There are many different exercise classifications; below is a list of the more common categories. They can be classified by the exercise performance, the joint movements, the moving parts of the body (kinetic chain), the type of resistance, or the physiologic goal of the exercise.
Compound exercises require at least two joints to move and therefore utilize multiple muscles (or groups of muscles). Common examples of compound movements are squats, deadlifts, bench press variations, and rowing exercises. Each of these will move at least two joints and utilize multiple muscle groups to complete the movement.
Joint movement is the likely most commonly described exercise classification. There are two ways to describe exercises by their joint movement—single-joint or multi-joint movements. Multi-joint exercises are most commonly described as “compound” movements, where single-joint movements are described as “isolation” or “isolated” movements.
The benefit of compound movements is that you will most often exercise a target muscle (or group) with heavier resistance. While resistance is not the most important factor for muscle growth, it is still a valuable piece of the puzzle. If a muscle can be exercised using a compound movement, at least one exercise in your routine for that muscle should be a compound movement.
Isolation exercises will only move a single joint and are generally used to target one muscle apart from others that perform similar actions. For example, a squat will effectively train both the quadriceps group and the gluteal muscles (namely, the gluteus maximus).
To narrow the focus down to a single target muscle group, the quadriceps, the leg extension exercise can be used. The leg extension is an isolation exercise—only moving the knee joint—and will eliminate the glute muscles from the exercise. Similar to the mention above, to maximize growth potential, your routines should likely include both compound and isolation exercises, when possible.
There are three ways to perform an exercise: using the same weight, using the same muscle length, or using the same velocity of movement. However, each exercise performance classification will elicit different results, and not all three are valuable for physique goals.
Isotonic exercises are the most common in resistance training. Isotonic simply means “same resistance” (iso- meaning “same” and -tonic in reference to the resistance.). These are exercises performed with free weights (dumbbells and barbells with plates), cable machines (selectorize machines), and plate-loaded machines (e.g., linear leg press machine). These exercises are also the most commonly used for the goal of muscle hypertrophy.
Isometric exercises are most commonly used for rehabilitation, often for tendon integrity or joint stability. Isometric means “same length” (iso- meaning “same” and -metric in reference to the length of your target muscle[s]). These exercises can be performed with any type of resistance, but these types of exercises do not elicit significant hypertrophy. Rather, they tend to improve muscle endurance to maintain a contraction.
One of the more common isometric exercises is the basic plank for core stabilization. The plank will not build your abdominal muscles, but it will improve your core muscle endurance which helps to stabilize your lumbar spine.
Isokinetic exercises are uncommon in performance settings. Isokinetic means “same velocity” or “same tempo” (iso- meaning “same” and -kinetic in reference to the velocity or tempo of the repetition). A true isokinetic exercise will have a repetition timing that cannot be altered regardless of the force output. For example, in an isokinetic chest press, you could push the resistance with no force at all or with as much force as possible, and the resistance will move at the designated pace, regardless.
Generally, isokinetic exercises have not been shown to benefit muscle hypertrophy more than standard isotonic exercises, and a true isokinetic exercise requires specialty equipment which are expensive. It is rare to find an isokinetic machine at a standard gym or fitness center.
The most variable grouping of exercise classifications is the type of resistance. There are four major types of resistance and a few subcategories within these type. The four major types are calisthenic, elastic, machine, or free weight.
Callisthenic exercises are those that do not use external resistance. Instead, these exercises only use the weight of your own body and the force of gravity as the resistance. Common examples of callisthenic exercises include push-ups, body-weight squats or lunges, and pull-ups. Although no external resistance is added, these exercises are not necessarily easy. For example, pull-ups are difficult for most people. Further, an exercise like a Nordic curl is one that very few people can perform fully.
This exercise classification is self-explanatory; these exercises utilize elastic resistance most commonly in the form of elastic bands or loops. The benefits of elastic resistance exercises are that they’re easy to use—requiring minimal space and minimal equipment—and they’re inexpensive compared to large exercise equipment such as weights or machines.
The potential downsides include limited resistance (free weights and machines generally offer greater resistance) and variable tension (the resistance becomes greater as the band stretches further).
This exercise classification is also self-explanatory; these exercises require a specific machine to complete. There are three major types of machines: linear track (plate loaded), joint/hinge (also plate loaded), or cable/pulley (“selectorize” machines).
Linear track machines are loaded with plates; the most common example of a linear track machine is the linear leg press—a staple for leg equipment in most fitness centers. Other examples include a linear hack squat and the Smith machine. As the name implies, these machines move in a linear fashion along a defined track. These machines are the most limiting in terms of movement pattern.
Joint or hinge
Joint or hinge machines are also loaded with plates; the most common examples are plate loaded chest press machines and row machines, but you’ll also find joint or hinge machines for almost any muscle you choose to train.
These exercises, of course, move around a joint or hinge, and so the resistance moves in an arching fashion. For many muscles, an arched motion is a better option because your body parts also move around joints in an arching fashion. Joint or hinge machines, however, are also limiting in their movement pattern compared to cable and pulley machines or free weights.
Cable and pulley
Cable and pulley machines have a stack of weights that are selected using a pin for the desired resistance; these are often called “selectorize” machines. Like the joint or hinge, nearly any machine could be created as a cable and pulley machine.
A few of the common examples in most fitness centers are the cable stations or cable columns with adjustable pulley heights (the most dynamic), lat pulldown machines (an example of a less dynamic machine), and pectoral fly machines (an example of the least dynamic of the cable and pulley machines).
Some cable and pulley machines are more dynamic when compared to the previous two types of machines because the movement pattern is not fixed. Others, such as the pectoral fly or selectorize preacher curl, are similarly restricting in their potential movements.
Free weight exercises are those that use dumbbells, barbells, kettle bells, or any other solid form of resistance not bound to a specific machine. These exercises are the least stable and, in comparison to all the previous classifications, the most dangerous.
Granted, exercises performed correctly are not inherently dangerous, but the lack of external support/stability means your body needs to both move and stabilize the resistance. Examples of free weight exercises include barbell squats, deadlifts, barbell or dumbbell bench press, or any other exercise using only dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells.
Although the least commonly used exercise classification on this page, every exercise can be described by the movement in reference to the kinetic chain. In other words, the exercises can be described by the movement of your body in relation to the resistance.
There are two classifications—open chain and closed chain. Neither open nor closed chain are inherently more beneficial for muscle growth, and both classifications have exercises that are staples for their target muscles (e.g., bench press for chest and squats for legs).
An open chain exercise is one where the most distal point of the kinetic chain (which will most commonly be your hands or feet during an exercise) is able to move freely in space. Every exercise that utilizes free weights (dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, elastic bands or cable attachments) is an open chain exercise. Examples include biceps curls, bench press, leg press, leg extension, or rowing exercises.
A closed chain exercise is one where the most distal point of the kinetic chain (which will most commonly be your hands or feet during an exercise) is fixed against the floor or an object that does not move during your exercise. Examples include squats and lunges, pull-ups, push-ups, and triceps dips.
Missing exercise classification(s)..?
There are other ways to break down exercises into categories, but the above listed exercise classifications are the most common. If you feel there are categories missing that are too important to skip, please reach out and let us know!
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