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Exercise selection - choosing the most effective exercises for your clients [article]

In health and fitness it's about keeping it simple by delivering personal training and fitness instruction that is effective, simple and progressive. This article covers some of the basics in selecting resistance exercises and encourages you to generate a list of 'go to' exercises that will help almost any client by keeping them safe, being of value and being easily repeated independently.


A while ago I watched a fitness instructor taking a client through their first programme review.  On the initial programme the client was doing a seated chest press, the instructor decided to change this to a bench press with a fixed weight barbell.  Now surely there’s nothing wrong with the good old bench press is there?  The bench press can be a great exercise; however the instructor in this case picked the weight up from the rack and held it above the client as they lay down on the bench to perform the exercise, they did a set and then moved onto the next exercise. This was only the clients second ever gym programme, notice any problems yet….


Bear in mind that the instructor gave the client this new exercise to do on their own until their next program review in 6 weeks, a pretty standard procedure in clubs around the country.  When the client repeats the programme on their own they’ll have to find the correct barbell from the rack, perform a type of deadlift (complex) movement to get the weight onto their lap as they sit down, and then find a way to get the weight up to the start point.  Not only will that be tough (and dangerous) but what will happen as they try to progress the exercise by adding weight? 


Do you see the problem now?  Sure there’s nothing wrong with the bench press but in this scenario it was a bad choice of exercise because the client was not capable of completing it safely and effectively on their own.  There’s also a strong chance the client will forget the correct technique, worry about injuring themselves or looking stupid by doing it incorrectly in front of others and simply avoid doing it.  How’s that going to help them achieve great results?


Was it necessary to change the exercise at all? I talked to the instructor afterwards and he said he wanted to give the client more variety. Ultimately he wrote a completely new program with completely new exercises.  This raises a common issue in the fitness world, namely how the variety principle is misunderstood in relation to exercise selection. It seems common place in gyms around the country that every 6 weeks or so client’s programmes are discarded and instructors spend hours designing new ones made up of completely new exercises.  Is this the best use of instructor’s time? Does the client always benefit from this?


The variety principle simply suggests that to avoid plateaus and boredom the FITT variables (frequency, intensity, time, type) should be altered regularly. Why not alter intensity by increasing the load, changing the tempo or reducing rest times between sets?  There are so many options other than simply changing the exercise every few weeks.


A trainer pointed out to me a few years ago that at best he only has an hour or two every week with his clients so he can’t afford to waste time teaching lots of new exercises, if clients are going to get the results, they need to be doing the exercises frequently enough to progress.  What is happening to a client’s heart rate and metabolism when they are spending their time trying to learn new exercises all the time? Not much really! 


So of the thousands of different exercises out there and the multitude of balls, bands, discs and other gadgets that you can incorporate, how do you actually choose an arsenal of great exercises that work?  Initially it helps to eliminate the mass of useless exercises that tend to get in the way. After all, how many clients have actually come to you with the goal of learning lots of new exercises?


The vast majority of clients join gyms to lose weight, ‘tone’, improve health or gain muscle strength and/or size.  The exercises we select for them must achieve these goals.  A way to separate the effective from the ‘why bother’ exercises is to rate them.  Use the table on the following page and enter in any common exercises you use or are thinking of using, and after filling in the boxes give each exercise a rating.  There are plenty of examples to help you.  At the end of the exercise I’d hope that you have a selection of no more than 10-15 exercises that you can use time and again with clients and can alter the FITT variables on to provide variety and keep clients progressing


You might find that some exercises don’t fit easily into one of the movement patterns, e.g. where would you put the famous thigh adductors and abductors or what about wrist curls?  This will probably be the first cull of the useless! Why perform exercises that aren’t big movement patterns?  There may be some calling for such exercises (rehab possibly) but we’re talking about exercises that will achieve the goals of the vast majority of gym users here, not the occasional chap with a sprained wrist!  If it’s not a big movement pattern then it probably won’t use lots of muscle, burn lots of calories, stimulate lots of nerves and low and behold, actually work!


When you have a reliable arsenal of exercises in your ‘tool-kit’ you can focus on selecting the ones that best suit your client. There is a saying we use with trainers and instructors ‘screen the client well and the programme writes itself’.  This simply means that a well performed screening provides you with all the necessary information and makes it obvious what exercises to select for your client.


When you screen a client well you’ll decipher their goals (what they want to achieve, why and when they want it), their exercise history and capabilities (are they a beginner or advanced, what have they tried before), the available time they have to train, their exercise preferences (will they train on their own or in a group, indoor, outdoor, hard, easy, what do they like/not like) etc. You should also gain an insight into any concerns they may have with exercise such as doing free weights in the busiest part of the gym as a nervous beginner. 


One final point here; your ability to think critically and remain focused on the needs of your client at all times is imperative.  It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking your value is in learning more fancy new exercises to dazzle your clients with, exercises that you hope may separate you from other trainers.  But ask yourself; “are these exercises what my clients want and need? How will these exercises help my clients achieve their goals quicker? Will my clients perform them and feel comfortable doing so?”  If the answer is no to any of those questions then you probably shouldn’t add them to your repertoire.  Your client will thank you for it by enjoying exercise, sticking to it and getting results!

Movement Pattern


Muscles used

Beginner Option


Easy to teach/learn

Rating (good/bad/ok)

Squat & Lunge


Quads, hamstrings, gluts, some back & core

Without weight on and off a bench

Start holding dumbbell then to bar on shoulder

Relatively easy if use beginner option, otherwise hard

Good-lots of muscle used, can progress without changing movement

Leg extension


Machine with low weight

Increase weight


Ok at best, only one muscle group used, limited progressions


Quads, hamstrings, gluts, some back & core

Could start with step ups onto low box

Increase height of box for step ups, then teach lunge and gradually add weight

Hard exercise to teach, they lose balance, cant keep knee over toe.  Have to start with step ups

Ok-lots of muscle used but harder than squats as balance a real challenge, not good for beginners unless as step up




















Chin up

Lats, deltoids, biceps, trapezius, forearms. Some core

Start on lat pull down machine

Increase weight, progress to pull up on low bar, then try full chin

Easy if start with lat pulldown machine

Good-lots of muscle used, clear order of progression without changing movement much

Bicep curl

Biceps  & forearms

Use bar or light weight

Increase weight

Relatively easy

Only for muscle heads really and even then get more load on biceps with chins, why bother



















Push & Press

Bench press

Pecs, deltoids, triceps,

Chest press machine

Increase weight or reps, move onto bench or floor and do as push-ups

Easy if learn movement on machine first.  Hard if don’t

Good-lots of muscle used, lots of progressions without changing movement

Tricep kickback


Light weight

Increase weight

Hard to learn-just seem to keep swinging their arms!

Bad-why bother, hard to learn and stuff all muscle used, wont get rid of underarm flab with this one

Shoulder press

Delts & triceps

Use machine with light weight

Increase weight, use dumbells

Have to learn on machine, otherwise risky if straight onto free weights

OK, but not much muscle used, get more from chest press/push ups and bench press

Overhead tricep extension


Light weight

Increase weight


Bad-more danger of knocking clients out than toning their arms!












































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