The Perils of Choice in the Realm of Exercise and Training

– Derek M. Hansen –

In a continuing effort to expand my base of knowledge, I find myself looking to other fields of expertise. On the advice of a colleague of mine, I began to view the on-line presentations provided on “TED” is short for Technology, Entertainment and Design. It started out as a conference that brought together people from these three fields, but has now become a forum for some of the best, brightest and most innovative thinkers in the world. Their presentations must not be any longer than 18 minutes in length. posts the best of these presentations for free, with over 400 TEDTalks available for viewing. I download many of these videos to my iPod to view or listen to when I have a bit of down time. The “less-than-18-minutes” format works great for me since I don’t have a lot of down time.

One TEDTalk that I viewed recently got me thinking about the problems of having a lot of choice at our disposal. Psychologist Barry Schwartz provides a presentation on the Paradox of Choice, challenging the central tenet of modern societies – freedom of choice. Our grocery stores are full of hundreds of options for salad dressings and our cell phones have every bell and whistle imaginable. While many believe that the availability of unlimited choice brings happiness, Schwartz argues that too much choice can lead to paralysis, unhappiness and depression.

Schwartz discusses the tendency for too much choice to produce paralysis in decision making. “With so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all,” states Schwartz. Additionally, even if we can overcome paralysis and make a choice, we often end up less satisfied with the result of our choice than if we had fewer options to choose from. “Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results,” points out Schwartz.


Implications of Choice for Exercise

Many people would argue that a wide range of choices for exercise is a good thing. Athletes and the general population are motivated to train more frequently when they are presented with exercises that are fresh and new. Doing the same exercise routine day in and day out can be boring and stagnant. While I agree that variety and choice are good, there are some issues with following a training program that is choice oriented:

Just because you can choose different exercises, doesn’t mean you should. I become concerned when coaches and athletes choose to use different exercises based on desire, as opposed to need. Exercise selection should be based on accomplishing the specific goals of your training program. A proper training program involves identifying goals, developing an overall plan for accomplishing those goals and selecting exercises that serve that end.

Athletes in specific sports must be exposed to activities that add value to their performances. Athletes that run must be exposed to activities that include running, making adjustments to velocity, duration of work and recovery times. Other training activities that assist in developing running performance can include weightlifting, plyometrics, hill running and specific running drills that build strength and technique. Choice beyond these fundamental training methods can lead an athlete away from performance improvements.

– In a free market economy, where “professionals” in the fitness and conditioning industry are trying to push many different options for exercise, individuals can be easily overwhelmed with both good and bad choices. Having worked as a coach and conditioning consultant for over 15 years, I have seen many so-called “professionals” pushing various exercises and exercise equipment that may provide variety, but not the results that they promise. Responding to the basic human desire of society to have more choice, fitness and conditioning professionals are trying to make a name for themselves by inventing new, but poorly conceived exercises and protocols, without considering the consequences of their actions. It makes me reflect on the quote by famous basketball coach, John Wooden: “The worst thing about new books is that they keep us from reading the old ones.”

The adaptation process requires consistent application of fundamental training techniques. Choice and variation without appropriate repetition and progression will lead to less than satisfying results. While using the same exercises and protocols for 3-6 weeks to consolidate strength, speed or endurance may not be exciting, it is often required to achieve meaningful improvements.


Individuals should be educated to understand that good training plans involve not simply adjusting the mode of exercise, but other training parameters including load, volume, intensity, recovery and regeneration. Choice may create a situation where athletes and coaches are chasing exercises rather than manipulating other key parameters.

I often liken the dilemma of choice in sport and exercise to that of the artistic realm where too much choice and variety can also be problematic. The sculptor who is chiseling away at granite may take one too many stone chips off the final piece. The painter who has a broad palette of colors may add one too many brush strokes to the landscape. And, the composer may add one too many notes to his symphony. In all cases, having too much choice and freedom can ruin the possibility of creating a masterpiece. As coaches and athletes, we must have the confidence and security to move ahead with the key choices that will help to create our athletic masterpiece, while keeping our expectations for improvement at a realistic level.





  1. Great article! I often find myself temporarily paralyzed when I try to program my high school students. When I travel to India and Africa (and fewer options), I am able to declutter my own training.

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