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How To Choose The Right Exercises For A Sports Specific Workout

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 29 May 2017
Hits: 21106

Strength training and sports specific conditioning has really evolved rapidly over the past 10-15 years as many coaches and athletes search for better ways to train and get every little bit of potential from their body. Yet there is a huge gap in knowledge between elite professional athletes and the amateur or even semi professionals, especially when it comes to deciding what exercises to use. Far too many programs and methods are based on body building methods, whose purpose is to look good in a mirror, not to move efficiently or powerfully for sports. And the use of so called "core workouts" with endless abdominal workouts is equally disastrous to any sporting enthusiast, which is ironic as they are used to prevent injury and only end up in creating one! Where do you start? Well there is endless exercises, methods and programs to use, the key is to understand the principles of how to choose exercises that right for you using a simple process I am going to share with you from our Sports Specific program in this article.

The Process For Choosing The Right Exercise

Testing and assessing is so important for it gives you a baseline to measure improvement but also to identify strengths and weaknesses. The old saying "if you are not assessing you are guessing" is so true and the people who achieve greatness in sports are always testing themselves to see what needs to be improved. This would be the first mistake people make as they often use exercises someone else was using, they found something on the internet that looked cool or even because a professional player was doing it.

To know what is the right exercise for you to do, you need to assess your current ability for general movement and also your ability for your chosen sport. How do you do this? And what are you looking for? To see everything I am about to over in detail, you can watch the video below as I take you through our entire sports assessment process.

Due to the complex nature and specifics of various sports it is impossible for me to list all of the exercises we might use for each sport. In the upcoming programs I give you some ideas but these are really just the tip of the iceberg as to what can be used. The most important thing to remember with choosing exercises for your plan is to follow the chart below which I will explain in detail.

Step One - Develop Optimal Functional Movement Patterns

This bottom layer is what everything is built from. If you have a problem at this level, it just gets bigger the higher up you move through the pyramid. Notice that strength and power are not fully developed until step 3? But this is where most athletes begin their training and move to on day one! Skipping the first two steps sets your body up for compensatory movements that lead to poor performance and injury. You cannot make something strong and powerful if it is unstable and not even aligned in the correct position to begin with. We all know that mastering fundamental skills in sports is the key to learning more advanced skills later on, well the same is true for movements in the gym.

What exactly are functional movement patterns?

These are the movement patterns your body uses to create movement. Very, very rarely to muscles work in complete isolation or anywhere close to it. When we move some muscles contract, others stretch and elongate to while some muscles provide stability, and all of this is done within a split second without you having to think about it. This is what is known as a pattern of movement and these patterns are like groups of movements linked together in a big chunk of information. The chunk of information is known as a motor program (like software on a computer).

These motor programs link many movements together all at once to complete a specific task. When you train against this principle by using isolated exercises that do not require this "chunking" you are basically making the system slower, inefficient and dumb! The brain does not understand or recognize how to use any of this information for movement. This would not be good for sports don't you agree?

An example would be the bench press where your body is disconnected from the legs and any need for stability to produce huge amounts of force in a pushing action. By training the weakest part of the pushing movement, (the arms) without the need to stabilize and derive power from the legs first you create a virus in the computer of how it should generate the power. Instead of using the legs it is now learning a new way, a corrupted methods, which will never be as strong or as powerful as the optimal method. All the key patterns you need to learn are in a standing position.

There is 7 key patterns you need to assess and if they are not optimal at the basic level you need to design a program to correct it. I suggest to read the article about Functional Movement or watch the video below that explains each of these patterns in detail and how you assess and correct them.


You can also download our Free Report on Functional Training by clicking the image below. This takes you through each pattern and provides you with excellent exercise regressions and progressions to get you started.

Step Two - Improve Posture Mobility and Stability

It is fair to say that if you completed the first step correctly you will already have completed majority of the hard work for this stage. For many of the things that prevent people from moving well are mobility and stability based. Rarely is it due to a lack of strength, even if there is a strength deficit it would have been created from poor stability and mobility.

This step is important to spend a lot of time in for it can really prepare you for the much more intense and rigorous training ahead. It is in this stage that injury prevention strategies are learned and adopted, and it is also in this stage we spend a lot of time in rehabilitation if you do get injured. The main difference is it is much more fun and easier when you are using this phase for injury prevention. Not to mention how much faster you can move through this, so spend the time to do it right as it will be well worth it.

Mobility and flexibility are not the same and you need to work on both to achieve your ultimate goal. Read our article What Comes First Mobility of Flexibility to understand this concept more.

A very short simple explanation to grasp this concept is that mobility is more movement based and involves moving more than one joint, whereas flexibility is often limited to one joint and non movement based. What you will find is that mobility drills will become more important to you for sports, as they closely mimic the skills and movements you want to enhance for strength and power. The carryover to the movement is much more significant than static stretching. This is not to say static stretching is not important for it is still needed for correcting alignment and postural imbalances, it is just important to understand the roles each plays and what you need for your body.

Below are some great videos on this to help explain the value of using these drills.


Stability on the other hand is learning how to react with perfect reflexes to be able to maintain joint alignment ready for efficient and smooth movement.

And it not just limited to your abs as most people think when using core workouts with planks and all sorts of crunches and weird lying or seated abdominal exercises. The stabilizer muscles are smaller and much weaker than the larger moving muscles, and the only way they can work effectively and influence the integrity of movement is to fire first.

To get these muscles to fire they must be exposed to the reflex situation which is one reason why planks and almost all other core workouts cause more problems than they solve for there is no reflex required. Instead of recruiting stabilizers you are now teaching your body to use the prime movers only which will come at a cost to your ability to move.

A big focus for the athlete here needs to be on single leg and single arm stability for so many sports require perfect stability in these areas. It is always a stability problem that creates some of the biggest injuries like ACL Tears that can end a season or even worse a career! Knowing how to use exercises and workouts to prevent these is not a luxury but critical. You will see in step four just how essential this stage is with the various sports specific exercises we use.

Great articles to read on this topic are below

I have also provided you with a video below of some examples of great stability drills we use with sporting athletes every day. These will give you an idea of what this type of training really involves.


Step Three - Integrated Strength & Power

By now you have got the concept that integrating the body from little toe to little finger in a standing position is what we are looking for in terms of strength training.

The first thing that comes to mind when mentioning strength and power for sports training is Olympic lifting. I myself love Olympic lifts but the relevance to most sports is not as great as it is all hyped up to be. So while these exercises may be used, I believe there is much more valuable exercises to use that deliver a bigger punch in terms of strength and power where you need it.

Watch the video below to see my take on Olympic Lifting.


Here is a look at what most sports do require:

  • Almost all sports require single leg jumping and landing
  • Most sports are multi directional
  • Lateral and rotatory movements are where the real explosiveness must be trained
  • Imbalance and weakness is common in only one leg that wont be detected with bilateral exercises

I must also stress at this point that Power cannot be developed with Strength. And strength cannot be developed without stability and mobility from the previous step. The belief that strength over rides these abilities is where many recreational athletes and sports coaches end up creating huge problems. If you have followed the order set out so far you will be ready to move the next phase quickly and without fear of injury. 

So what are the best strength exercises? Well there is stacks. My favourites include barbell squat press, deadlifts, multi direction lunges, front squats, cable and medicine ball wood-chops, chin ups and all versions of single arm cable push and pulls. I rate the lunge much higher than the squat for it can be completed in all directions and again has a much more athletic movement that mimics most sports, more so than the squat. (see article Why I Love The Lunge for detail on this)

But without a doubt my absolute number one integrated exercise would be the Single Leg Squats and Single Leg Deadlifts.

In sports like basketball, football, soccer, so much of the game is spent on one leg, it amazes me why so few players spend the time to become great at all types of single leg exercise. Even the simple task of running you are on one leg 100% of the time. Most of the serious career ending injuries such as ACL ruptures also occur when on single leg landing and in most cases it could easily have been prevented if a great strength program with an emphasis on single leg was adopted.

To see just how many examples of this you can come up with refer to the chart below.

What about the methods you use for strength training? Again you need to mix this up a lot.

Far too many people are always using 3 sets of 8-12 reps or worse 5 sets of 5 reps, and doing this type of training all year round! You have to keep mixing up the intensity and the volume of the methods to make sure you are effectively training your body for the appropriate goal. This is very important to understand for what you do during the season will be a lot different to what you do in the off season. See the video below for detail on this.


Step Four - Sports Specific Skills

We are now at the stage where we try to take all the things we have worked on separately being mobility, posture, stability, movement skills, strength and even power in their simple form and try to make them more specific to what you need. It is in this stage that you need to be clear on what abilities you need.

There is 8 abilities you need to rank in importance for your sport and then assess your ability on how well you can execute it. You will find more information in the article The 8 Must Haves For All Sports where I take you through each of these abilities with specific examples.

What I am going to show you here is some great sports specific tests to use the help you find out what you need practice with the most. The one thing that has been missing in the exercises so far is REACTIVE skills. Sport is unpredictable, demanding quick decisions, the ability to move explosively in any direction usually within short distances. You cannot premeditate movements for if you get it wrong you are caught out of position. You need to skilled enough to react in a split second and have the ability to apply the brakes and change direction in a blink of an eye. It is this reactive skill that is rarely trained in the gym but if you start using it trust me this is the secret that makes players fast, prevents injuries and able to produce the game winning plays.

Here is how to test your BRAKES!

Refer to the exercises below and see if you can achieve a 5/5 for each test.

1. Single Leg Squat - (Testing: Balance & Eccentric Strength)

  1. Neutral spine/chest up/core and postural control throughout
  2. Full range of motion to desired depth
  3. Balance control
  4. Eccentric control (knee tracking, weight shift, muscle activation)
  5. Strong concentric return to start position

2. Balance Board Tuck & Hold - (Testing: Balance, Reactions & Eccentric Strength)

  1. Strong tuck position with full range of motion
  2. Weight evenly distributed between legs
  3. Core set in neutral spine/chest up/core and postural control throughout
  4. Adjustments from lower body NOT through counter balance of upper body or arm movement.
  5. Maintain knee alignment

3. Balance Board Double Leg Eccentric Quick Drop Squat- (Testing: Balance, Reactions & Eccentric Strength)

  1. Board doesn’t touch ground on drop
  2. Maintain posture and knee alignment
  3. No hesitation on drop
  4. Able to hold for 5 sec
  5. Full range of motion achieved

4. Dynamic Coupling Lunges - (Testing: Agility, Explosive Speed, Eccentric Strength)

  1. Explosive take-off
  2. Use of athletic arms
  3. Feet land at the same time
  4. Land in lunge position
  5. Maintain posture and knee alignment

5. Lateral Bounds - (Testing: Explosive Speed, Agility, Eccentric Strength)

  1. Balanced athletic take-off position
  2. Triple extension achieved during jump (lateral and vertical displacement)
  3. Use of athletic arms
  4. Triple flexion achieved when landing (lateral and vertical deceleration)
  5. Control of balance on single leg landing

Distance - : Trial #1____cm; Trial #2____cm

6. Hop and BOSU Land - (Testing: Explosive Speed, Balance, Agility)

  1. Use of athletic arms
  2. Explosive take-off
  3. Land with bent knee
  4. Stick landing for 3 sec
  5. Maintain posture and knee alignment

7. Medicine Ball Squat & Press Throw - (Testing: Explosive Speed, Agility)

  1. Core set in neutral spine/chest up/core and postural control throughout
  2. Triple flexion achieved on landing
  3. Explosive concentric up phase: triple extension to throw
  4. Even force distribution with arms (path of ball)
  5. Speed of movement: quick, coupling, loading, etc

Distance: Trial #1____cm; Trial #2____cm

8. Sargent Test (Vertical Jump) - (Testing: Reactions & Explosive Speed)

Height: Trial #1____cm; Trial #2____cm

9. 505 Test – AGILITY TEST - (Testing agility, change of direction and speed)

Record time it takes for athlete to run from the 10m to 15m then back to 10m markers. Note: Can record 10m sprint (ie. From 0m marker to 10m marker) as well if desired.

10. 20-40 Meter Sprint Test - (Testing explosive speed)

Now you have completed all the sports specific tests you will have a great idea as to where your weaknesses and strengths are. You should also have a good idea of what your sport requires more of. For example a tennis player will not much more lateral agility and rotary power than a rugby player. The rugby player will need much more strength and explosive power moving forwards.

For more ideas on designing great programs for all sports you will find in our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets below. In this we give you over 100 different workouts to make sure you get the most out of every training session. Click here for more information of what is inside or on the image below to go straight to the shop.




We really have covered a lot of stuff. A lot more to training for sports than doing a few bicep curls and the bench press I am sure you would agree. But like I said at the start that is often what I see many sports people doing or worse sitting on machines, or worse than that not doing strength training at all and over abusing cardio. If you are not using stuff I have shown you in this article you are missing out and never going to be the best athlete no matter how much you practice your sport. The days of just running and spending more time training for your sport are over, you will be left behind by the people who have the missing ingredients like change of direction, balance, explosive power and coordination that make them have so much time and be able to execute tough sports skills better than you. 

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

And if you live in Melbourne and would like to know more about our Sports Program fill in the form below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to book a free movement and postural assessment.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Athletes Acceleration Speed Training & Game Like Speed - by Lee Taft
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Knee Injuries In Athletes - by Sports Injury Bulletin
  • The ACL Solution - by Robert G Marx
  • Understanding & Preventing Non-Contact ACL Injuries - American Orthopaedic Society For Sports Medicine
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Balance - By Peter Twist