Home workout builder: Part 1, how to navigate the minefield of exercise selection

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

Hey! Welcome back to week 3 of the Falconer Performance blog, as always thank you so much for taking the time to come to the site and read through my ranting about training and I really hope you're getting good value from it.

Anyway, onto this weeks topic.

With the current situation being as it is and the incessant bombardment from fitness professionals (including myself) on your social media feeds of home workout ideas and the "best upper/lower/core body weight workouts", it can be hard to know who's advice to follow. Add to this the fact that anyone, qualified professional or not could post up a workout and claim it will do x, y and z, if you don't know what your doing you can easily end up wasting your time! Plus, while one workout may work for one person, it may be rubbish for another, depending on the goal, current fitness level and time availability.

Now, let me be clear, I am in no way discrediting anyone or claiming that this article series will provide you with the best workout ever that will have you hitting 100% of your goals. This is simply me wanting to use my knowledge gained from two exercise science degrees and over 2000 hours of coaching to try and give YOU some actionable knowledge to make informed decisions on the exercise you do.

DISCLAIMER: If you really want to get results the best thing to do is hire a coach to do this for you.

The series will be divided into 3 sections over the next 3 weeks:

1) Exercise Selection

2) Timing/structure

3) How to progress the program

I originally wanted to do it all in one article but there was too much to cover and I always want to bring you guys the best stuff!

This article (part 1/3) itself will also be split into three sections:

1) Upper, lower, core, how to divide and conquer

2) Unilateral vs bilateral

3) Changing the exercise to suit the stimulus

So if you're still with me, lets begin.

Body sections, how to divide and conquer

Exercise selection is probably the biggest minefield in fitness, simply because there are SO many exercises and SO many different ways to do them...

For that reason let's start this article then by trying to distil the information slightly, by categorising exercises by body area:

1) Lower body: Any exercise where the prime mover is located at or below the hip

Anatomical view of the lower body

2) Upper body: Any exercise where the prime mover is located above the sternum and below the


Anatomical view of the upper body

3) Core: Any exercise where the prime mover is below the sternum or above the hip

Anatomical view of the core

When doing any workout these are the three key areas that you want to target. You can split them up further by body part etc. but lets not - you don't need to go into that sort of detail right now.

With that in mind, lets cover the first point, what do we want to work? Lower body? Upper body? Core? All of the above? Well, the more muscle mass we use in a workout the bigger and better the overall stimulus we achieve. With that train of thought, I would recommend that most of the body weight workouts you do are either full body (all 3) or a two part combo. This will mean that you're getting as many muscles as possible involved and therefore getting the most "bang for you buck" out of the workout.

Unilateral vs bilateral

Now we've sorted the issue of what to work, lets talk about how we work those areas and how we make them as challenging and beneficial as possible with body weight. So the next step is to split the body sections into bilateral (both arms/legs together) and unilateral (one arm/leg at a time). This is because using unilateral exercises is a great way to even out imbalances in the body, plus using only one side makes everything much harder!

SIDE NOTE: You can't split core exercises into uni/bilateral, so we are going to split them into isometric/dynamic. More on this later.

In my opinion, you should mainly favour unilateral lower body exercises when training body weight. This is because the lack of external load makes it difficult to stress the body, so using one leg instead of two means we can double the load we can achieve. Obviously bilateral lower body movements definitely have their place, but for the most part use unilateral ones where you can!

One of the hardest unilateral lower body exercises is the pistol squat

However, the advice is the other way around for the upper body. As a general rule our lower body is significantly stronger than our upper body. Indeed, even when weights are available, most people have to use loads far below body weight for unilateral upper body exercises.

For this reason, I would stick to bilateral upper body movements and only incorporate unilateral movements if you have access to external load (bands/dumbbells etc.) or you usually train with very high loads in unilateral movements.

The best known bilateral upper body movement is the press-up and it's still pretty hard!

Isometric vs Dynamic Core

For core exercises, as I mentioned before, you have the option of isometric (holding still in one position) or dynamic (move the core or other elements around). Both of these types of exercises are very important for strengthening your core. Isometric holds allow you to challenge core endurance as they tend to be easier and you can do them for longer.

However, most of the time our core needs to be both stable and dynamic at the same time. Therefore you should try and incorporate dynamic movements alongside similar isometric holds. For example, a classic plank can be made dynamic by bringing the hands to touch the shoulders or lifting a foot off the floor without changing position.

While a plank is great, you need to add a dynamic element to make it functional

Changing exercise to suit the stimulus

Okay so we know how to split up our workouts into body areas and how best to challenge each area. That's it right? Well, not exactly...

With body weight training, one of the main advantages is that you can change the focus of any workout by changing how you execute the exercises. You can make it strength focused, muscle growth focused, cardiovascular focused or explosive focused.

The majority of exercises can be adjusted to fit strength/muscle growth training. However, to make a session cardiovascularly challenging or explosive, there are some caveats that not all exercises can be adjusted to fit.

Cardiovascular work for example needs short rest periods and high volume to induce heart rates of above 85% max (click the link for an article explaining why this is). This sort of exhaustive work can lead to form breakdowns if the exercise is too hard, increasing the risk of injury. Therefore, unilateral lower body exercises are probably not your best bet for a cardiovascular focused workout. Similarly, exercises and certain progressions that are hard or every advanced are not appropriate as you wouldn't be able to execute the volume required to actually stress the cardiovascular system.

Explosive work is the same, but for different reasons. Most people struggle to produce force explosively in the first instance. This is usually down to poor movement patterns at a primal level (squat, hinge, lunge, twist, push, pull) and causes dysfunctional coordination of muscle activation that can again lead to injuries, especially in uncontrolled rapid attempts at force production.

In this sense, it is again sensible to stay away from unilateral exercises if you are a beginner. Moreover, upper body exercise in general is not suited to explosive force production. This is because explosive force relies heavily on the presence of fascia in the muscle (tendons etc.) and the upper body muscles have significantly less fascia than the lower body muscles.