“Sport-specific training” is a familiar term for most people, even outside the athletics industry. A quick Google search of that phrase results in over 30 million references to sport-specific training. This might lead you to believe that the physical training of athletes is best performed when tailored to the specific demands of each sport, and maybe even specifically to the position an individual athlete plays.
Well, not entirely.
True sport-specific training is really called “practice.” There can be nothing more specific to a sport than the sport itself. I prefer to call what we do in the weight room “Human-Specific Training.” Let me explain.
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The Human Body is The Human Body
The human body is designed to move and operate in specific ways. No matter if you are a football lineman, a volleyball libero, an ice hockey center, or a baseball shortstop, the ankle is supposed to work the way the ankle is supposed to work, the glutes are supposed to do what the glutes are supposed to do, and the aerobic system and the lactic system operate the same way in every sport. Now, how an athlete layers their particular skill set on top of the human body is very specific, but training the human body and the underlying athletic qualities which allow those skills to be displayed is not.
“But Coach McConnell," you might ask, "are you really saying that a soccer player and a hockey player should be trained the same way?” The answer is, well, sort of...
Let’s look at the athletic qualities that would allow either one of these athletes to display their particular sport skills to their highest potential. If you had to choose between having a fast soccer player and a slow soccer player on your team, which would you pick? The faster one, obviously. How about a fast hockey player and a slow one? Fast wins again. So what can we do in training to improve an athlete's speed?
On a basic level, speed is a function of ground force reaction—the more force an athlete can push into the ground on each step (or stride on the ice), the more force is returned to them, and the faster they will move. It’s physics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This begs the question, how do we best develop the lower-body strength necessary to put more force into the ground? Is there a “soccer” exercise and a “hockey” exercise that achieve this goal?
There certainly are a number of exercises that we could categorize as “lower-body pushing,” but they would all resemble some type of squat. My choice for most athletes when developing this human-specific quality is called a Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (also known as a Bulgarian Split Squat). Why I believe this is a better tool than a back squat or a front squat or a single-leg squat is best saved for another article, but the point is: both of these athletes need to develop the same underlying athletic quality, and understanding how the body produces that quality (speed) and how it is developed (lower-body pushing) is the key.
Different Exercises for Different Training Goals?
Here is another example. A volleyball player needs to develop a great vertical jump. A field hockey player needs to have a great first step. These are clearly two very different goals, which would require completely different sport-specific exercises, correct?
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Jump height is basically a function of force applied vertically down into the ground (equal and opposite reaction again). How much force and how rapidly that force can be applied will have a large impact on how high the volleyball player will be able to jump. Push down, go up.
First-step acceleration is also a function of force applied to the ground. The only real difference between the type of force our volleyball player needs to exert and the first-step acceleration of our field hockey player, is that in field hockey, force needs to be applied more horizontally than vertically. Still, the underlying factor in training this athlete to produce great acceleration is how much and how rapidly force can be applied to the ground. Push back, go forward.
Now, in the weight room, how would we best develop those athletic qualities? The answer is once again the same for both athletes, even though their sports and the specific skills performed are different. We would need to develop lower-body strength (think squats) and lower-body power, which is really just how fast can we use that strength. In our system at UMass Lowell, this is often developed with a combination of plyometrics and Olympic lifts like the hang clean. Again, the key point here is that the training processes to improve each of these athlete’s underlying athletic qualities are the same: they are human-specific. The “sport-specific” part happens when the volleyball player steps onto the court and the field hockey player steps onto the field for practice.
This is not to say that there aren’t better exercise choices for different athletes. A split squat and a single-leg box squat are different exercises, and might make better choices for different sports, but they are still fundamentally “lower-body pushing” exercises, which all athletes need. The other important distinction when thinking about sport specificity is injury trends in athletics. Overhead athletes like volleyball players and baseball players will need different types of exercises in their program than a running back, who doesn’t have the demands on the shoulder that the other two athletes have.
The Bottom Line
Human-Specific Training really just means thinking about how the human body works, and training to improve that. Just about all athletes need to have great mobility in their ankles, hips, and thoracic spine. They all need to have core stability. They all need to be able to produce high levels of force so that they move faster. No matter which sport skills you choose to place on top of these athletic qualities, the way to develop them in the weight room looks very much the same.
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