When people talk about classifying means of training, there are many things that can be considered. On one hand, from a lifting standpoint, you may have the classification of main lifts and accessory movements. In terms of specificity, there may be the designation of general, specialized, preparatory, developmental, and so on. However, what this article aims to discuss is how to classify movements into on of three categories: possible, useful, and appropriate. Whether it is training other athletes or one’s own training, before programming a movement, intensity, volume, or periodization scheme, it should be looked at in terms of these three categories.

Idea behind the idea…

I want to give credit where it is due and acknowledge that this isn’t something I pulled out of my ass. On James “The Thinker” Smith’s YouTube channel, he has a lecture where he is talking about figuring out what is possible for the athlete and what is useful. How he describes possible is in reference to the athlete being able to physically handle the demands of a particular means of training. He then goes on to discuss how while many things may be physically tolerable to athletes, these same things may not be useful. His example was of a trainer who had a golfer performing strongman training. While the golfer may be physically capable of handling the rigors of the training, it doesn’t matter how much of an increase there is because the demands of his sport have no use for strongman training.

This got me thinking about how (as coaches, athletes, and lifters) we should look at everything in reference to these two categories. This also made me think of another category in addition to the first two—if a particular means is appropriate. What I mean by this is that while many things may be both physically tolerable (at least in the short term) and useful, they may either be too advanced, not needed, or not effective at the current point in time. The aspect of what is appropriate is most manipulated by qualification, competition calendar, planning, and so on.

These ideas thus gave me the idea to examine all movements, volumes, intensities, periodization schemes, and so on that I program in order to determine if it really fits the individual. This involves examining strengths, weaknesses, injury history, training history, qualification, and both short- and long-term goals. To go further with this, it is important to take a look at each category a little closer.

Defining possible, useful, and appropriate


What falls into this category is how physical limitations of the athlete influence the means. Injuries, structural limitations, imbalances, etc. will have to be considered when making the designation of whether an exercise is possible. An example of this would be a below parallel squat being something that is contingent on hip mobility, health of the knees, etc. For a healthy athlete with good mobility, it is probably not a problem to squat below parallel. However, for an athlete who is coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, this is something that may not be possible.  Additionally, for an athlete with mobility issues who may be displaying an excessive posterior pelvic tilt, this also may be not possible. Idea: sometimes what is possible can change with corrective exercise, such as the above example. Other times, due to structural limitations, certain exercises may be contraindicated indefinitely. This could be something such as heavy overhead presses for someone with impingement in the shoulders.


Useful is the category that will determine if the means being used have any amount of value to the individual. While many things are physically possible, it doesn't mean they have use. An example here would be that training the alactic component is useful for an alactic-aerobic athlete like a football player. From here, the means of how the alactic component is trained can then be broken down to other means and the amount of usefulness can then be determined. Take pushing a weighted sled: it may train the alactic component in a way that is useful for an offensive lineman. However, this same particular exercise may not be as useful to a wide receiver, quaterback, or defensive back because it is not similar to what they will encounter at their position. While the energy system is the same, the form of movement and regime of work are different.

This can also apply to barbell lifts for the team sport athlete as opposed to the strength athlete. While weight room exercises have a varying degree of usefulness to team sport athletes (as far as strengthening the muscles and also as a general stimulus for the CNS), their usefulness will be limited to the actual sport itself. Contrast this with the lifter, where the actual weight room exercises are either the competitive movement or movements that further build the competitive movement. There will be a higher degree of usefulness. Some of this will also depend on qualification, such as for team sport athletes that are extremely weak, out of shape, etc. In this case, there are more options that will have use.  This is not limited to team sports, however, because for lifters with little training experience, they will have more movement options that can contribute to their lifts. This also bridges the gap into the next category of what is appropriate.


This category is the one that will be most influenced by the qualification of the athlete as well as the current point in the competition calendar.  While many things may fit the first two, this is the final category that can be used to determine if a movement is a good choice at a current point in time.

To provide an example, depth jumps and the shock regime have been shown to be a great way to increase explosive strength and reactive ability.  This quality is desirable in many sports, with one being football. So let's say that we are training a group of high school football players who are physically intact and able to actually perform depth jumps correctly, but who have a low level of strength and limited training history. The depth jump may not be appropriate at this time because of the stress it will cause both neurologically and structurally. The other thing is at the rudimentary stage of development—these athletes can continue to improve with less advanced means.

Another example is sprint training for athletes. Let's say that the coach has a specific volume in his head for the day and it is set in stone, and no matter what he wants to accomplish this volume of sprint work. However, about halfway through the session it is easy to observe that the athletes are no longer capable of maintaining the proper intensity and that technique has suffered. Yet, the coach remains set on the volume and has them finish anyway, with each repetition looking worse and worse. In this case, the volume planned wasn't appropriate for the athletes at that current point in time.

Putting the matrix to use

To take a look at this, let’s provide a few athlete-specific examples. The first athlete would be a linebacker who has some of the following statistics and needs:

  • Sport and position: Football, inside linebacker
  • Qualification/Level: Division I, two-year starter at inside linebacker, entering final college season. Selected all conference, second team All American, NFL prospect
  • Height and weight: 6-foot-2, 255 pounds
  • Strength: 600-pound squat and 405-pound bench press
  • Weaknesses in performance: Lacks reactive ability and needs work on position specific techniques
  • Injury history: None

The movement in question in relation to this player would be a barbell squat using the maximal effort method, with the goal of increasing maximal strength. Let’s examine it under the three categories:

Possible: The movement is definitely possible since this athlete has no physical limitations to stop him from squatting maximally. He would be able to handle the stressors of the movement.

Useful: At this point, lifting maximal weights with the intent of adding pounds to the squat is not going to help with the reactive ability that this athlete lacks. Better choices would be a higher volume of jumps that focus on increasing the reactive ability. These could include depth jumps, kettlebell squat jumps, consecutive hurdle jumps, etc. Maximal strength will also not correct technical flaws in his specific positional requirements. Drills that focus on these requirements need to take precedence over high volumes of maximal strength work. Thus, strength should be maintained, but it doesn’t need to be a focal point at this time.

Appropriate: At this point in time, the athlete needs to focus on other aspects of his game. The use of excessive volumes of maximal effort lifting won’t help increase reactive ability or help position-specific techniques. The goal of increasing the weight on the bar is not appropriate for his long-term development at this time, along with not being useful.

Another example of this can be seen in the following:

  • Sport: Powerlifting
  • Qualification/Level: Novice lifter with only two meets experience
  • Height and weight: 6-foot-1, 185 pounds
  • Strengths: Has basic technique of the lifts down and has received good coaching from an experienced group of lifters
  • Weaknesses: Everything is weak
  • Injury history: None

The movement in question is box squats with heavy band tension (similar to a circa max phase).

Possible: The lifter has no physical limitations and has good form on both the squat and the box squat. He has no injuries that would make this a contraindicated movement to perform.

Useful: Powerlifting is all about maximal strength, and lifting circa max weights with heavy band tension can have a profound effect on maximal strength. This method is useful for the sport and the lifter.

Appropriate: At the lifter's current level, this is not appropriate at this time. While his form, physical state, and the nature of the sport make it a choice that is viable, it is not needed at his level. He can continue to improve without having to use advanced training techniques such as this.  Also, at his level, more volume may be needed than what this type of training involves, as well as focusing on hypertrophy through both training and diet since he is physically underdeveloped.

Here is one last example:

  • Sport and position: Football, running back
  • Qualification/Level: Redshirt freshman at the Divison I-AA level
  • Height and weight: 5-foot-10, 205 pounds
  • Strength: Best squat was 330 pounds and best bench was 255 pounds
  • Weaknesses in performance: Very fast, reactive, and explosive. Lacks strength to take on defenders in pass protection and blocking.  Very skilled at his position but needs to improve in pass protection and blocking from a physical standpoint (i.e. not physical enough)
  • Injury history: Had reconstructive knee surgery after an injury sustained during practice.

Movements in question are lifts that can improve lower body strength. The training staff has cleared the athlete to participate in strength training, but he is limited still due to injury.

Possible: Due to the nature of the injury, barbell squatting to parallel is not possible due to the amount of knee flexion. Squatting is cleared for limited range of motion exercises. Options then include high box squatting, half squatting, quarter squatting, machine-based movements that are pain free, RDL with barbell or dumbbell, goodmornings, and deadlift variations with limited knee flexion.

Useful: While many movements are useful, they are all influenced by the first category of what is possible. The goal is to improve lower body strength, which can be accomplished through any of the approved movements. The goal doesn’t have to be measured in the barbell squat—it can be observed through various other options that are not contraindicated at this time.

Appropriate: The movements that are appropriate to this athlete are those that accomplish the goal of increasing strength without damaging the reconstructed knee. As seen from what is useful, they are all trumped by what is possible at this current time due to the structural limitations of the repaired knee.

No one category is independent of the others.

From looking at the above examples, it is easy to see how each category influences the others. While a movement can be both physically possible and useful on the surface, further examination can show that it may not be a great choice—at least right now. This would be like having a lifter who is two weeks out from a meet do training that is geared toward hypertrophy because he needs to gain mass. While it is both physically possible and useful, it is inappropriate in the current time frame.

Conversely, there may be something that is physically possible, but upon further examination, it is found to have no real use towards the sport or positional requirements of an athlete and is inappropriate for his/her current level. Usually if something is not useful, it will rarely be appropriate by relation.

The one category that trumps all, however, will be if something is physically possible. It doesn’t matter how useful and appropriate something is if it is contraindicated by injury. We could speculate and play the “what if” game about how much better an athlete could be if he was physically able to perform a movement, but it really doesn’t matter because other accommodations must be made.


The matrix of Possible, Useful, and Appropriate is not an end-all, be-all of how you should select movements for your athletes or yourself.  However, it is a simple method of eliminating choices and prioritizing others in a time frame that may improve results. All means of training need to be examined in order to make sure that they are not contraindicated from a physical standpoint. They also should have use toward the needs of not just the sport but also the athlete who plays the sport. They also need to be designed toward the current ability of the athlete and follow a logical progression for long-term development. This matrix may be useful for planning on both a short- and long-term basis.