I was asked this question a few times, just today. So, I thought it would be a good idea to review how I choose which exercises I use when training various clients. Like a carpenter or surgeon, an experienced trainer has many, proven tools in his/her training tool box. What tools end up in that tool box are a result of their experience and training philosophy.
Tools (exercises) work in the context of a training program, which is a specific plan customized to an individual to help him or her achieve a training goal. A workout is just a random selection of exercises without consideration of an individuals short or long-term goals. You should have good reason why you are selecting an exercise. How does that exercise fit into your training program?
Many new trainers and those new to exercise training are at a disadvantage because of their limited experience. It takes time to see all the pros and cons of each type of exercises on various clientele. Often the inexperienced trainer or new exerciser will simply choose what they see others using, or what the gym has to offer, or the latest fitness gizmos. Most commerical gyms are not outfitted with the best tools. They are outfitted with what will attract the most people to join the gyms.
My training philosophy has been shaped over the last 14 years. It can be summarized in a couple sentences: Get people moving well by developing adequate joint range of motion, stability, and control. Then build a maximal strength foundation, as it improves all movement capabilities and tolerance. Then, develop specific needs. Make the process enjoyable. I use exercises that allow for free-motion. That is, the client needs to know how to move properly and must maintain that form. Free weights, such as: barbells, dumbells, kettlebells, and body weight (calisthenics), along with the free-motion cable column are my tools of choice. Fixed-path machines allow you to move the lever in any manner, not emphasising ideal biomechanics.
Additionally, there are some other basic principles that must be known. First, there are a lot of good tools (exercises), but they must be applied appropriately, or they become less than ideal tools (exercises). Second, always assess the client so you know their specific needs/deficits. Third, know the client's goal and keep them moving in that direction.
Once I know where a client is starting and where they want to go, the next step is to apply a training program template.
A basic template that I use has six categories:
A. Leg/Hip Bilateral Strength
D. Single Leg Stability
E. Shoulder Stability
F. Torso Stability
Within each category, I have a list of many possible exercises. I try to pick the most appropriate exercise (or modification of that exercise) in each category. This template makes it quick and easy to develop a program for a new client. Once this program is started, I can always make some minor changes as I see appropriate. I use this new training plan for 4-6 weeks. I want a client to get comfortable with each exercise and be able to progressively overload (add more weight or reps) their body before changing the program significantly. While variety can be good, a good program makes only subtle changes (you were choosing the best exercises, so some exercises will be done for a long, long time).
How much weight, how many reps, how many sets, how often, and how much rest are other important variables that will have to be addressed in separate posts.