How to Substitute Exercises Like a Pro

Stacked Kettlebell Clean

People often ask me different variations of the same question: “How can I substitute this exercise for something else?”. You may also be in such situation (and, additionally, I get really bored to type the same thing over and over), that is why I decided to address this problem with whole article. Besides, I have couple of interesting things to tell (or not).

Who Is This Article for?

This information is for people that fall into one of the following categories:

  • You travel and often find yourself in sub-optimal environment for strength training (gyms with 2 kg dumbbells);
  • You want to use certain training implement, but don’t want to screw your program up;
  • You want to try certain program, but don’t have all the necessary implements;
  • You are just curious.

First of all you need to understand…

Basic Exercise Categories

There is a good article about exercise categories on this blog. It is a guest post by Logan Christopher. You can check it out here.

For those of you who are lazy and/or short on time, I’ll give a brief summary: you can categorize any exercise in any program. There are different approaches and I can’t possibly cover them all. However, I’ll give you my version instead.

First of all, you need to detect compound exercises. It is easy. Compound exercises are the ones that involve more than one joint into action. For example, Bench Press. Joint #1 is shoulder, joint #2 is elbow. Other examples are Pull-Up, Deadlift, Swing, Military Press, Squat, Bent-Over Row etc. In short, compound exercises are the ones that give you most bang for the buck, the ones you lift most weight in.

Then you need to put them into one of the following categories:

  • Upper Body Horizontal Push – any multi-joint exercise where your body is parallel to the ground and you are pushing the resistance away from yourself with arms. Examples: Bench Press, Push-Up, Kettlebell Floor Press etc.
  • Upper Body Vertical Push – any multi-joint exercise where your body is perpendicular to the ground and you are pushing the resistance away from yourself with arms. Examples: Military Press, Handstand Push-Up; Dips etc.
  • Upper Body Horizontal Row – any multi-joint exercise where your body is parallel to the ground and you are pulling the resistance to yourself with arms. Examples: Bent-Over Row, Front Lever Pull-Ups etc.
  • Upper Body Vertical Row – any multi-joint exercise where your body is perpendicular to the ground and you are pulling the resistance to yourself with arms. Examples: Pull-Ups, Inverted Pull-Ups etc.

[With lower body everything is a bit trickier. Powerlifting-Style Squat is close to deadlifting and Sumo Stance Deadlift is close to squatting. The edge may be blurred. However, let’s try to differentiate them somehow]

  • Lower Body Push (Squatting) – any lower body multi-joint exercise where legs perform most of the work. Examples: Squats, Pistols etc.
  • Lower Body Pull (Deadlifing) – any lower body multi-joint exercise where lower back performs most of the work. Examples: Deadlift, Good Morning, Swing.

Here are several additional thoughts. Firstly, body position may be different with exercise machines. You should implement the knowledge above and use some logic to determine the category. It is not that hard. Secondly, you can use vertical and horizontal exercises interchangeably. Thirdly, exercises like Muscle-Up or Clean & Jerk can’t be classified to only one category. You have to experiment with them to be able to place them in program right. My tip would be to classify them according to the hardest part. For example, the hardest part for me in Muscle-Up is pull (aside from transition, of course), so I would train it as Upper Body Vertical Pull.

After you finished searching for compounds, every other exercise would be isolation move or, in other words, single-joint exercise. Usually it is some sort of curl, triceps extension, leg raise etc. As a rule, isolation exercises are inferior to compounds. However, it is not always true. Good example of exception would be real Glute-Ham Raise.

There is no big point in dividing isolation moves further. However, here is a brief chart:

  • Arm Curls
  • Arm Extensions
  • Leg Curls
  • Leg Extensions
  • Abs
  • Lower Back
  • Calves
  • Forearms
  • Shoulder Raises etc.

In addition, it should be noted that I used classification of the exercises that are in reach of mere mortals (who fall into one of the categories from the beginning of the article). With advanced gymnastic moves everything is not that simple. For example, lowering from Ring Planche to Ring Maltese involves only one joint, but this exercise will kick ass of any elite-level strength trainee.

And another thing with bodyweight strength training that you want to consider is static positions. I would define them as compound rather than isolation moves due to their complexity and difficulty.

How to Substitute Exercises for Their Analogues

Finally the fun part. If you weren’t lazy and made the analysis, now you can just drop one exercise and replace it with the other from its category given the intensity is similar. Bench Press can become Push-Up, Dumbbell Military Press can become Kettlebell Military Press, Barbell Squats can become Sandbag Zercher Squat, Barbell Power Clean can become Sandbag Shouldering etc.

Sometimes it won’t be easy to save the intensity as is, but you should do your best. This article can help you.

Will It Have the Same Effect?

That’s tricky question. Of course, Kettlebell Bench Press is not the same as Barbell Bench Press; Sandbag Clean is not the same as Barbell Power Clean etc. However, what would you choose: whining and making excuses about how hard your life is because you don’t have a barbell or actually training?

The Concept of Resistance

Another interesting thought I want to concentrate on is the concept of resistance. With calisthenics sometimes it is hard to understand whether you are progressing or standing still. You know, I’m talking about that situation when you change the exercise and not sure whether it is harder or not. For example, you were working on Incline Perfect One-Arm Push-Up and moved to 2-finger Sliding Perfect One-Arm Push-Up due to plateau in the former. It is hard to say what exercise is more difficult because they are quite different. Here is when the concept of resistance is really handy. The exercise where you can do less reps is harder. Boom! This is simple and effective.

Example Program

And, of course, this article is not awesome without some practice. Let’s see what I can find with google…

Search term “awesome training program” returns this article as first result. Mass, MOAR MASS! So here is the program:

Barbell Squats: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Leg Extensions: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Lying Leg Curls: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Dumbbell Pullovers: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Military Press: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Seated Cable Rows: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Barbell Bench Press: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Barbell Curls: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Seated Triceps Press: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Pullups: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Bench Dips: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Standing Calf Raises: 1 Set Of 8-12 Reps

Crunches: 1 Set Of 10-15 Reps

Let’s assume you want to try this, but don’t have all the necessary equipment. For example, you have couple of kettlebells, you made a sandbag and you know how to use back pack. Your version can look something like this:

Double Kettlebell Squats: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Sissy Squats: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Assisted Glute-Ham Raise: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Sandbag Pullovers: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Handstand Push-Ups: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

One-Arm Kettlebell Bent-Over Row: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Assisted One-Arm Push-Up: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Towel Curls with Kettlebell: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Sandbag Seated Triceps Press: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Pullups: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Bench Dips: 1 Set Of 8-10 Reps

Standing Calf Raises: 1 Set Of 8-12 Reps

Hanging Leg Raises: 1 Set Of 10-15 Reps (fuck those pathetic crunches)

Done. Example program is adjusted. Do I recommend using this particular routine? Not really.

Closing Thoughts

If you read this far, then now you have the secret super power to use any program with any equipment you have. That’s another nail in the coffin of your excuses. Thanks for reading.

Play rough!

Alex

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7 thoughts on “How to Substitute Exercises Like a Pro

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  4. Modsisu

    Hey Alex,
    First,I would like to thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge.All the roughstrength knowledge changed my training for the better.

    Second,I have two questions for you,
    1.Do you know if it’s possible to train an exercise from the Upper body Vertical push(or row)
    the day after I trained an exercise from the Upper body Horizontal push(or row) and still make progress in each?
    2. and if you do,can you tell me?

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Hey Modsisu,

      Thanks for kind words.

      Regarding your question, you have to try. I can’t possibly know whether you will be able to progress or no. If you implement this and keep getting stronger in both exercises session after session, then it works. Otherwise, it doesn’t.

      – Alex

      Reply
  5. Christopher Wood

    Gymnasts make the distinction between straight and bent arm strength, so for instance the categories “straight arm push” and “bent arm push”. Why don’t you use these? They seem more fundamental in terms of practical strength than vertical/horizontal, and they aren’t isolation exercises.

    Reply

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