and it entails setting your ribs down and tucking your hips under.

If you think of your ribs and pelvis like a mouth, you want to have a closed mouth.

Not an open one.

The ribs are the top of the mouth, and the pelvis is the bottom.

Here's what that looks like from a shape standpoint:

Notice how the ribs and pelvis are stacked nicely in the picture on the left, while they are not in the picture on the right. On the right, you are open anteriorly and closed off posteriorly. Depending on the circumstances, the picture on the right may be advantageous (i.e., max power output), but when training it's safe to always harp on the shape on the left.

The reason for this is that your arms and legs work best when you set the underlying pelvic and rib positioning. If your pelvis and ribs are off, then your arms and legs are fighting a losing battle. Granted, I'm bastarding some complex stuff here, but I feel that generalization is safe to make.

So, if you can do the exercise while maintaining "the stack," then you are good too. If you can't, then you need to do one of the following:

  • pick a different exercise
  • decrease range of motion (example:  go to your tibial tuberosity as opposed to the floor on RDL's)
  • load the exercise you chose differently (example:  anterior loading vs. posterior loading)
  • add restraints (examples:  laying on your back, giving you a wall to press into, using a heel wedge, etc.)
  • change the stance (examples:  hook lying, short seated, half-kneeling with the back knee elevated, etc.)

For more on this topic, I highly recommend reading this in-depth post on movement and position from Dr. Michelle Boland and Justin Moore.

Step 4:  How many reps can you do perfectly

This is your second exit strategy and applies primarily to sensory biased exercises. For intensity biased exercises, I care less about being perfect and more about developing big-time force or big-time velocity. Obviously, form isn't going out the window, but I grant more leeway there.

For sensory exercises, you need to change something if you nail 10/10 reps perfectly. It's too easy.

As a general rule of thumb, I want to see 7 perfect reps and 3 reps that make you work. Otherwise, you aren't being appropriately challenged.

Easy ways to ramp up a sensory exercise are:

  • Increase load
  • Increase velocity
  • Change how you load the movement (example:  move from a 1 arm 1 leg RDL to a barbell snatch grip RDL)
  • Add a perturbation or unstable load (example:  move from 70 lbs DBs to a 70 lbs pipe filled with water)
  • Change the stance (example:  move from half-kneeling to split stance)

Also, at a certain point, you will tap out the benefit of an exercise. For example, do I really care how much you goblet wall supported front foot elevated split squat? Absolutely not. Once that movement looks great, it's time to progress. In this example, I'd probably move to a Zercher loaded variation of the same movement.

In Closing

Exercise selection can be a big scary world, and there's no chance I can teach you how to get good at it in one blog post.

But, I do feel I can give you a simple system that puts you in the ballpark nine times out of ten.

And that's a win based on all the non-sense I see floating around these days.

If you’d like to go deeper, then I recommend snagging this PDF of 8 of my go-to resources to learn more about anatomy, biomechanics, movement, and exercise selection.

Now it’s your turn to use the sensory-intensity spectrum to blow up your performance without leaving you feeling like a dumpster fire. And if you have any questions, feel free to post them in our free community forum here.

About the Author

James Cerbie is the founder and head coach at Rebel Performance. He can be found lifting, drinking coffee, roaming in the mountains, reading research, or watching superhero movies. He occasionally posts on Instagram as well.

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