Sports Science Roundtable – Volume 1 – Training Specificity

For those not aware, we’ve entered into a contractual agreement with Dr./Coach Patrick Davidson where he will be providing exclusive content on sports science and fitness. Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the Q&A Series has already been published and this is Volume 1 of the Roundtable Series.
In this installment, we discuss the art and science of “specificity” and its various components as it relates to sports performance training. To keep the content jam packed with juicy details, for this edition, both myself and Dr.D will limit each answer to 650 words or less.
1.   Define “training specificity”.
Coach Leahey: In terms of program design, I look at “specificity,” primarily, through the lens of two disciplines – biomechanics and physiology. Biomechanics, for our purposes, is divided into Kinematics and Kinetics and physiology consists of the body’s ~12 physiological systems (depending on how you want to list/integrate them; neuro-endocrine, muscular, fascial, etc. etc.).
   The rationale “we sprint on one leg so we train one leg at a time” is a kinematic argument. The rationale “ground reactions forces are up to three times bodyweight when sprinting so we squat extremely heavy on two legs” is a kinetic argument. The rationale, “repeated sprints become more aerobic over time so we train the aerobic system” is a physiological argument. The rationale, “the athlete has a stability dysfunction, not a mobility problem” is rooted in neurology.
   So, step one in training “specifically” is identifying the biomechanical and physiological demands of a sport/activity. Step two is identifying how a certain positional demand or style of play differs from the research done on the sports overall needs. Step three is building a program that creates adaptations needed for said sporting demands, sporting position, and style of play.
   For novice trainees, training many qualities at once has proven effective for centuries as many adaptations will be created at once given their untapped adaptive potential. The more trained the athlete, the less adaptive ability they might have for a certain quality so the more focused/concentrated load they will need. This suggested a programming continuum from “concurrent” (many qualities at once) to “blocked” (few or only one quality at once). With respect to the latter, the key is sequencing the training to ensure optimal adaptations, or, to ensure a performance peak at a desired time. If the sport/activity does not require a performance peak at certain dates, you absolutely still have to sequence the training adaptations properly because if you do not, you absolutely can experience decreased performance during the competitions and negative adaptations. This speaks to the importance of having a great understanding of the technical-tactile aspects of the sport itself as well as knowledge of the science that underpins it.
   Where do you draw the line between “novice” and “advanced” trainee? YOUR setting and experience will dictate that because there is no absolute level answer. However you operationalize the definition, it should be consistent and justifiable in YOUR system. How much of the program (if at all) should be non-specific before progressing to specific initiatives? Again, there is no absolute answer as it is a separate question altogether.
Dr./Coach Davidson: Training specificity refers to performing, practicing, and training the sporting movements of the competitive sport the athlete participates in. These movements may be the entirety of the sporting movements or components of the sporting movements. In order for training to be specific, the practice of the sporting movements must be done within the same bioenergetics and time frame considerations as experienced during competition. General training is the other side of the spectrum, and is defined by movements that are not the sporting movements, and performance of these movements is done outside of the bioenergetics and time frame associated with the competitive environment of the athlete. There is a continuum that exists between specific exercises and general exercises. As the athlete utilizes similar musculature, similar bioenergetics, similar vectors of force production, similar velocities, similar postures, and similar intensity zones as experienced during competition, the training swings closer to the specific side and farther from the general side.  
   Ultimately, the purpose of training is to induce structural and functional adaptations to the human organism. These adaptations allow the organism to be more competent when experiencing a similar challenge as that which has been previously encountered (recently). Truly the only way to get better at anything is to practice the exact thing that you want to do in a competitive situation. I often times think of it as being similar to studying for an exam. If I have an exam on fat metabolism in a biochemistry exam, I should spend my time learning as much as I can about that specific subject. If I spend time reading Plato, I will probably be expanding my mind and increasing my overall intelligence/awareness; however, when it comes time to take my biochemistry test, I will not have gained the specific changes in the functioning of my brain to tackle this particular exam. When it is time for an athlete to prepare for important contests, the athlete must focus on the sporting moves, in particular those movements which are the most problematic for the athlete.
   The final point that I would like to make here is that many athletes, in particular young athletes, try to skip to the stage of training in a specific manner too early. Ultimately for high level sportsmen, training specificity is the key to progress in their sport performance; however, lesser athletes typically need generalized development. Once a base of movement competency has been reached, the athlete needs to become strong enough for the sport in question. If the athlete has established that they are strong enough for the sport they participate in, then they may develop other regions of the load/velocity curve. When widespread development of force and velocity has been reached, the athlete is then ready to enter into a system that will allocate periods of time where focus is placed on specificity of training.
2.   Should conditioning be done with the ball/implement/equipment the sport uses? Why or why not?
Coach Leahey: I think this question is really multiple questions. In terms of equipment such as body pads and helmets that do not obstruct hand or foot use, I believe these should be worn in the latter phases of conditioning. In terms of a stick, ball, puck, racquet or any equipment requiring the use, and strategy, of the hands/feet I currently do not have athletes use them during training. However, I am open to any suggestions as to the superiority of their use during training. I have looked into the literature regarding this topic and overall, considering all sports, I am less than convinced that it is superior to not using these implements during parts of the training program.
   So in general, the majority of my off-season programming is done without the non hand/foot obstructing equipment and is only implemented towards the end of the off-season. When I think of sports outside the “traditional” ones, such as the strength sports (powerlifting, strongman, Olympic weightlifting, highland games, etc.) the rules change in my mind because resistance training is the sport. In that case, yes, I believe the majority of programming, should be done with the implements the sport uses.
Dr./Coach Davidson: At certain phases of the sport calendar, conditioning should be done with the equipment associated with the sport. The cerebellum is the site where motor programs are refined for timing, coordination, and precision prior to being transmitted to the skeletal muscle via the descending tracts in the brain. Once a motor program has been established and honed, that program will then be stored in the cerebellum. If different equipment and implements become involved in a task, the reality is that you cannot rely on the same motor program, and a new motor program must be created.
   When I think about training motor programs, I think about my childhood, and walking on paths in the woods. If you take the same path, day after day, that path will become beaten down. You’ll break the branches that interfere with your travel, and you’ll ultimately have a very nice walking path. Even if there were other paths that led to a similar end location, chances are you would choose to take the path you walk on a daily basis, because this path has been grooved and you are familiar with it.
   So I think of my nervous system as being very similar to paths in the woods. There’s lots of paths that go to lots of different places, but a lot of athletes tend to walk the same paths on a daily basis. These paths become easy to walk down. These are the kinds of paths you could probably walk in your sleep. For a powerlifter, the squat, bench, and deadlift pathways are probably so well established that they’re paved by now.
   In bringing this back to conditioning with sports equipment, you need to realize that running, cutting, changing direction, and other sports movements are different when you are carrying implements and wearing equipment. In thinking of this from the paths in the woods analogy, you can think of conditioning without equipment and conditioning with equipment as being two separate, similar looking paths, lying very close to one another. If you do not condition in the equipment, you are going to be tramping down the non-equipment path, making that path easier to traverse; however, you will not be deepening and grooving the equipment path. At some point, if you want to improve the working effect of the skeletal muscles involved in the motor programs with equipment you need to train with the full array of implements and equipment. Without eliciting the exact motor program you cannot begin the processes of causing localized tissue adaptations in the exact muscles that are recruited with equipment and implements. During the time of my life where I was training as a fighter, I learned this in a practical manner, because when you put the 16 oz. gloves on again for the first time in a while, your arms fatigue in an unexpected way that does not happen when you are just training in wraps or training with MMA gloves. 
3.   Should resistance training be done in a “specific” manner? If so, how?
Coach Leahey: Relative to strength sports see my response to the last question, as it still applies. For all other sports (team and individual) the idea of “special strength training” comes to mind here. With respect to resistance training, at its most essential level, “special strength training” literally refers to loading the same motor pattern experienced in the competition. For many coaches this is heresy. Examples would be a baseball player using weighted baseballs, a high jumper training loaded hip flexion/hyperextension, a tennis player going through a swing pattern against a loaded cable column or band tied behind them, etc. etc. The best elucidation I’ve come across was via Yuri Verkhoshansky describing the “competition exercise” where an exercise is created that is as biomechanically and physiologically similar to the activity done in sport as possible. The competition exercise should correlate remarkably with actual performance. Thus, in order to create a “special/competition exercise” you must have an incredible understanding of the biomechanics and physiology involved in that particular technique used in sport . I think the creation, implementation, and sequencing of said exercises makes for more practicality in individual sports and less for team sports where there are many high yield motor patterns involved in successful and high level performance. Trying to go after them all might leave you accomplishing nothing in the end. Outside of powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and strength sport athletes, I do not currently have team or individual sport athletes perform a loaded pattern that is trying to mimic their sporting action. I’m not opposed to the idea of “special exercises”, it has been validated, but I do not feel at this point I have an adequate way to evaluate its efficacy for team sport athletes. With the strength sports it is easy to see the “special exercise” effects but for mixed motor pattern sports with various biomechanical demands I struggle to apply the concept in practice.
Dr./Coach Davidson: After reading Siff, Verkhoshansky, Bondarchuck, Zatsiorsky, Issurin, and others, it seems pretty apparent that resistance training should be done in a specific manner. Verkhoshansky really drives home the idea of creating specialized exercises for the athlete within the working range of motion of the sporting movements for the highest levels of success through training. The trick, apparently, is being able to truly understand sporting technique at the highest level, and then being able to create special exercises that recreate, and then ultimately increase the force production of the sporting movements.
   I suppose that for me, my problem is that I don’t have the faintest clue as to how to actually do this for most sports. I do not possess the technical mastery over the majority of field and court sports that are popular in our country. I am quite sure that I am not the only person who falls into this category though, so I don’t feel too bad. I can recall from reading of Special Strength Training for Sports, Verkhoshansky mentioned that special boards were formed in the USSR to create special exercises for various sports. I’m certain that these boards were filled with the leading experts from the country on training for those sports.
   The important point of this is that when you are working with high level athletes, general fitness development will not give them much, if any help in their sporting performance (assuming that they are already in acceptable physical shape). When I think of general fitness development, I am basically talking about increasing things like traditional barbell lift strength, VO2, jumps, and agility work. There just is not much carry over from the traditional weight room modalities to the motor programs of the sporting actions. Perhaps for low level athletes, significant improvements in the traditional weight room movements will transfer over to improved sports performance; however, elite athletes typically do not show such a transfer effect. These athletes need to improve the working effect and working capacity of the sporting movement(s) itself. High level athletes need to be, “strong enough”, or, “fit enough” for their sport/position, and once they reach these criterion measures, then they must try to improve the very specific movements of the sport to make gains. I do not think the process of devising special exercises for every sport is going to be an easy one, but I think it is an extremely valid task. I think that it is better than practicing one sport (powerlifting, weightlifting, body-building) to try to get better at another sport (football) .
   One caveat that I want to point out prior to continuing here is that when I’m talking about incorporating all of these special exercises, I want to make clear that if they are to be done, they must be used with athletes who have a tremendously strong movement base, and who have exceptionally clean sport and training biomechanics. I cannot think of a bigger disaster than, “specializing” young, inexpert athletes. These methods are things that are appropriate for only the top of the food chain people. Everybody else needs to get stronger in general, more fit in general, and of course move better. 
   From my experience competing in strongman, I have learned the importance of failing to train in a specific manner. In the past year, I competed in about 10-12 contests. None of these contests were the same. Each had different events, implements, times for events, etc. When I was able to take a minimum of 3 to 4 weeks to train and lock in on the exact events of that contest, I either won or took second place in my division. This realization of having to drive the training in a specific manner towards the exact demands of the coming contest came after a incredibly humbling performance at an event called, “The Battle of the Badass”. I had been training for general strength and fitness going into this event, and was sort of talked into competing at the last minute. Sure enough, I finished dead last in this contest and was completely humbled.
4.   What do you believe is the current attitude of the sports performance world when it comes to, “specificity of training”? Would you like to see the attitude towards, “specificity of training” change?
Coach Leahey: I think the global attitude toward “training specificity” is pretty balanced. I communicate weekly with coaches and trainers from around the world, from the public, private, and academic settings and I definitely note the full continuum of “everything should be as specific as possible 24/7” to “specificity is overrated so we don’t pursue it.” The idea of recreating competitive events during the preparation period has been around for centuries so it’s nothing new. Just decades ago the USSR went to insane lengths trying to create exercises that were as biomechanically detailed and physiologically close to the competition as possible that it almost was a mock trial competition itself! It’s been years since the USSR was dissolved but during their reign the records show they crushed the rest of the world in the Olympics, overall. Does that mean their sports science approach is superior to all other countries? Not exactly. A ton of factors play into the results. Olympics aside, countries aside, in the end, I think we all need to be far less sure about our paradigm and be less dogmatic about “training specificity is antiquated” or “everything needs to be 100% specific 24/7”. We don’t have everything figured out and never will. Be open to trying to new things. “Specificity” is more high yield for advanced athletes than novice trainees but I do believe it is part of our job description.
Dr./Coach Davidson: I believe that the current attitude towards specificity of training is that it is a nice concept, but within the performance enhancement environment, it is something that is either beyond the scope of what we do, or something that does not really apply to any of the athletes we are working with. In the literature, it is stated that specificity is appropriate for elite athletes. The problem is, what exactly makes someone an elite athlete. It seems like the experiences of many strength coaches working in professional sports is that many of these athletes are great in their sport despite the fact that they do not have great general physical development. Also, it seems like the majority of sports performance specialists are finding much more basic things to try to remedy with their athletes prior to feeling it is appropriate to go on to anything resembling specific training in the weight room.
   I think the fact of the matter is that the greatest help the sports performance specialist can provide to the athletes that they work with is removing asymmetries (side to side, front to back, rotational), correcting faulty basic developmental movement patterns through mobility and stability enhancement approaches, improving the breathing stereotype, improving body composition, and enhancing the force production of the basic loaded movement patterns throughout the velocity spectrum. These are all foundational elements that must be in place to try to, “catch up” the general physical development of the modern athlete with their level of sports development. These are all tasks that are going to be coaching intensive and time consuming. These are all tasks that will require tremendous continuing education of the sports performance specialist to be able to master. Where is the time to worry about the specialization? Where is the time to actually learn the biomechanics of each individual sport? When do you begin to implement this stuff? I think these are all reasonable questions to ask ourselves. 
   I believe that unless you are an expert of both a given sport and performance based training strategies, do not worry too much about special exercises. You are probably just as likely to error on your creation of a special exercise and perhaps worsen the working effects of the muscle involved with the sports action. Also, chances are that the athlete will have other factors that are closer to your area of expertise to improve.
   Perhaps the specificity discussion is reserved for those who are not in the trenches…Perhaps the specificity discussion is reserved for sports performance coaches who work with competitive lifters…I’m not sure anymore. I believe that the Russian literature speaks the truth, and the science of specificity is pretty rock solid. I just don’t know how realistic it is to expect most American sports performance specialists to be able to compile binders full of special exercises to unleash on athletes during concentrated blocks of specific focus. I would like to see the attitude of what I perceive to be the majority of the sports performance world change when it comes to specificity and special exercises though. I think that we need to remain open to anything. I think we should at least explore what this stuff is all about and try it before we label it as anything. As a competitive lifter who, “specializes” in a different way for about 10 to 12 different strongman competitions per year, I can tell you that from my experience, that unless you have been working the exact event that you’re going to have to compete in, you’re going to be unprepared and probably unsuccessful when it’s time to do it for real.

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  1. Brian says:

    Great series of articles first of all. Thank you for sharing. My thoughts on training specificity fall very close to your thoughts. In my mind everything goes from general then general specific and finally specific with movements that are very close to resemble the event the athlete is training for. It has to be very close biologically and physiological. Of course all this depends on the preparedness of the athlete and where they are in the annual plan. In the private sector outside influence will dictate what the plan for that day is. As far as loading any specific movement I feel that most generally it is done entirely to quick with most athletes. As was written above power lifting, weightlifting,strongman are different but as far as loading track athletes and various team sports it needs to be done very carefully and at the right time in the athletes career. Resisted sprints with proper form is one thing but most of what I see is excessive and disrupt proper shin angle,hip height ect. Bondarchuk wrote about slight difference in shot put weights to develop the elite. Contrast methods done correctly are a useful tool but even in power lifting the use of bands are very popular but my experience is that it should be truly contrast with repetitions done without tension after to regain proper form. I feel that certain movements that resemble components of specificity should be introduced the closer the athlete gets to the competitive season in order to ensure the athlete is prepared properly. Specificity must be considered for sure but it can be a slippery slope. Orthopedic considerations and common sense have to play a part in your planning. Wear and tear on the athlete should be considered in decision made. Squats are a great movement but not for everyone. If an athlete has back issues or is very long torso I can make him stronger other ways. It may not be as specific but if I make him stronger and keep them healthy to practice there sport that is what is important.Any way nice article and keep up the good work. The information the two of you wrote about was good to read and needs to be put out there.

  2. […] Sports Science Rountable Volume 1 Training Specificity  […]

  3. […] have been general in nature, dealing with overall perspectives on certain topics. The recent sports science roundtable was equally as big picture minded. Here in this edition we want to delve deeper into the specifics. […]

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