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On the surface that may seem like it would be a fairly simple idea to grasp; and it is.  However a lot of people lose sight of that when actually designing sport-specific training.

Sport-Specific Training is one of the biggest buzzwords in the fitness training industry today.  It’s designed and geared as a marketing tool to get athletes to come train at your place.  If you’re a personal trainer or have a gym that’s catering to athletes, you probably throw the word sport-specific around – I know at Viking Performance Training, we use the term. However as a word, it is poorly misunderstood, and commonly misused… and you can tell by a lot of training that different coaches or different gyms do that there’s a misunderstanding of what sport-specific actually means. 

This goes back several decades.  For those of you who love your strength and conditioning history, who are true students of the science of training and the human body, then I highly suggest reading a few of these original authors who penned some of the greatest pieces of literature in strength and conditioning:

  • Anatoliy Bondarchuk, author of Transfer of Training; regarded as the most accomplished hammer throw coach of all time.
  • Dr. Vladimir Zatsiorsky, author of Science and Practice of Strength Training and other works; a world-renowned expert in the biomechanics of human motion, and Professor of Kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University.
  • Dr. Mel Siff, co-author of Supertraining; a Doctor of Physiology and senior lecturer at University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Contrary to how sport-specific training is often described, it should be less about the idea of training that LOOKS like a given sport, but rather about PREPARING an athlete for that sport.  On the surface that may seem like it would be a fairly simple idea to grasp; and it is.  However a lot of people lose sight of that when actually designing sport-specific training.  A good rule of thumb is if an athlete’s training mimics the athlete’s sport, it’s not true sport-specific training and is likely not optimal for their development.

What do I mean by that?  Let’s use baseball as an example. Weighted ball throws for pitchers and weighted bat swings for batters are just different movements that mimic what those players are going to do on the field.  These have their place if done appropriately and if their flaws are considered but are not true sport-specific training.  These types of movements should be a little extra cherry on top, near the end of a highly developed athlete’s training cycle.  They should not be the bread and butter of a sport-specific training regimen.

True sport-specific training is about matching the demands, intensities, and directions of the sport.  Rather than training that mirrors the superficial movements seen on the field, training should focus on the deeper, underlying strengths that make those movements possible. 

Sport-specific training should consider the longevity of the sport and the energy systems needed to match that longevity, specifically the type of intensity and appropriate rest/recovery intervals.  It should have a focus on training the appropriate muscles for strength, power, and injury prevention.  Not only the pure strength of the athlete’s muscles and joints, but also training for maximum efficiency and performance; readiness to absorb forces that will be coming at the athlete at game speed, changing direction and changing speed unpredictably.  And often overlooked is the need to outlast possible overuse, a huge issue that is inherent to some sports and exacerbated by yearlong play.

Each of these topics could make an entire blog post but, without going too deep, the number one thing you need to make sure an athlete is trained for their sport is to make sure that their overall muscles are stronger and well-balanced.  So, ironically, the top rule of sport specific training is: get stronger!

Now, while you really can’t be too strong for any sport, you can spend too much time training for strength when strength-only training no longer benefits the athlete the most.  Going back to those earlier authors that we talked about, Anatoliy Bondarchuk has a huge library focused on that; essentially, spending and wasting time training those characteristics which no longer need to be trained when an athlete would get a lot more benefit to their performance by focusing on something else.

But how is that possible?  How can you determine when to continue to train strength and when you are possibly wasting time by continuing to train strength?  If you remember from one of the earlier blog posts that we put up, long term training is about laying a foundation very similar to a pyramid.  You want to continue to increase the strength of the foundation, the overall capacity of the body to do work and the capacity of the body to recover from that work.

As you build that capacity, as you improve muscle mass and body composition, you want those new muscles to become stronger, to be able to increase their force output.  On top of that, you want to take that higher level of strength and teach it to be faster, more explosive, to have a quicker initiative and reaction time, and get that power and explosiveness.  Finally, you want to take all of those things and make sure they’re going to be able to perform reliably and repeatably in the context of a specific sport.

Endurance athletes need to be able to perform constantly without stopping for a certain period of time or distance, whereas pure power athletes such as an Olympic weightlifter or a thrower in track and field needs to be able to put all of their energy in a single, very explosive moment followed by a fairly long recovery period afterwards.  Athletes out on a competitive field of play, such as a basketball court or a football field or a soccer pitch, need to continue to have explosive bursts of energy interspersed with slower periods of less intensity but maintaining mental and physical readiness.

All of that comes into play and all of those factors take shape as you build up that pyramid from the foundation to strength to explosive power.  You don’t want to continue working on one certain part of that pyramid without taking into account whether it’s the proper time to actually work on the next part of the pyramid.  Making sure athletes are stronger is number one.  Then, are they actually stronger and able to move in the directions that are going to directly go and be a part of their actions on the sporting field?

A strong example of this, and one of the most common forms of directional strength, is called the triple extension.  That’s extension of the hip, the knee, and the ankle joint all at once.  That triple extension is found in the majority of explosive sports movements.  Sprinting, jumping – whether off one leg or two legs – changing direction, cutting from running straight to running at a diagonal angle to escape a defender.  All of those motions involve that triple extension; that violent, explosive movement of the hip, the knee, and the ankle at one time.

So, triple extension is a highly valuable component to many athletes’ training, whether they play different sports or not.  This is why you see so many athletes still do the same basic exercises.  Those same exercises are fulfilling the demand of those sports, of the movements seen on the field.  The exact movements may vary but the underlying action of the body is the same.

Two other important examples are rotation and the resistance of rotation.  Some sports are obviously rotational in nature, such as tennis, baseball, volleyball, gymnastics; all with different sorts of twisting and turning.  But then you have some sports which you may not realize can still use a lot of rotation or anti-rotation.  Any sport with running, with sprinting, involves some rotational strength and power, or the ability to resist it.

Any time your arm and your legs move when you’re sprinting, you’re talking about opposing parts of the body.  Going back to baseball as an example, this means that the same muscles, the same movement pattern, which is causing rotation and twisting with a baseball bat is going to be involved every time you sprint or every time you jump off one leg while running for a base.  Very few parts of the body are actually able to just push.  Most will push and rotate when taken out into a sporting platform.

Then, resisting rotation is huge for the ability to absorb force; to make sure that you’re only moving because you intended to move, not because somebody else is moving you there, and that you can have the highest amount of power to go with it.  Resisting rotation is also an integral component to remaining healthy.

More specific demands of sports break down in the same way.  But that’s when they take a continued eye for deeper and deeper understanding of the sports and their body mechanisms. Sticking with baseball, take a pitcher’s highly explosive, high-energy effort of throwing a baseball.  Many of them throwing 80, 90-plus miles-an-hour pitches, often hundreds of times over the course of several games or a season.

This is an exceptionally explosive movement and it’s why, as a baseball pitcher, even as just a baseball player, so many of them have shoulder problems.  And you keep seeing it at younger and younger ages as kids continue to specialize in sports and baseball even longer.  But the main mechanism of injury during a baseball throw is not during what people think of as the throw; it’s when your body is actually slowing the arm down after it’s already released the ball.

Because the body understands that you were trying to do this explosive movement.  But now it also needs to stop it and slow it down.  And if the body’s not ready to absorb that force eccentrically, and to slow it down healthily, then it’s chaos.  It’s the equivalent to speeding up in your car and then just slamming the brake on rather than braking gradually.  These are the demands in sport specific training which are so commonly overlooked. 

Also overlooked are recuperation, energy intensity, and rest intervals.  Many times, athletes are told to train to way higher points of fatigue than typically exist in their sport.  In a lot of sports, people are honest about themselves; yes, their sport is tiring.  But rather than a sustained, nonstop, go-go-go type of exertion, the dynamic is more typically explosive and then rest, explosive then rest.  Yet it doesn’t take much of a genius to look around and see that most coaches and most trainers are still adapting the go-go-go mentality.  They just want to treat it as conditioning when in reality the athletes actually get more recovery on the field than they’re accounting for.

And again, the typical response to that is, “Well, we want to make sure that they’re ready for anything and then the sport will be easier.”  That’s true to a degree but that’s also not how the body necessarily works.  The body, when training-tired, will function worse.  Which means your speed will be worse, your power will be worse, everything involving a high-quality movement will actually be worse.

A final consideration before wrapping this post up is mobility and flexibility.  You have to be able to move in the direction that your sport is adapted to.  That can mean extending through your hips, moving laterally, having flexible or mobile ankles and Achilles.  However, you do not want flexibility that comes from a weakness in stabilizing or resisting flexion.

You see this way worse in female athletes just due to their propensity to be hypermobile more often than male athletes.  A lot of times, for female athletes, it’s more important to train their muscles and their joints to become more stable rather than more flexible because they may already have the flexibility that they need for this sport.  So, more flexibility is not always better.  Having ENOUGH flexibility and then stability to keep it, hold it safe, and focus on great performance is the real goal. Sport-specific training is a vast subject area and we will come back to it in more detail in later posts.  But for now, hope everybody had a great E