Sport specific training is a phrase often used by sport coaches, parents, athletes, and trainers. Unfortunately, it has become more of a catch phrase than a purposeful statement, used by those often clueless on the actual meaning or implementation. Sport Specific Training (SST) is well researched, and there are tried and true principles of specificity which create a higher level of transfer (also known as Dynamic Correspondence), from the weight room or training floor, to performance in the actual sport. This concept is lost on many trainers, who instead use gimmicky tricks to give the allusion of sport specificity, instead of focusing on the scientific principles which are actual shown to improve performance. This two part series aims to shed some light on these ineffective gimmicks, while also highlighting what sport specific training principles truly are, and how they can be incorporated into a training program to improve the likelihood of transfer to sport.
Sport Specific Training IS NOT
Mimicking sport movements in the weight room
Many athletes, and misinformed trainers, think that adding load to a sporting movement in the weight room, will allow you to produce more force, speed, or power for that movement on the sports field. This was a common misconception 15 years ago, before the science had caught up and proven it to be extremely ineffective.
Adding heavy resistance to high speed sport movements, will change the mechanics of that movement. For example, a baseball swing requires precise timing, muscle sequencing, and motor control to drive the bat down the specific path and make contact with the ball at exactly the right time and angle. Since a typical bat weighs 2lb,adding even a small weight to that movement could triple the weight of the bat. Your body will then need to recruit different muscles or a different sequence of muscle firing to do the work, since the workload has significantly increased. Training this new sequence, motor pathway, and movement mechanics over time will lead to a breakdown in the optimal swing strategy required to make that specific ball contact discussed earlier.
A loaded sport movement, will slow down the actual movement. This concept again seems counterintuitive, since many think that the greater strength brought on by adding load, will allow you to perform the movement faster once the load is removed. This seems logical in theory, but has been proven to have the opposite effect in practice. Montoya, et al 2009, showed that adding even a small load (weighted donut) to a baseball swing led to a slower bat swing velocity. They showed in reality, to improve bat swing velocity, it was more effective to swing with a lighter bat, to train the central nervous system (CNS) to fire faster, leading to greater bat swing velocity with the normal bat.
Training explosive sport movements that are typically performed unloaded in sport, with a heavier load, can lead to serious injury. As an athlete builds competency in a specific pattern, he develops the specific strength in the muscles and connective tissue of the required joints, to perform the necessary movements. If a sport implement or weight is introduced that is significantly larger in mass, the connective tissues and strength have not been developed to handle this new load. The athlete will then be forced to compensate, even so slightly it is difficult to notice with the naked eye, in order to perform the same movement with this new load. Adding volume of repetitions on top of this already compensatory strategy is a recipe for disaster. The structures cannot support the new demand of this activity, and as the body compensates, it creates havoc up the kinetic chain and will inevitably lead to injury.
Incorporating Sport Implements into Common Exercises
This one requires a lot less scientific backing, and can be explained with some simple common sense or logical thought. Using a sport implement during a training drill or exercise, to make that exercise look more sport specific, is nothing more than a parlor trick used by the uneducated. How does performing a squat while simultaneously catching a football possibly have any carry over to a football game? Will the athlete ever be performing a slow controlled squat movement, with an external load, on the field in the middle of a play while trying to catch the football? Or will a hockey player ever have to stand on an unstable surface like a bosu ball (hint the ice is NOT an unstable surface), with a band pulling his knees together, while puck handling a tennis ball? The logic behind this is just downright ridiculous.
The reasoning conversation behind these types of “sport specific” drills usually sounds something like this:
Observer: “What is the goal here? What are you trying to accomplish?”
Trainer: “We are working on strengthening, and explosiveness, while improving dynamic balance, core strength, motor control, stability, and hand eye coordination while puck handling, because he needs all of that for hockey.”
Sounds like this sport specific drill can do everything short of curing cancer and feeding your parking meter. Anytime a trainer or therapist gives you an answer sounding like the answer above, claiming that one exercise is improving dozens of various abilities all in one, run for the hills. This usually means that the exercise is actually doing nothing, as they have combined a handful of training parameters into one drill, significantly reducing the effectiveness of any of them, and turning the training into an exercise influenced circus act.
If you allowed this rationale, when does it end? At what point does it become too ridiculous? Would an MMA fighter need to perform exercises in his gloves and shorts while being kicked in the head? Should a surfer or swimmer perform his exercises while you splash buckets of water in his face? If those sound ridiculous, go back and look at the rationale behind the other sport specific exercises, and tell me how they are different.
Sometimes trainers incorporate this type of enterTRAINment simply in an effort to create buy in from the athletes. While this is a better answer than the clueless ramblings above, I would still challenge you to get out of using gimmicks and tricks to create buy in, do it the old fashioned way…by teaching and educating your clients, coaches, trainers, PT’s, and aides on what will really create effective change, and how that will transfer to sport.
Montoya, BS, Brown, LE, Coburn, JW, and Zinder, SM. Effect of warm-up with different weighted bats on normal baseball bat velocity. J Strength Cond Res 23(5): 1566-1569, 2009