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On today’s episode, I address one of the most commonly asked questions in all of strength and conditioning and that is the question of “What is the single best exercise for performance gains?”. I receive this question or some other variation of this question all of the time. I understand that people’s curiosity of this question is brought on by trying to make sense of the overwhelming amount of information in the performance world and that is why I wanted to do an episode covering this topic.

Topics covered:

· Understanding the programming of a particular athlete based on athlete’s needs

· Understanding the specific program and movements involved

· Why an exercise is not delivering performance gains

· How an exercise should be applied

· No program comes down to one exercise

· Integration of an exercise program

· Understanding situation, circumstance, and setting of an athlete


Brett Bartholomew  00:00

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Brett Bartholomew  01:54

Welcome to the Art Of Coaching podcast, a show aimed at getting to the core of what it takes to change attitudes, behaviors and outcomes in the weight room, boardroom, classroom and everywhere in between. I’m your host, Brett Bartholomew, I’m a performance coach, keynote speaker, and the author of the book, Conscious Coaching. But most importantly, I’m a lifelong student interested in all aspects of human behavior, and communication. I want to thank you for joining me and now let’s dive into today’s episode.


Brett Bartholomew  02:29

Hey, welcome back to another episode of The Art Of Coaching podcast. I’m your host, Brett Bartholomew, this one’s going to be a quick one today. But it’s going to touch on a really important topic and something that I feel or I find rather comes up again and again. And again. Anytime I do ask me anything, send in your questions. Anytime we do some kind of q&a, whether it’s on Instagram Live, whether it’s on another form of social media, whether it’s at a conference, whether it’s at a clinic, I would do as far as saying this is one of the most commonly asked questions in all of strength and conditioning. And it continues to repeat itself time and time again. 

So I wanted to make sure and do an episode on it. Because what I found is, no matter how many times I would answer it in the comments, no matter how many times I’d answer it just in any form whatsoever, it would come up multiple times. And you would think that you’d put out a video, and you know that okay, like I’ve said my piece on that. And I think that’s pretty clear. I’ve tried to make it as clear as possible. 

But what I found and I continue to learn about today’s day and age is that information just comes so fast that people that oftentimes they never go back and watch these videos. You know, whether it’s somebody asked me a question the other day, and I had a YouTube video on it, podcasts on it, I have an article on it. And what I’m finding is it gets to be a real struggle to help people make sure that they’re going back and finding these things. 


Brett Bartholomew  03:47

And so, you know, it’s just one of those things that you have to do better as a practitioner and a teacher. So we’re gonna address it today, once and for all. And this question is, and it’s some variation of this every time. Coach, what is the single best exercise for performance gains? Now variations of this might include what’s the single best exercise for strength? What’s the single best exercise for blank, right? But it’s always the same variation, or some kind of variation of what is the best exercise for or what is better this exercise versus that exercise? So here’s my take on this listen up. So first off, people that ask this question, though, you know, what’s the one exercise or the best exercise are missing the big picture? Now, before you get mad? I understand that when you’re asking this, and if you’re asking this, that you’re usually trying to make sense of what can be an overwhelming amount of information in the performance world, and it’s a common question and it’s warranted, the curiosity is warranted. So this isn’t going to be a bash session. Don’t worry about that. But there are some things you need to really think about before you ask this question or when you ask this question, right. 


Brett Bartholomew  04:55

So one, no matter what the research says, an exercise that may be great for one person may be totally inappropriate for somebody else based on their medical history, their training experience or training age, anthropometry movement capabilities, the setting they’re in, the equipment they have access, to the supervision they’re under any of these things. So even if you read a study saying back squats improve sprint speed or vertical jump, you need to understand that is only if they are performed and programmed correctly. It’s  literally contingent on you know, are you able to do these things? Well, I mean, high school weight rooms, and just weight rooms in general are littered with people that read in a magazine or a research article or heard a coach sometime talk about how great a certain exercise is, and so what do they do, they’re doing it with terrible form, with a ton of weight. And again, and again and again and again. And then they sit there and they wonder why they’re not getting performance gains. Because there’s nothing magical about an exercise in and of itself. It’s about how that’s applied, and how that’s carried out. So, you know, understand that these things have to be not only programmed correctly, but they need to be under the supervision of a qualified coach. And that’s something that is even a bigger issue in our field. So many people, you know, people don’t really reach out to lawyers or licensed professions and just say, hey, what’s the one law I should follow? You know, what’s, what’s the one law should follow? What’s the one tooth I should brush? I use these examples a lot. Because people strength and conditioning is not really viewed as a profession, people kind of just think it’s this kind of hobby or side craft, where if they asked you to, hey, create a program for me, or hey, do this, that it’s so easy, and you’ve got to understand these contexts, contextual factors matter. 


Brett Bartholomew  06:44

Now, the next point, no program, and I’m going to repeat this several times, because I do think it’s gotta be just etched into the airwaves here, no program ever comes down to just one exercise. So if I had $1, for every time I answered this, hey, if you had one exercise, guys, no program will ever come down to one exercise. It won’t. Now if you’re saying, hey, I only got 10 minutes, what should I do? Okay, then maybe we could have that question. But it’s still contingent on a lot of different factors. And we’re going to explain them here. But great programs work in an integrated manner, right? It’s like a recipe, it’s not just one ingredient, it’s how well does that ingredient match up with another ingredient, the type of meat that you’re cooking with, the type of cooking you’re doing in general, not all foods tastes? Well, if they’re saw, or as good sauteed as they would smoked, not every food, you know, is going to be paired with the right kind of sauce or side dish. And so no program ever, they got to work in an integrated fashion. So for example, if we say cleans are great for improving vertical jump, well, that end result not only depends on the velocity of that clean the load, you’re using, again, the technical proficiency, everything that we mentioned in the first piece, but it also depends on what you surround it with in the rest of the program. If you’re doing cleans, and you’re doing really well at the right velocities that correspond to vertical jump gains, shown to the research, you know, you’re coached up, everything’s locked in, but the rest of the program is shit. I mean, just crap exercises, high volume, incorrect form, then you are going to degrade the positive performance benefits of that. That’s a little bit of tautology, you’re gonna, you’re gonna degrade the benefits of that clean. So it’s great if like, Alright, hey, your cleans look great. But man, why are you doing five sets of 30 calf raises? And then why are you doing box jumps for a minute and a half straight? And then why are you doing it like, and it sounds unbelievable, but you’d be surprised. So it’s got it’s not just what exercise you’re doing. It’s what are the complementary exercises and training methods you’re doing around with it? And I really do think that food analogy is a good one, if that’s still confusing to you. 


Brett Bartholomew  09:04

Now, what’s best also depends on other forms of context, such as logistics, I was once asked, and it was just recently, you know, would you teach conventional deadlifts to college football players? Well, a question like this can never be answered in a blind yes and no type fashion, because no other information about these players was given, nor was anything related to their experience of training. You know, have they done deadlifts in the past? How much time does that you know, do you have as a coach to teach them you know, do you have 60 minutes you have 30 minutes? What are the goals of the session? What are the goals of the program? So for example, you know, a better question if you’re trying to get a take, let’s just use this example. You would reach out to a coach and say, hey, Coach, I work with collegiate athletes, these guys their training age average training age is pretty high. They’ve been exposed to a wide range of exercises, cleans, deadlifts, RDL squats. You know, we have a couple guys that are rob, for the most part, I would say about 90% of the team is pretty solid. We have five assistants on staff. And you know, we’re just debating whether deadlifts would be worth, you know, adding into the program. 


Brett Bartholomew  10:10

Now, keep in mind, Coach, you know, we’re in season right now, most of our guys are cleared, we’re not going to have anybody that’s got, you know, a pathology or let’s say some kind of just really bad spinal issue and things like that deadlift, but we’re just looking for, for the team in general, do you think those progressions are worth exploring? Now think how much more context-rich that question is, you’ve talked about the type of assistance you have, you’re talking about the time of year, because obviously, you know, it’s like, are we going to spend a lot of time teaching new things or introducing new things in season? No. Because in season, we need to make sure that the athletes aren’t excessively sore, we need to make sure that we’re really strategizing and making sure that we’re not introducing things that could possibly throw off what they’re doing in practice or games. And we know if we do introduce a new exercise or new new modality, especially if we do it haphazardly, that can degrade their play in season. In season is not the time to experiment with a bunch of new stuff. And so, if you’re asking these questions, you have to ask them in a fashion that is really complete. Otherwise, you’re gonna get an answer from a coach. It’s like, I mean, I don’t know, you know, like, what, tell me more about these athletes and, and the internet, you know, especially on social media sites isn’t really the place to always have those discussions. 


Brett Bartholomew  11:25

Because coaching really is complex, guys, there’s so much that, you know, you have to learn to ask the right questions if you want better answers. So, you know, in this context, it’s like, first of all, let’s talk about deadlifts. Because I’ve taught deadlifts in large groups, I’ve taught them in small groups, you know, like and I’m a big, I believe in I talked about this on my Instagram. You know, I don’t really get into these debates of you teach. You know, are you more power lifting base? Are you gonna teach more weightlifting exercises, guys, I’ll use cleans, I’ll you snatches, I’ll use chains on deadlifts, I’ll use chains and bands on squats, I’ll do, it depends on the athletes that I’m working with and where we’re at with those progressions and what their capability is. But you know, I’ve worked with baseball players at the collegiate level that we did clean grip deadlift, and we also did cleans, you know, there are some coaches that think, Well, I’m not going to do, why would if I’m already doing clean poles and cleans, why would I do deadlift? And so if that’s really what you’re getting at with that question, you need to mention that as well. But I’m telling you, if you just reach out and say, hey, I’m working with female tennis players at the division one level, should I teach them how to front squat, you have to expect an answer that you’re going to be really disappointed with? Because you’re in actuality, not asking a good enough question. You have to say, hey, I’m working with female athletes at the division one level, the majority of them are international in origin. And I would say only, maybe, I don’t know, 2 out of the 12 are fairly experienced at the intermediate level in the weight room, I’m looking at teaching them blank exercise. This is why, you know, how can I go about doing this in the most effective manner? And what time of year should that be? That’s a more clear question. 


Brett Bartholomew  13:07

But ultimately, you need to do that research. And you need to figure out, you know, it’s fine to get another coach’s take. But that coach still is going to be limited to some degree on what they can tell you not just for ethical reasons, guys, but also legal. And I say ethical, because at the end of the day, somebody you’re asking that over the internet is trusting that you’re giving them factual evidence, and that what you view as an intermediate trainee, and that example, really is meeting the guidelines of an intermediate trainee. Because if somebody asked me that, I’d say, Okay, well, what strength standards are you using to determine that that person is an intermediate trainee? And are you including the fact like, where’s their movement quality at? So you’re seeing already how this gets to be more complicated. Now, finally, let’s pretend in a make believe world that there was just one best thing to do for everything. I’m going to entertain that for a moment, let’s  imagine there’s the one best thing you can do for your athletes nutrition or your own nutrition. Let’s imagine there’s the one best thing you can do for sleep and enhancing sleep quality. Let’s imagine there’s the one best exercise or training modality that you could do in the weight room or on the field or court to, you know, doing all that. Let’s just imagine everything did come down to just one thing. And we had these five, four or five categories where we’re doing that one thing that is the absolute best? 


Brett Bartholomew  14:28

Well, the issue is we heard at some point then failed to get an adaptation from doing that one thing, because our body is gonna get used to it. It’s the exact nature of the said principle and adaptation and training to begin with. You can’t always do the same exercise, you can’t always eat the same things. You can’t always have these even recovery modalities. You can’t do all these things and expect the same end result. You know why? Because the body is really really, really good at adapting. As a matter of fact, it’s so good at adapting the human body and just the nervous system in general. It’s how we’ve survived for millennia. And we’ve survived under some really, really dangerous, volatile conditions that far exceed anything that’s going on in sport training, and all this stuff. So, you know, by definition, when people are trying to seek out these one things, one, you know, it’s like, guys, to a degree, it also comes off as laziness, you know, you think that you’re asking for what’s most effective, so I don’t waste my time. 


Brett Bartholomew  15:31

But you need to understand that, like, that’s the problem with this hack mentality, you actually shouldn’t be wasting your time, discovering and experimenting things at certain points in your career. That’s why you need to be training yourself, you know, like, coaches learn things through finding out what doesn’t work, not just what does work. And that’s what’s scary to me about Coach Development right now is all this information and data we have now is supposed to be making what we do more clear and easy to understand. But what we’re finding because people can cherry pick data, people can cherry pick it to support articles, they write training methods, people can cherry pick data, you know, to do whatever they want. There’s a proliferation of data out there. And so all of this data, and all of these resources, I find, are actually creating more confusion. Because we have coaches that are like, alright, I need to listen to every podcast, I need to do all this. And what are they not doing, they’re not training. I found out what worked and didn’t work through training myself, through working with healthy athletes and non healthy athletes. I’ve talked about it before, on the podcast, there were certain methods that I used to just crap on. And then I’d work with an athlete who had a TBI, traumatic brain injury, I’d work with an amputee, I’d work with somebody from another country, I’d work with something that like even if the research said something, for some reason, it didn’t hold up with these people. And I had to find a different way around that. And this is, again, why you have to also be really critical about the research that you’re reading, because you need to understand those are controlled environments. And many of those research articles are just looking at one isolated variable, they’re looking at one variable. And so by definition, some of the training that they’re doing isn’t going to carry over into what you actually do, or what the realities of a weight room are, like under a certain amount of constraints. 


Brett Bartholomew  17:21

Now, let’s clear this up too, because we got to wrap a bow on it. We talk about context, a lot in coaching. And this is a big thing that I dive into in my workshops. So you know, I’m not going to write a book on it here metaphorically in the podcast, and I’m not going to go super deep, but it like, through the nature of this what’s the best exercise best drill best, whatever question. When coaches say it depends on context, or it just depends, in general, what do they mean? Well, let’s first define context. And this is an empirical definition of context. And it’s got my spin on it as well, because the empirical definition is way longer than it needs to be in some circumstances. But what context boils down to is the situation, circumstances and setting in which an event occurs, right? So like, when you ask a question of, hey, Coach, what’s the best exercise? If you’ve left out the context, which is again, the situation circumstances and setting which an event occurs? You’re going to get a really crappy general answer, or like I and I don’t want to be rude. I’m not trying to be an ass. But I just, I’m getting to the point where I’m not going to answer that question in general, like, why I’m doing this podcast right now is because I’ve answered it so many times that I feel like, right, this is how I’m going to finally wrap this bow on it. 


Brett Bartholomew  18:39

So you might even be somebody that’s asked me this three or four times on Instagram, and I love you to death, and I’m grateful for your follow. But you’re gonna get this message sent to you the podcast link if you ask that. So when I consider that I would say, hey, here’s the situation, I’m working with an athlete that is in a return to play type scenario, they have been cleared. For most forms of loading both bilateral and unilateral in the lower body. I want to make sure that I’m adhering to best practices, given the fact that I only have a limited time with this athletes say 30 minutes and unlimited budget, or I only have access to body weight vests and some dumbbells. What are some things that you think I should be doing and not omitting? Now I’ve explained the situation or return to play athlete circumstances. I don’t have a whole lot of time with them, setting I’ve given advice about the things I have access to what it is, you know, all these pieces, you know, and then we’re good. Now, that also could be a bad example, because you shouldn’t ask for medical advice from people that don’t know that. But I’m just giving you an idea of the context. You have to define the situation, circumstances and setting in which you’re doing so if you say hi, I’m a 14-year-old lineman because this is a question I got the other day as well. And I’m trying to gain weight. What should I do? Well , I don’t know, what are you doing already? You know? And like, are you eating? Because you want to start with eating if you’re if you’re if you want to gain weight, you know. And then somebody also said, a common question is, hey, I’m going to the gym every day and not making gains. What’s up with this? Well, what are you doing in the gym, you know, are like, what’s your nutrition? Like, think about how vague these things look like, I couldn’t reach out to any of these professions that I said earlier. Think of any other licensed professional. If I just call a dentist and say, hey, my teeth hurt, why? Or I reach out to a doctor and say, I woke up with a cough, can you give me medication? That person’s gonna say, No, I’m not just gonna prescribe you some random medication, what accompanies the cough? Do you have a runny nose? Like, is there phlegm? Is there this like, you might need to come in and get checked out. But people get annoyed by this? Because really, what they’re saying is, hey, I want this answer now. And if you don’t give it to me in the way that I want, it answered, and as quickly as I wanted answered, and bottom line, if you also don’t confirm what I really want you to say, I’m going to be angry, because we do see that as well. 


Brett Bartholomew  21:04

A lot of coaches reach out and they’re just asking these things, because they want you to confirm if what you’re if what they’re doing is right. So they would love nothing more than to say, hey, Coach, so and so said, we shouldn’t be teaching deadlifts coach, so and so said, we should be doing this. And this is how a lot of issues start in the field and a lot of debates and misunderstandings. Now, when we look at types of contexts, because this can help you answer better questions already, remember, we talked about context is the situation circumstances and setting which an event occurs. So what are types of contexts? And I’m telling you this, just so you can add these when you guys ask questions, or when you’re looking just for better answers. In general, there’s the physical context, there’s the cultural context, there’s situational context, temporal, which is timing related, or time in general, there’s the relational and social context. And then there’s emotional context. And depending on your workplace, whether you’re in a corporate realm or in, or whether you’re in the performance field, in general, these things are gonna mean different pieces to you, you know, if you’re, if you’re a coach, a strength coach, the physical context could be relating to once again, hey, I have an athlete with these kinds of physical limitations, the cultural context would be, hey, my sport coach doesn’t want us doing Olympic lifts. Because he thinks that they’re too violent. I dealt with that I had a men’s golf coach who said he didn’t like the Olympic lifts, he thought they were “football lifts”. So that’s an example of like, the culture of that setting. The situational context is, hey, I have an athlete that is socially withdrawn. And it’s, he’s been injured in the weight room a lot before. And so, you know, it’s hard to teach him things because he’s really apprehensive. That’s an example of situational context. 


Brett Bartholomew  22:48

Temporal context would be, hey, I only got 15 minutes, I only got 20 minutes. It’s end season, it’s offseason, you know, that’s an example of temporal context. Relational or social could be hey, you know, I have a quick question, I have a co-worker, and you know, we’re kind of competing for the same job and it’s bled over into the workplace a little bit, you know, he’s not always helpful, or sometimes he leaves things out in the weight room, and then he’ll tell our boss that it’s me, or it could even be, you know, the head sport coaches under pressure in the community and in the media. And, you know, therefore, they’re really squeezing what we’re doing down here. And I can tell we’re kind of being positioned to be a scapegoat, what should I do? And then the emotional context, right is hopefully pretty obvious there is that that can deal with just any emotional realities that you’re that can even deal with your own like, hey, man, I’m feeling pretty burnout at work. I can tell I’m burnout because I’m just emotionally exhausted, I’m getting a bit cynical. There’s all these things that are going on, like what tips do you have? Now think about how powerful all these types of contexts are to you guys being able to understand your environment. You know, if I were going to do an update to conscious coaching, I would have probably done an entire chapter on environmental archetypes as well. And what I mean by that is, you know, hey, I work in a setting where, you know, we’re always closely watched, everything we do is controlled, right? Or, hey, I’m in a setting where creative freedom is actually like probably one of the biggest perks, they let us do what we want. Thankfully, my boss I’m in a really learning based setting where my boss and everybody we work with really values continuing education. There are different contextual type archetypes, even as it applies to settings, not just like the one personalities that I mentioned in my book. So, you know, you see all these commonalities here and it starts to give you a bigger and better idea of why these questions can’t be answered so easily. It is not because coaches like myself or others don’t want to answer it. It’s in reality because you’re not thinking big enough picture or you’re not providing enough information. So, you know, I encourage you no matter what stage you are at your career,


Brett Bartholomew  24:56

quit thinking or quit really reaching out and say what is the one best? And, you know, what would you do if you only had one, those situations likely are not going to happen. And, you know, we talked about why remember, programming is it’s very integrated, you have to look at everything that you’re doing not just one exercise, you have to make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons at the right timing with the right people in the right situation, remember medical history, experience level, you know, their movement, quality, all these pieces, you it has to fit your logistics. And you have to remember that even if you are doing the same thing again and again and again, you may not be getting an adaptation from it anymore. You know, if you love I don’t care if tomorrow research came out and said cold plunging, is the best recovery method ever. And I’m using that as an example. We know that the research hasn’t shown that, right? Like, Are there benefits for certain things? Sure. But this is metaphorical. Let’s say it said cold plunging is the best recovery single handedly best thing ever. Well, if all you do day after day, after day after day, year, after year, after year after year is cold plunge, your body will quit getting that same systemic response. So I hope this answers this question once and for all, it very likely will not. If you’re a coach that gets this question a lot, I’d ask you to please share this podcast along with others, bookmark it, save it in your keyboard shortcuts, do whatever you can, because we do need to make sure that whether it’s interns, young coaches, even older coaches, anybody that just kind of blindly is looking for these kinds of shortcut answers hacks. And, and again, it’s not always, it’s not always laziness, sometimes people just don’t know, or they or they haven’t been taught about context, which is why I want to include that in there. But I really do hope it helps, there is never just one way to do something. In the world of performance coaching, or coaching in general, if you want a systematized and singular way of doing something, you should not work with people in the realm of human performance, because it is not predictable. It is not and you will never be able to just boil it down to one variable overall. 


Brett Bartholomew  27:10

And guys, that’s the Art Of Coaching. The Art Of Coaching, my definition of the art of coaching, is it is the ability to identify, analyze, and influence variables that impact human performance. I’ll say that again. It’s the ability to identify, analyze, and influence variables that impact human performance. If you like this, and this resonated with you make sure to check out my courses on We do online courses that are entirely self paced. We do events, clinics, workshops, all kinds of stuff, guys, and more and more of its coming out. Check out the YouTube channel I answer a lot of these questions on there too. I’m trying my best to get as much information as I can out there guys. But I can’t do without your help and your support. So please subscribe, click share, like the page. Like many of you, I have a family I have other things going on but I’m doing this stuff to try to contribute. And it’s only through your word of mouth that it’s ever going to make a difference in anybody’s lives or the field in general. Thank you and I’ll talk to you soon.

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