Pritchard: Exercise selection and specificity (column)

Jimmy Pritchard
Better Version of You

In recent history the most commonly used methods for exercise selection as they pertain to sport have been their similarity in movement. While there may be some merit to this approach, it fails to address the transferability of the movements. Simply put, just because something looks sport- or task-specific, does not mean it is the best choice. One of the most common errors I see in programming is the selection of exercises based solely on their “specificity” with no data to support them. Each and every movement should be selected with a specific goal in mind, understanding what stimulus it produced.

The Process

When an athlete or coach seeks to improve vertical jump, one of the most common exercises is the weighted squat jump, and for good reason. Visually it appears highly specific to the desired outcome and does indeed improve jump height (when programmed correctly). Interestingly enough however, a less visually specific exercise commonly used among high-level coaches has an even greater transferability rate. This deviates from the traditional thought process of, “In order to get better at something, do that thing,” however it has its reasons. The exercise I’m referring to is the power clean. Rate of force development and peak force are higher in this movement compared to a weighted jump (again when programmed correctly) as well as providing the trainee with a more adequate teaching tool of triple extension. It can be argued that greater athleticism is gained through this movement, but that is rather subjective, and it is better to attribute its benefits to the force characteristics previously discussed. It is perhaps best to pair this movement with a weighted squat jump for optimal jump height gains, but the major point is to understand that although not as visually “specific” to jumping, the power clean is highly transferable.

Digging deeper

Understanding how training modalities elicit different adaptations is key to successful programming. With this type of programming, the thought process shifts from “What’s the best exercise for a skier?” to “What’s the best exercise for anti rotation core stability?” You begin to understand what physiological qualities are necessary for sport and how you can train for them rather than attempting to mimic sport in hopes that they will transfer. Always remember that every movement outside the field of play or practice is non-specific to a certain degree no matter how hard you try to emulate it.

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One of my favorite quotes regarding this manner is by Nick Winkelman, who says, “Athletes are like race-car drivers, and us strength coaches are like auto shop garages. The athlete brings their car to us and we help improve the car so the driver (or athlete) has better material to work with”. I am paraphrasing a bit here of course, but Winkelman’s main point is that we do not tell a race car driver how to drive; we simply provide him or her with a better car to get the job done. What I do with athletes is aim to provide them with better physiological qualities for their sport, as I’m am not sports coach nor do I pretend to be one.

How this relates back to exercise selection is via selection of movements that will contribute toward a known outcome. This may mean doing your research and understanding periodization or rep schemes. A set of six reps on a back squat can vary depending on load, tempo, sets and frequency, all contributing to a different goal at that given time such as strength or power. Exercises, rep schemes and sports are much too complex to be so simply labeled. Consciously crafting programs are an art and science that are never perfect but must be constantly adapted. The biggest piece of advice I have to offer is that before selecting any movement or training modality, first gain a firm understanding of its use. The creator of an exercise program should be able to look at each component of that program and have a sound answer for why each piece is included.

Jimmy Pritchard has a BSc in exercise science from Colorado Mesa University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the director of strength and conditioning at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Contact him at 970-331-3513 or Check out his website

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