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Sunday, December 13, 2009

What is Sport Specificity? Do we misapply training principles?



Volleyball athletes often have to hit a "full squat" position.
By Oliver Whaley

What prompted this article was a recent statement from a college professor about training volleyball players that I had heard while in a weight training prescription class at BYU. It got me thinking about the whole sport specificity topic in weight room training. These are my opinions and I am open for feedback and criticism so feel free to post any comments.

Sport specificity has become a huge topic of conversation in sport training. Finding ways to best mimic the specific movement of our sport particularly in the weight room in hopes of achieving some high rate of transfer has become the “Holy Grail”. I like variation, variation is good. It makes things fun, keeps things interesting and prevents us from becoming stale. I like to add exercises into my training that work the large and small muscle groups of my body in ways that mimic the positions of my specific event (such as the hammer drill variations I posted). Instead of doing standard dumbbell rows or bent over rows I may do them standing using a cable machine. Why? Because when I throw the hammer I am on my feet countering the weight of the ball and its fun to add variation to basic strength movements.

But really, how much is too far? And how much really is transferable to the event itself? I firmly believe that the only real sport specific movement is the movement of the sport itself. Although you can mimic the movement, anytime you change position of the movement to adjust to a heavier or lighter weight or when adapting a specific exercise to the movement. The positions of the movement change and the mechanics change also, even if it is just slight. The only real way to train a specific movement is to do the movement itself. So for hammer throwing it would be throwing the hammer. I am not saying there is no benefit to doing other movements that mimic the event and overload specific positions of the event in the weight room. But I think we place far too much emphasis on this whole "sport specific" concept. The foremost purpose of weight room work is to get strong, develop power, and then learn to apply that to our event through practice of the actual event itself.

Efficient transfer of the power into a given movement can only happen through precise technique and in the case of throwing, precision technique at maximal speed. There is a point where strength and power levels become sufficient that they don't really impact the distance of the throws anymore. Then concern should be on maintaining the strength and power levels that have been gained in the weight room over the years and continuing to focus on developing precision technique.

I think it then becomes more of a necessity to add some variation or more sport specific movements in the weight room to keep the body feeling fresh, for fun, and to avoid injury of heavy lifting. And yes they do have their benefits. It is impossible to train at heavy loads without experiencing some bodily breakdown. Generally you can't overload the muscles on more sport specific movements than say heavy squats or cleans. These movements should focus on using lighter weights and moving them quick. I had a professor once talk about training a volley player by having her do squats at 2% under the angle at which she jumped up for a block and never going past parallel. Why? Because of the principle of specificity he said. But why would you do that? Why wouldn't you just develop dynamic strength through the full range of motion?

There are several problems with this professor’s statement. First, it is a gross oversimplification to take one aspect of sport performance, such as a volleyball player blocking at the net, and focus on that one movement. What happens when the opposing player tips the ball back? Then this volleyball player (or one of her teammates) will have to quickly drop into full squat-like position to get under the ball and dig it to keep it in play. I once had a football coach tell me that since football players never get into a full squat position, he only has his players do quarter squats. That is fine until an outside force, like another player (or two or three) makes contact and drives him into a position below a quarter squat.

There are several factors that need to be considered in program design and exercise selection. One of them is injury prevention. ACL injuries among female athletes are a huge concern. There is plenty of research showing that muscle imbalances are a common factor when these injuries happen. Partial movements, such as quarter squats are an excellent way to develop imbalances. The body was made to move through its full range of motion. While it is detrimental to push beyond the normal range of motion (think lumbar spine injuries in female gymnasts), it is also detrimental to chronically work in a restricted range of motion. Connective tissues shorten, improper firing sequences become ingrained, and strength imbalances develop.

To develop optimal leg strength and mobility, full range training through the natural range of motion is best. Of course, at times injury or other factors may call for adaptations, but whenever possible full range movements are preferred. Saying that this sport stance or position only requires this range of motion is like saying my rent, car payment, and grocery bill equals X amount each month. That’s all I need. Does anyone have too much money? Why limit strengthening to a partial range of motion?

Back to the volleyball example, if I were trying to help a player improve his or her blocking strength, I would include push presses in the program. That develops the short quick myotatic reflexive explosion (quickly reversing direction and stimulating the stretch reflex) while simultaneously extending the arms overhead forcefully. I would also include full range squatting and pulling movements, both for injury prevention and for dropping down to get under spikes and tips at the net.

So maybe this would be a good time for all of us to evaluate our own weight room use. Maybe we all could benefit from simplifying things a little more in the weight room, spending a little less time there, and working movements through their full range of motion. Because the most important thing a thrower can do is throw. The weightroom is merely a piece in the equation. Work hard, but more importantly, work smart.
It is a very shortsighted oversimplification to say that football players never have to bend their legs beyond a quarter squat position.
Being able to hit these positions prepares your body for a wide range of activities.

2 comments:

  1. I agree whole-heartedly with this post! So many people focus on "sport specific exercises" but when it comes down to it, every exercise uses its own set of muscles and movement patterns. I'm a hammer thrower and I'm all about heavy flat/high twists among other exercises, but at the end of the day, all those are doing is making my back and rotational muscles strong...I still need to put in the work in the circle to make use of those stronger muscles/make the ball go far. Good post!

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  2. james smith (the thinker)said,
    In short, special strength training characterizes modalities that possess varying degrees of transfer to the competition exercise in terms of biodynamic and bioenergetic structure. In this way, various degrees of the kinematic and neuromuscular structure of the competition exercise are enhanced via the appropriately dosed and constructed movements.

    Alternatively, most western attempts at “sport specific training” are perversions of the objective of special strength training because Western coaches/trainers are not properly educated due to the insufficient entities of academia and certifying organizations. As a result, “sport specific training” usually ends up as a feeble attempt to approximate the kinematic motion of the competition exercise and a disastrous attempt to approximate the neuromuscular dynamics.

    our goal should be special strength exercises that transfer to our event, not sport specific exercises that only frustrate our neuromuscular dynamics.
    thanks,
    Niklas

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