What Goes into Exercise Selection for Athletes?

There is no denying the potential positive outcomes of strength training for athletes. I rarely meet an athlete that does strength train in some way. However, with such a popular industry, there are many coaches that train athletes themselves, and athletes that train themselves for a multitude of reasons. One of the most important things in making progress is understanding why you do what you do. Understanding the purpose of every step you make will lead to a much higher chance of succeeding. So why do we do the exercises we do when training athletes? There are 6 main considerations to make when designing your programs.


1. Athletes Level of Experience

We always need to take into account the experience each athlete has in the training space. This incorporates chronological age, biological age, as well as how far they have advanced in each movement you require them to do. Chronological age is just the age number, 13, 18, 24 etc. There are some 9-year old’s that are more advanced than 12-year-old, as well as 18-year old’s that are more advanced than 22-year old’s. Biological age is a better indicator of readiness for certain types of weight training, though it is much tougher to determine. This is more of the physiological age of an athlete; how mature their body is. Younger athletes that are still growing should be careful doing plyometrics and jarring exercises as this could break growth plates. Growth spurts can cause brief periods of a lack of coordination in athletes as each person has to adjust to longer legs and arms. Lastly, an athlete that has had prior training in sports performance training will be more proficient and ready for higher intensities of training compared to their less experienced peers.


2. Injury Prevention

Athletes get injured. This isn’t news to anyone. But each sport has a higher prevalence to different injuries based on the nature of the sport. Some sports involve athletes getting concussions at much higher rates than others, for this we would add more neck strengthening. Female athletes are at a much higher risk of ACL tears than male athletes, so they would need to add the necessary training to strengthen the glutes, quads and hamstrings, while also strengthening the ligaments and tendons themselves. Many sports are plagued with overuse injuries such as tendonitis in certain body parts and we need to be careful that we don’t increase the prevalence of these injuries and only increase our physical resilience.


3. Risk vs Reward

All exercise comes with risk of some sort. Either risk of injury, risk of decreasing performance, or overtraining. There are many movements that can potentially help increase performance but come with a high risk of injury. We need to ensure that the exercises we select to add to our programming are as safe as can be while also promoting performance enhancements. Some exercises are safe for some athletes and riskier for others, so this is a case-by-case consideration.


4. Bang for your Buck

Similar to risk vs reward, bang for your buck essentially just means that we add exercises that are most likely to add performance gains. The fewer exercises we give our athletes, the smaller the risk of injury, and the less strain we put on their bodies. Compound movements such as squats, lunges, presses, pulls, are going to give us more value than training on machines at the gym. Athletes rarely have time to waste, and depending on the sports season, may only have time for 30-minute lifting sessions twice per week. We need to make sure we make the most of our time.


5. Carryover to Sport

Increasing performance is the name of the game and performance is specialized to sports and positions within each sport. A baseball player and soccer player need different programs just like football player and basketball players need different programs. A pitcher is going to train differently than a shortstop and an offensive lineman needs different training than a wide receiver. This becomes more important the more advanced an athlete becomes. Young athletes need to first focus on becoming athletic (fast, agile, strong, and powerful). As an athlete ages, they need to begin specializing in their position. Do they need more rotational power this off season? Do we need power created with more force or more speed? There are so many variables in training directly for your sport and position, so you need to make sure you are training to become better at your sport, not just training to train.


6. What Season are we In

Are you in the offseason, preseason, or in season? Different times of year will require different training protocols as we need athletes to peak at certain times of the year. Building strength and size is a great goal for the offseason, while power and more sport specific protocols are better for preseason. If you are in season, this is the time that you have to realize that training comes secondary to sport, athletes can not be sore or mentally drained, and you now have to work around small injuries from games. Even things that seem small, like training surface, need to be considered as they can have possible negative effects on performance. Some surfaces can slow us down, and when we train slow, we perform slow. Slow, heavy reps may increase the force we can create, but it slows down the speed we operate at on the field or court. Training for speed and power all year around will cause us to miss our best opportunities at gaining muscle mass and strength. Training should be periodized and change with the season to promote continuous improvement in performance.



There are so many variables we need to consider when creating training programs for our youth, and each variable we fail to consider could be cheating our athletes of reaching their potential. As coaches and trainers, our passion should be helping athletes achieve their potential, and it falls on us to ask the questions that will lead to their success.



Chris Still

BS in Exercise Science

CSCS, USAW

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