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Exercise Selection For Coaches

What is Exercise Selection?

Exercise selection is the process of choosing what movements to include in a training plan. The goal is for the exercises to meet the trainee’s goals, abilities, needs, and, to an extent, preferences. Factors like fitness level, injury history, training phase, and available equipment determine what activities to add to a training program.

Rules to Follow for Proper Exercise Selection

1. Specificity

Specificity is the first and most important rule to follow when prescribing exercises to your athletes or clients. Simply put, the movements must provide the needed stimulus to get the person closer to their goals.

For example, if you’re coaching a powerlifter, the big three must find their way into the program because that’s the sport’s sole focus. 

Can ass-to-grass (ATG) front squats help? Maybe. However, the athlete must focus on specific, powerlifting-style squats because their performance on that lift matters most.

The same goes for Olympic weightlifting: the clean and jerk and the snatch must be the program’s primary focus.

Some training disciplines, such as bodybuilding, are less rigid in this regard because movement-specific performance doesn’t matter. Instead, the goal would be to pick the exercises that provide the best possible stimulus to trigger growth.

2. Safety

In an ideal world, every athlete will be completely healthy and injury-free. Sadly, that’s not usually the case, and a percentage of your clients will have dealt with injuries or traumas in the past.

As a coach, you must consider their injury history and how it affects their current abilities. That way, you can prescribe the best exercises that allow them to safely reach their athletic goals.

3. Overload

Overload is integral for ongoing muscle growth and athletic improvements. The way to provide an overload is to gradually increase the difficulty of the movements the athlete does, leading to a greater stimulus that forces new adaptations.

When prescribing movements, consider how you can increase the challenge over time. Some of the more popular methods include:

  • Adding more weight
  • Doing more reps
  • Adding more sets
  • Taking shorter breaks between sets

Additionally, tweaking the technique or speed can make the movement more difficult. For instance, descending more during a squat is an effective way to increase the challenge. 

Similarly, adding a pause at the bottom can limit the stretch reflex, forcing the quadriceps to do more work off the bottom position.

4. Effectiveness

You might think effectiveness is part of specificity, but there is a razor-thin difference. While specificity matters most, you must ask yourself, “Does this movement get the job done for my athlete?”

Answering the question isn’t always easy, and you might sometimes need to experiment and collect client feedback. For instance, let’s say you work with a bodybuilder, and your sole focus is to help them add muscle. 

In this case, you would judge movements based on questions like:

  • Does it hit the right muscle well?
  • Does it lead to a good muscle pump?
  • Does my athlete feel adequate soreness in the following days?
  • Is the target muscle the limiting factor?

When working with a powerlifter, you would primarily judge a movement by its similarity to the bench press, squat, or deadlift and whether it has a positive impact on the person’s total. 

Similarly, when coaching a sports player, you would consider the movement’s impact on their performance.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you must spend half an hour on each movement you assign to determine its worth. It simply means you must be thoughtful when putting together workout plans and making changes based on feedback.

5. Stimulus to Fatigue

The stimulus-to-fatigue ratio is popularized by Dr. Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization. It refers to an exercise’s stimulative effect versus the amount of fatigue it generates. 

Dr. Mike’s idea is to pick activities that generate less fatigue while providing sufficient stimulus, at least as far as muscle growth is concerned. That way, we can create an adequate growth stimulus without overtraining ourselves.

Let’s take the squat as an example. This is an excellent lower-body movement, but the ideal variation will vary depending on the trainee’s goals. 

For instance, a low-bar back squat generally allows trainees to lift more weight and engage their posterior chain to a greater degree. However, it also generates more systemic fatigue.

In contrast, a high-bar back squat doesn’t allow for as high of a load, but it keeps the focus on the quadriceps, making it ideal for bodybuilders interested in leg growth.


1. How often should you review and swap exercises?

Coaches should monitor their athletes closely, track their week-to-week performance, and review the assigned movements every four to six weeks to make swaps or modifications if necessary.

2. Is it okay to vary the exercises for different athletes in the same sport?

While athletes in the same sport can often benefit from the same movements and drills, individuality will always play a role. Coaches must consider each athlete’s unique needs, abilities, and injury history when assigning movements.

General strength and conditioning exercises can improve an athlete’s physical abilities and work capacity, allowing them to train harder, recover better, and perform at the highest level in their sport.

Related Terms in Periodization and Planning Category