Exercise selection: An article for coaches

What’s in an Exercise?

It seems sometimes the simplest thing, and the most obvious; choosing the right exercise for a given goal. Usually this will be based on a movement goal – either as corrective, or in sport for a specific strength goal. In these circumstances, the typical considerations are movement direction, target muscle group, current and strengths and weaknesses etc..

Many of these movement choices are, on the face of it, very simple with clear progressions and regressions. Whilst this is true for the vast majority of people, some will not fit into that clear cut progression. Sometimes, a squat is not a squat.

I’ll use bog-standard back squatting as an example – what is squatting used for? Strength and Hypertrophy are the obvious answers, and fairly so. But what about for these people?

  • A 10 year old

  • A rehab patient with restricted range of movement

  • An elderly lady

  • A basketball player

For these examples, a squat isn’t primarily for strength or hypertrophy. They become side effects, and in some cases actively avoided. For a 10 year old, a squat is a balance and coordination exercise. For the rehab patient, a flexibility and mobility drill. For the elderly lady, a general health movement. For a basketballer, power without additional muscle mass.

But NOT without reason or justification...

For the different goals above we look to manipulate the normal variables – sets, reps, tempo, weight etc. However, the main determinant of the resultant adaptations will be the most variable, uncontrollable and yet consistent factor of all – the individual performing the movement.

Another good example I heard used to explain this same point in general coaching: Two tennis players - a 5 year old and a 15 year old, are tasked with throwing a ball against a wall from 3m away, from right hand to left and back again. What is this task designed to test and improve on?

  • For the 15 year old, coordination, control, balance, concentration. As the exercise would be expected to.

  • For the 5 year old – the overriding training stimulus would be agility – chasing the balls they would probably drop from a 3m throw.

Another example is Deadlift. A standard deadlift can very effectively be used as a leg/back/thoracic stabiliser/core/flexibility/all-of-the-above exercise, depending on the variables, which includes the person lifting. So with different aims, there’s no reason a fit individual can’t deadlift every day if it fits their goals, as long as one or more of the variables is changed to shift the focus.

But NOT without reason or justification....

Exercise selection is inherently important for any client and their program, but so is the interpretation of that exercise. For example..

  • Walking barbell lunges with an additional 30% bodyweight could be interpreted by one person as a strength exercise, and by another as a balance and cardio exercise.

  • Press ups could be a max strength exercise for one, and shoulder rehab for another.

With any adjustments to the prescription reason of a particular exercise - it must be real, with solid reason and sound justification. What I mean is this

Just because you believe something is, does not make it so.

Everything has to be relative to the individual, and what you are asking of that individual must be understood. Would you give a 40kg bar to both a Husband and Wife and expect the same result through the same rep range? Of course not. It’s obvious.

And so your justifications must be clear to others – to your client, other trainers and yourself. A common attempt at justification for a specific exercise brings up “fat loss”. There are no exercises that, in themselves, will ‘burn more fat’ than others if the amount of work done during it is equal. Just some exercises make it easier to reach higher workloads than others (Squats vs Tricep pushdowns for example). This “fat loss” claim is a false justification and falls flat in the face of question.

Having said that, there is no definitive guideline or rule book for any of this. Experience, critique and learn by practice. Listen, deconstruct programs and ask questions. But please, for the love of the industry, no bullshit. Any attempt at justification must be genuine, and humbly open to change if shown misunderstood or successfully challenged.

NB. The order of exercises within a plan are another big determinant of effect – probably more than given credit for. Try doing your normal workout back-to-front. Watch your deads go through the floor and the arse fall out your squats. At the same time, Y-drills and rep outs on leg extensions will be so good you consider shouting Big Ron out. This is why careful application of pre-exhaust and post-exhaust principles are needed – get it wrong and you might not be doing what you intended. There are some instances when big movement exercises are useful performed in a fatigued state (for example, Rugby – doing weights or ball handling skills after a field session), or as an advanced pre-fatigue for bodybuilding. Outside of those examples, quality should rule.

Author: Sam Kelvey


Head S&C with pro-Fit Lead S&C Athletic Development with Widnes Lead S&C with Manchester Phoenix

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