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Strength Training Exercise Selection- II

‘Sports Specific Training’ and ‘Functional Strength’ are terms that have gained a lot of popularity in the last decade. The genesis of these terms come from the principle of specificity, which basically states that the body gets better at doing what it practices doing. This specificity related to training can be linked to the neuro-muscular system, hormonal systems and energy systems. It was legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi who once said ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect’. That is specificity in a nutshell. But how does it apply to the world of strength training.? The principle of specificity is, in itself, sound. However, as with many ideas presented to people they can be miss applied or misinterpreted if they are taken to extremes in the wrong context.

Do certain strength exercises have specific uses?

It is obvious that certain exercises in the gym are specific to certain body parts. It is easy to spot a guy who spends all his time on the bench press and bicep curl exercises because he will be more developed in the areas that he has given more attention. But again this specificity is a strength and hypertrophy specificity and not a specificity in terms of skill transfer.

Using strength exercises to balance & correct relative weakness in certain areas of the body is another use of specificity in strength training. For example hamstring curls or Romanian deadlifts may be utilised in the training of a marathon runner who exhibits quad dominance as a result of the repetitive preferential loading of the quadriceps muscles. But again this is strength specificity, targeting weaknesses in an exact area of the body. It is not complex motor skill specificity.

Functionality? The 2 Important Questions

To design a truly effective strength training programme it is important that we answer 2 simple questions: ‘what is the function of the athlete?’ and ‘what is the function of the training modality that you seek to employ (in this case strength training)?’ So often nowadays trainers seems to be focussing on what is the function of the athlete or client they are training (which is an important question in itself) but have lost sight of the main reason behind strength training which is to increase the bodies ability to produce force and withstand force. Simply put ‘to make it stronger’. Period. This has lead to ‘strength coaches’ developing what are essentially trying to be gym based sports skill training sessions. I will go on to discuss why, if this approach is followed, it can be detrimental to both skill development and strength development.

If the questions of athlete function and modality function are out of balance we are liable to have a less than optimal programme.

What about skills in strength training?

The primary skill based element of strength training is making sure the exercise technique is perfect to maximise benefits and safety of the exercise. Strength training is not skill training for sports. You don’t need to contort yourself into strange positions with cables and elastic bands to strengthen your golf swing. The foundation of force production is the same for all sports. If I took a golfer into the gym taught him to squat, deadlift, press weights overhead and perform weighted pull ups and dips then he would increase his strength base. He would have increased his bodies ability to generate force. In order to work on the sports specific skill of his golf swing I would pass the client onto a golf coach to work on it on the golf course. The skill of striking a golf ball is developed on the golf course with a club in hand and not in the gym with a barbell or cable stack.

There are noteable general areas of of skill transfer from the gym to the sports field. Virtually all sports involve a rapid and coordinated triple extension of the hip, knee and ankle. A general description which fits both squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifting and sprinting. The skill crossover for these exercises to sports such as track and field athletics, soccer, and rugby should be more accurately termed ‘sports general training’ (a term coined by US Strength and Conditioning Coach Mike Boyle) rather than sports specific. It is proficiency at these basic motor abilities that makes one a good athlete in general. It is not ‘specific’ to any one individual sport.

Why can’t I take a skill from my sport and try and design a strength exercise to mimick it in the gym?

Well the first thing to say is you can. If you want to waste time. But, if we take a skill say ,for example, the golf swing that is usually performed under very low load (low force production) and high velocity (a fast movement) and adjust its position on the force velocity curve by performing it under higher load with decreased speed we drastically change the muscle firing patterns. This in effect means that we are practicing a different skill altogether. However because there is some similarity in set up and stance etc there may be a higher chance of neural (skill) confusion making this more likely to be detrimental to the golf swing. Not quite what we are after. Going back to Vince Lombardi , if you want to get better at the skill of swinging a golf club then you must practice perfect golf swing technique. All a loaded cable ‘golf swing’ will make you better at is… you guessed it… the loaded cable golf swing. Now that is specificity in action.

What about sled dragging, and exercises like that which can be used to teach the body to apply force in different planes of movement?

As I mentioned in part 1 of this blog there are applications for these. It is a great form of general conditioning and can have great transfer to sports such as rugby where you may have to apply huge forces while running with a couple of opponents trying to pull you back from behind. But researchers have suggested that for training the skill of sprinting the load of any resisted work should be relatively small in order that the machanics (eg joint angles) and muscle firing patterns remain the same as unloaded sprinting.

Is there any place for unilateral (single leg) exercises which are utilised by many runners?

Exercises like the walking lunge and the Bulgarian split squat are superb alternatives to the squats if squats are contraindicated, for example in the case of a back injury. They recruit a lot of stabilising muscles around the hip, knee and ankle and can teach the trainee to apply force from a narrower base of support. This can be beneficial to sports people and can also be great progressions in rehabilitation from injuries to these areas. Again the question is a matter of function. These exercises are great at doing what they do. But they are not running technique drills. Approach them with a view to improving force production and get strong. Then get out on the pitch/road/track and run your socks off!

In summary, where strength and conditioning are concerned, you get better at what you do. If you want to get strong work hard at mastering the lifts I listed in part 1 of this blog. If sports skills are what you most need to work on then then go and practice your sport.

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