The concept of sport-specific training has continually gained popularity over the years. It’s a growing market and business-minded individuals are taking notice. Similar to trends in functional exercise
, you have a growing number of trainers stating they offer the “latest in sports training”. Frankly, anybody online can say their method or approach is the best. In a competitive market, people enjoy using words to attract your business. There are plenty of gimmicks that exist, namely in the world of speed training
. Often times, athletes acknowledge such methods did little or nothing to improve on-field performance. If these gimmicks worked, it's simply because the athlete was a novice or of low qualification. Novices have the unique ability to respond to almost any form of training. But does this mean what was done is most appropriate? Does it mean training was efficient or effective? Not necessarily. When it comes to the training of higher level athletes, previously used methods and/or exercises will eventually fail to produce continual improvements in sport performance. There is a point of diminishing returns and training must adapt accordingly.
For any athlete, sport-specific training must ensure maximal transfer of the training program to on-field results. If exercise selection or organization has little carry over to making athletes better, you are wasting valuable time and money. Transfer of training can be summed up with the SAID Principle (Specific-Adaptations to Imposed-Demands). The SAID Principle has been proven time and time again in both research and training. This principle implies that training is most effective when resistance exercises prescribed are similar to the target activity or primary sport form/movement. Furthermore, every training method will elicit a specific (and different) adaptation response in the body. There must be compatibility between training and sport. This becomes of increasing importance as an athlete reaches higher and higher levels of athletic competition.
As mentioned before, research has demonstrated how exercises that once worked to improve sport performance for an athlete at a lower qualification level, will eventually lose training effect as the athlete gains mastery. For instance, indicators of maximal strength (squat 1RM) often have a direct correlation in low-level athletes, but lose significant correlation with enhancing sport performance in higher-level athletes. Similarly, movement abilities such as sprinting and change-of-direction (agility) are each separate motor tasks, characterized by specific motor abilities. Improvements in linear sprint speed and change-of-direction ability have limited transfer to each other and the degree of transfer decreases as an athlete progresses.
Thus, in order to enhance the sporting ability of high-level athletes, there comes a time when we must get more detailed than simply chasing increased strength and 'quick feet'. It’s inevitable. There is no way to avoid it. The world’s greatest Sport Scientists understood this and proved the need to go beyond traditional training approaches to see continual improvements in performance as athletes reached higher levels of competition. This is where the concept of Special Strength Training (SST) becomes of importance in the training plan.
Introduction to Special Strength Training
Pioneered by Dr. Anatoli Bondarchuk, SST has been incorporated for decades by coaches in other countries, mostly in the Olympic sports. Dr. Bondarchuk is most noted for his involvement in the throwing sports, particularly the hammer, and his results speak for themselves. It was Bondarchuk’s identification and implementation of special exercises with the highest degree of dynamic correspondence to the sporting movement that became the focus of his athletes' training plan. His organization of training allowed athletes to set world records and win numerous international and Olympic medals despite the fact that they did not possess the greatest strength in movements such as the clean, squat, or bench press.
Exercise Classification System
Bondarchuk classifies exercises into 4 categories:
- GENERAL PREPARATORY EXERCISES are exercises that do not imitate the competitive event and do not train the specific systems.
- SPECIAL PREPARATORY EXERCISES are exercises that do not imitate the competitive event, but train the major muscle groups and same physiological energy systems as your sport. However, movement patterns are different.
- SPECIAL DEVELOPMENTAL EXERCISES are exercise that replicate the competitive event in training but in its separate parts. These exercises are similar to the competitive event, not identical.
- COMPETITIVE EXERCISES are exercises that are identical or almost identical to the competition event.
It’s important to note that as an athlete rises from general preparatory exercises to the competitive event, each category on the list becomes more specific and will have greater dynamic correspondence to the athlete’s sport. Thus, as specificity increases, exercise selection decreases. There are hundreds of exercises that potentially could be considered Preparatory exercises. Preparatory exercises prepare the body for more specific sport training, while Developmental exercises aim to develop strength and technique. Special Developmental and Competitive exercises have the highest degree of transfer. The greatest focus from a planning and organization standpoint is placed on these exercises in order to yield improvements in sport performance. At this point, exercise selection has narrowed greatly. Often, the competitive exercise is simply the competitive event. In the case of a track athlete, the competitive exercise is considered the event (hammer, shot put, long jump, 100m, etc). This can also include subtle variations to the event. For team-sport athletes, the competitive event is the game. The classification of exercises as they relate to specific athletes is not the scope of this article. That discussion is far too detailed and is always dependent upon the athlete, their level of qualification, and the competitive event.
In explaining SST, Bondarchuk said,
“General exercises have little relevance to the sporting action. Specialized preparatory exercises use the same muscles that are involved in a particular sporting action. Specialized developmental exercises include single joint actions that duplicate one portion of the sporting action. They also mirror the velocity and range of motion seen in the competitive movement. Competitive exercises are those that fully mimic the competitive movement in more difficult conditions and easier ones.”Advantages of Special Strength
There are a number of advantages to programming SST within an athlete’s training program. Among many reasons, arguably the most important application of SST is the development of strength as it relates to specific movement and skill execution in an athlete’s sport. This advantage cannot be overlooked since very few approaches train physical qualities (strength, power, work capacity, etc) and technical skill development simultaneously. Programming should provide the avenue for athletes to achieve higher levels of sport mastery. Rather than applying appropriate programming, many trainers get caught chasing quantitative numbers (squat or bench 1RM, 40 yard dash time). While focus on general motor abilities is important for the novice athlete and provides performance-enhancing benefits, they lose their carryover for the more advanced athlete. SST ensures that strength gains will have a direct transfer into sport technique and skill development.
Special Strength is Task-Specific
The effectiveness and accuracy of exercise selection within special strength training is dependent on a thorough understanding of what a given athlete is being asked to perform in competition. Selecting an exercise is great, but you have to put it into a program and a plan. You need to know your athlete and what exercise(s) works well for them. For team sports, task-specificity also takes into account that you understand the athlete’s position and the physiological/energy demands relative to their sport. Care must be taken to stay within certain parameters, above or below, the sporting movements to avoid yielding negative adaptations on the expression of sport skill. For example, applying loads that are too heavy will negatively influence technique by causing breakdown in mechanics that are important for developing speed strength. Speed strength is essential for throwing, jumping, and sprinting. Conversely, loads that are too light will also have a negative influence on mechanics since the lack of resistance with fail to promote the building of specific strength.
Summing It All Up
This article attempted to offer insight into the concept of special strength training and how it correlates with higher levels of sport mastery. Due to the nature of SST, it’s important to keep in mind that early specialization in training, similar to early specialization in sport
, can occur too soon. Athletes like NHL stars Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Henrik Zetterberg (pictured above) don't train like novice, youth hockey players and young hockey players should not be training like them. Research has proven that athletes at low levels of training and physical ability need to focus on increasing general physical qualities such as strength, as strength will carry over greatly to movement speed. In fact, novice trainees have the ability to attain simultaneous increases in strength, power, coordination, speed, core stabilization, proprioception, and reduced injury risk. However, as an athlete reaches higher levels of mastery, effectiveness of basic training methods become limited quickly due to the specificity of movement and skill related to sport.
If you are unclear on how to properly utilize the training methods of SST, you should not blindly implement SST into your training. The incorrect application of exercise and program variables would likely have a negative affect on the neuromuscular actions involved in sport movement. Athletes looking to ensure the best results from SST would be wise to have their training overseen by a coach/trainer who is knowledgeable and competent in its application.
Bondarchuk. Transfer of Training in Sports. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2007.
Siff & Verkhoshansky. Supertraining. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2009.
Verkhoshansky. Fundamentals of Special Strength-Training in Sport. Sportivny Press, 1986.