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How to choose the right strength training exercises for athletes

As a coach choosing the right strength training exercises for athletes can be a daunting task with so many options out there: free weights, exercise machines, isometrics, uphill ambulation with an additional load, drop jumps, self-resistance exercises, and so on.

In this post, adapted from Science and Practice of Strength Training, we explore the various classes of exercises used for strength enhancement for both beginning and qualified athletes.


First, let’s start by exploring the different classes of strength training exercises.

Exercises used for strength training are typically classified according to the change in muscle length. They may be static, or isometric, which literally means “constant length,” or dynamic, a category further divided into exercises with concentric, eccentric, or reversible muscle action. Dynamic exercises are also sometimes labeled isotonic (from iso, meaning “constant,” and tonic, meaning “tension”). The underlying assumption is that the muscle produces an unvarying amount of tension while shortening as it overcomes a constant resistance. This is not the case for intact muscles. If external resistance (weight lifted) is constant, the tension exerted by a muscle varies during shortening because of factors such as the change in muscle moment arm.

Photo by Li Sun from Pexels

Among dynamic exercises, one special class is termed isokinetic (kinetic means “speed”). During isokinetic action, the speed of movement is constant, regardless of muscle tension. (The term isokinetic, unfortunately, is not strictly defined. Speed of movement may refer to rate of change in muscle length, velocity of the load being lifted, or angular velocity of the joint.) Special equipment, usually expensive, is necessary for proper isokinetic training.

Because dynamic exercises with concentric muscle action are much more popular in athletic training than other types of exercise, these will be our focal point.

Exercises used for strength training can also be grouped according to the muscles involved in the action (e.g., abdominal exercises, leg exercises). The strength of different muscle groups often varies greatly in one person. An athlete can have high strength in one movement, for instance in the leg extension, but be relatively weak in another, such as pull-ups. The comparative strength of different muscle groups is called strength topography.

In addition, exercises used for strength training are often classified according to their specificity as (1) nonspecific (e.g., barbell squats for javelin throwers or baseball pitchers); (2) specific (e.g., exercises for muscles specifically involved in a throwing task), and (3) sport exercise with added resistance (e.g., overhand throwing of heavy objects).

Exercise selection for beginning athletes

With beginning athletes, especially young people, strength topography is the main focus in the proper selection of exercises used for strength training. The most important muscle groups should be chosen and trained. The following recommendations are offered as a rule of thumb:

  1. Strengthen the muscle group that, if weak, can increase the risk of trauma (e.g., neck muscles in wrestling).
  2. Train large, proximally located muscles, especially in the trunk area, with the abdominal wall muscles and spine erectors as a primary choice.
  3. Increase strength in sport-related movements to a level that permits sport technique acquisition without technical mistakes.
  4. Have athletes perform movements through the entire range of angular joint motion. The submaximal effort and repeated effort methods only, not singular maximal efforts, should be employed.
  5. Exercises that help in the control of the whole-body kinetic chain (e.g., squats, squat variations, pulls, power cleans, deadlifts, whole-body plyometrics) are vital for the athlete, ensuring multijoint neural communication and interactions in whole-body movements, so vital in sport performances. Teaching exercise technique is a vital part of a program for the beginning athlete of any age.
  6. Make sure that athletes have been carefully taught proper technique for each exercise. When increases in loading occur, make sure this proper technique is maintained and is intact. Proper technique is also needed when using machines, and it is very important that there is a proper fit for body size and proper range of movement for the exercises being performed.

Exercise selection for qualified athletes

Image from Science and Practice of Strength Training

Selecting exercises used for strength training for qualified athletes is substantially more complex than for beginners. The general idea is simple: Exercises used for strength training must be specific. This means that training drills must be relevant to the demands of the event an athlete is training for. Strength training drills must mimic the movement pattern that the pertinent sport skill actually entails. Here again, the term specific is oftentimes misinterpreted and major whole-body exercises are not used in favour of smaller or isolated exercises; this is a mistake. The importance of whole-body exercises cannot be emphasized enough for any athlete because the kinetic chain and its control allows for optimal performances in most sports.

Furthermore, such exercises can be effectively and safely loaded to benefit athletes by preventing injury and strengthening tissue that takes the pounding of sport training and practice (e.g., distance runners and gymnasts). From these whole-body major muscle group exercises, other exercises are then used to create the training program with the specificity needed for each sport and individual athlete.

Working muscles

The requirement regarding working muscles is most evident and simple. The same muscle groups must be involved in both the main sport event and in the training drill. For instance, heavy resistance exercises for the improvement of paddling in canoeing should focus on the muscles utilized in the motion patterns associated with the paddle stroke.

Unfortunately, this obvious requirement is not satisfied very often in athletic practice. Coaches and athletes often employ exercises and training equipment that are not specific—that do not involve the muscle groups active in the main sport movement. Thus, after training the major muscle groups, angle specific-type exercises are needed to address these sport-specific movements in the sport. For instance, in swimming, the athlete’s hand moves along a complex curvilinear trajectory that includes inward and outward motions. The resistance vector occurs in a three-dimensional space. During dryland training, however, swimmers typically use exercise devices with linear, straight-back pulls. Muscle activity patterns during such training are distinctly different from those experienced while swimming. It is preferable to mimic the three-dimensional hand resistance that occurs in swimming by using two- and three-dimensional exercise devices.

Muscle activity in the same exercise can vary if the performance technique, such as the body posture, is changed. An athlete performs shoulder squats with a barbell using different lifting techniques. Not only does the level of muscle activity change, but also the involvement of specific muscle groups; the knee extensors are used in some instances and the knee flexors in others. This underscores the need for teaching and monitoring exercise techniques, and paying attention to the positions of the exercises used in the different planes of movement when choosing exercises for a training program.

Four techniques are employed to identify the working muscle groups:

  1. Muscle palpation. Muscles that become tense are the involved muscles and these should be trained with heavy resistance.
  2. With new mobile phone applications, the basic biomechanics and heat production can be observed and can indicate muscles that are active due to thermal heat production.
  3. Biomechanical analysis of the joint torques. The method is good but in many cases too complex for practical use.
  4. Registering muscle electric activity, or electromyography (EMG). This method is superior, but special equipment and technical personnel are needed for this type of analysis.


In summary, with beginners, especially young people, strength topography is the main concern in selecting strength training exercises. For example, you should choose the most important muscle groups, strengthening those that might be at risk for injury if they are weak, training proximally located muscles, and strengthening muscles that are needed to perform sport movements.

For more advanced or mature athletes, however, the goal is to select strength training exercises that are specific and mimic the movement pattern used in the actual sport skill. This is a complex demand that requires careful analysis of movement including resistance, timing and rate of force development, movement direction, and variations of muscular strength over the range of joint motion.

Science and Practice of Strength Training

Adapted from:

Science and Practice of Strength Training

Zatsiorsky, Kraemer and Fry

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Header photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels

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