In part one of this series, I argued that exercise selection should be based on the needs analysis, type one goal, training age of the athlete or fitness client, or mesocycle objective. In addition, I discussed the underlying principles of exercise selection that serve as the backdrop for your choice of exercises. In this installment, I'll discuss three more of those underlying principles.

Any exercise ever placed in an athlete's or client's program should be specific to the stated goal. “There is no such thing as general training. All training produces specific effects” (Scott Sonnon). The single most important characteristic of a successful relationship between exercise selection in strength and conditioning and sport performance for an athlete or a team is that any exercise that the athlete ever does in the short or long term improves the athlete’s ability to practice or compete. If this requirement isn't met, why would the exercise be in the training program?

This principle implies that exercise selection is a reverse engineered process. We can only find out which exercises are relevant to the athlete or client by looking at his or her end goal and then “working backward” to where that athlete or client is now. Working backward doesn't mean that the athlete or client will develop muscle imbalances or won't build a “base.” A former and very successful colleague of mine focused on building a base in the athletes she worked with and progressed from there. She used a forward engineered process. She also couldn't explain why her training was working for the athletes she worked with. Her athletes loved her, but the few times an athlete chose to stop working with her, it was because the athlete didn't feel (understand) how the training was supposed to help in that athlete's sport.

I've always had trouble with the concepts of “general,” “specific,” or “special” exercises. Famously, “general physical preparedness” (GPP) includes “balanced physical conditioning in endurance, strength, speed, and other basic factors of fitness" whereas "special physical preparation" (SPP) concentrates on exercises that are more specific to the particular sport. Further, “GPP and SPP always form an interconnected unit and in some cases they might be largely indistinguishable” (1).

According to the dictionary, “general” can have several related meanings. For example, it can mean "not specialized,” “including miscellaneous items,” and “applicable or true in most cases.” All these meanings of the word “general” can relate to the concept of “general strength training” and “general physical preparedness.” The meanings of the word “general” may convey the idea that exercises and training methods in “general strength training” can be chosen without particular discernment in relation to the athlete’s goal. Just make sure to “cover most major muscle groups or movement patterns” and the program is fine.

Anatoly Bondarchuk, one of the most successful coaches ever, gives a good definition of general exercises: “General exercises refer to those exercises that are typically used for conditioning, but do not have a direct correlation to improvement of the sports skill or sport performance” (2).

Understand the above definition by considering a brick house. The bottom row of bricks (the general exercises) don't directly support the roof (performance). However, without the bottom row of bricks, the roof would be unstable or crumble. Only by first considering the nature of the roof (size, shape, and weight) is it possible to determine which bricks to use and where to place them. Thus, we can say that the bottom row of bricks are specific to the roof. By the same token, the “general exercises” must be specific to the desired performance.

Instead of focusing on the concept of ‘general training,” which might be misleading, it is more effective to focus on the specific sequence of exercises that, applied over weeks, months, and years, can build a beginner into a world class athlete. This is the idea of the conjugate exercise system. There isn't any need for the “general” and “specific” distinction. Focusing on the entire sequence provides a much better understanding of the training process.

Exercise selection is about selecting a sequence of exercises. Any significant change in any biomotor ability requires months and years of systematic continuous training. The exercise the beginner can perform correctly without injury won't result in performance improvement for the advanced athlete. Vice versa, the exercise that results in performance improvement for the advanced athlete will injure the beginner. Further, each exercise will only be effective for a period of time, after which it loses its effect. This is the Principle of Accommodation.

Figure 1: The Principle of Accommodation

Figure 1 shows that as a certain training load is repeated over time, the performance gain decreases (3). Most of us have experienced the Principle of Accommodation in our own bodies when we make initial great gains on a program only to plateau after a few weeks. Thus, we can see that any athlete or client over time will have to utilize a sequence of exercises.

Knowing how to select one exercise isn't enough. As a strength coach or personal trainer, we need the skills to select sequences of exercises. Exercise progressions are examples of exercise sequences. In powerlifting, Westside is famous for using the conjugated sequence of exercises, where the purpose of each exercise is to create favorable conditions for the training of the next exercise in the sequence, ultimately leading to peak performance in the desired activity.

When we define exercise sequences, some of the fundamental questions include:

  • Which exercise should be the first one in the sequence (type and difficulty)?
  • For how long will that exercise (or any other exercise) result in a significant training  stimulus?
  • Which exercise should be followed?
  • How should the second exercise be different and more difficult than the first exercise?
  • Does the optimal time to use a given exercise change as the athlete gets more advanced?
  • Does the rate of increasing an exercise’s difficulty change as the athlete or client reaches advanced stages of training?

The optimal number of potentially effective exercises for a given athlete with a given objective is a relatively high one. “Train all varieties of the lift” (Arthur Saxon).

1. Stretches

Strengthening exercises are based on moving the origin and insertion of the muscle closer together against resistance. Flexibility exercises are based on the opposite premise—moving the origin and insertion of muscles in opposite directions like pulling on a rubber band, rope, or spring. The fibers that have the best alignment with the line of pull experience the most stretch. Many muscles in the body have a combination of wide or multiple attachment points (origins or insertions), and consequently, the fibers of the muscle run in different directions. This means that no single stretch will stretch all the muscle fibers optimally. Multiple stretches are needed to create a “complete stretch” of that muscle.

2. Bone and tendon cells

The organization of fascicles in a tendon or ligament depends on the direction of pull experienced by the tendon/ligament (4). Therefore, it is considered essential to include exercises that stress the tendon in all three planes in order to prepare the tendons for movement in all three planes. Similarly, the components of mechanical loading that stimulate bone growth are the magnitude of the load, rate of loading, direction of forces, and volume of loading (5).

3. Muscle activation

Many studies have looked at muscle activation patterns during minor variations of the same exercises and have found that the muscle activation pattern is highly specific to the specific variation of an exercise (7). This fact is expressed in the concept of functional differentiation.

According to the concept of functional differentiation, the nervous system fine tunes activation of motor units based on the optimal line of pull for a given exercise. Functional differentiation within skeletal muscle refers to the ability of the central nervous system (CNS) to control, with a degree of independence, individual subunits of a muscle during a particular muscle contraction. Essentially, the concept of functional differentiation within skeletal muscle suggests an ability of the CNS to selectively activate those segments of a muscle that have the most appropriate line of action for the task as a means of ensuring the muscles' efficient utilization (6).

4. Pattern overload

By incorporating multiple variations of the same exercise (they should all be specific to the goal), you can avoid pattern overload while continuous progress is maintained. “Pattern overload describes injury to soft tissues resulting from repetitive motion in one pattern of movement or restricted movement in one or more planes of motion. Although pattern overload is much more common in an environment such as machine training, which restricts freedom of motion, I’ve also treated numerous cases of pattern overload in workers and athletes who were unrestricted in their training movements” (8).

Overall, the number of potentially relevant exercises for an athlete increases with the complexity of the sport. The more movement patterns that the athlete must prepare for, the more potentially relevant exercises are needed. Thus, a tennis player will have a much higher number of relevant exercises compared to the powerlifter. It is appropriate to include in this discussion that some systems have created success using a very low number of exercises. Bulgarian weightlifting consists of only three exercises—the full clean and jerk, the snatch, and the front squat (9).

The following continuum briefly outlines some of the potential advantages and disadvantages of few versus many exercises:


I discussed three underlying principles of exercise selection and that any exercise ever placed in an athlete’s or client’s program should be specific to the stated goal. Exercise selection is about selecting a sequence of exercises. The optimal number of potentially effective exercises for a given athlete with a given objective is a relatively high one. In Part III, I'll discuss additional principles of exercise selection.


  1. Siff M. "Organization of Training." In: Siff M (2004) Supertraining, 6th Ed. Supertraining  Institute: Denver.
  2. Bondarchuk A (2007) Transfer of Training in Sports. Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
  3. Zatsiorsky W. "Basic Concepts of Training Theory." In: Zatsiorsky W (2006) Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.
  4. Stone M H, Karatzaferi C. "Connective Tissue and Bone Response to Strength Training." In: Komi PV (2003) Strength and Power in Sports. 2nd Ed. Blackwell Publishing.
  5. Ratamess NA. "Adaptations to Anaerobic Training Programs." In: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Human Kinetics.
  6. Paton ME, Brown JM. "Functional differentiation within Latissimus Dorsi." At:
  7. Sale D. "Neural Adaptation to Strength Training." In: Strength and Power in Sport (1991) Blackwell Science.
  8. Chek P. Pattern Overload, Part 1. At:
  9. Woodhouse D. "Ivan Abadjev and the Bulgarian Weightlifting System." At: