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Sport Specificity

Are you signing up for a personal trainer because you want some sport-specific training? Agility drills, interval running, and altitude running may all be what you are looking for, but is it what you really need? I want to shed some light on just how sport-specific we need to be. Don’t be fooled by false promises and gimmicks!

What is Sport Specificity?

Sport-specific training is the simulation of movements and exercises done in a gym or other setting in order to attain a higher degree of transfer to competition. Why is this important? Let’s take for example a lineman in football. When we are training that lineman in the weight room, we are looking to progress certain physical qualities that are going to transfer well to the football field and enhance play in their sport. Some qualities might be; strength, reaction time, power production, and speed within 5-10 yards. Our training should be geared to enhance these qualities. If this is not happening, we are not getting any transfer from our training and things need to change! When thinking of sport specificity there are two major categories of training:

  1. General Physical Preparedness (GPP)
  2. Specific Physical Preparedness (SPP)

What is GPP?

General Physical Preparedness is the development of general skills and adaptations through strength training. This includes, but is not limited to muscle mass, strength, and endurance. Training these qualities dictates that we use a more generalized approach such as squatting, pressing heavy and some sort of conditioning protocol. While the magnitude and duration of a GPP phase can vary depending on the physical abilities of the athlete, it generally encompasses basic movement patterns.

What is SPP?

Exercises that fall in the SPP category often mimic some aspect of movement during the competition in order to enhance that movement. For example, a shot putter will throw heavier or lighter shot puts to enhance different aspects of the throw. An elite sprinter might perform a power step up to try and simulate the single-leg driving position of a sprint. Movements that fall in this category generally look more like the sport that an athlete is training for in order to transfer the qualities gained from GPP exercises to the competition.

The line between these two categories is not cut in stone and is often blurred depending on the movement being performed. Exercises usually fall on a spectrum ranging from not very specific to very specific, and this largely depends on the sport that the training is geared towards.

Who Can Benefit From Sport-Specific Training?

So who has gained the right to partake in this sport-specific training? Highly specific training is beneficial for:

  1. Barbell athletes– Powerlifters/weightlifters etc.: The line between practice and training for barbell athletes is almost non-existent. Every time a powerlifter performs a back squat, or an Olympic weightlifter performs a snatch, they are performing their sport. It’s one of the few instances where practice and training meet.
  2. Collegiate and Professional athletes: It can be assumed that the majority of collegiate and professional athletes have the physical capabilities to perform the sport they are participating in (Or at the very least, they need less of these physical qualities then say a high school athlete). After all, being fast, strong, quick, and jumping high are prerequisites to even be considered for a place in the NFL. Therefore, more time should be spent developing specific qualities that pertain to the sport of those athletes.
  3. High-level High School Athletes: High school athletes are probably the smallest portion of the pie when it comes to sport-specific training. So rare is it to find a high school weight room with athletes working on the fundamental movement patterns (squat, hinge, lunge, pressing). For most public schools, I would guess that the top 5-10% of athletes need a highly specialized approach to weight training. An emphasis on the mentioned basic patterns is an essential prerequisite before a coach should consider implementing movements on the SPP side of the spectrum.

Who is High Specific Training NOT For?

  1. Adolescents/Children: Adolescents should be able to partake in ALL kinds of exercise through play. They should be able to run, jump, tumble, and learn to manipulate their bodies in space. That’s not to say that they can’t partake in sport, quite the contrary! Sport should be introduced early to help them use these tools in a controlled setting, as well as develop different motor learning strategies. In my opinion, highly specialized weight training for youth would be a poor decision.
  2. Untrained High School Athletes: Like the aforementioned, high school athletes who lack competence in basic movement patterns should not be partaking in highly specific training. Ironically, this demographic probably abuses highly specific training the most. Many high school coaches and parents think that a lack of specific training is what is holding their athletes back. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. In my opinion, poor movement quality, low strength levels, low aerobic conditioning, and an over-emphasis in single-sport training is what is holding back the majority of high school athletes today.

When Sport Specificity is Taken Too Far

So how do we know if we’re taking this whole sport-specificity thing too far?

  1. Balls from the sport in the weight room: Using the sport balls (basketballs, footballs, baseballs) in the weight room is 9 times out of 10 inappropriate and should not be happening. That’s what sport practice is for.
  2. Continually sacrificing load: A large portion of training for athletes should be spent training physical attributes such as strength, power, muscle mass, etc. When we continually opt for movements that have a higher degree of specificity, we sacrifice load and therefore fitness. Learning when to implement sport-specific movements and for how long, is half the battle.
  3. Trying to simulate one happenstance position: Training to endure a position because an athlete may or may not be in said position may prove counter-productive. A football player may get hit and inadvertently perform the splits, or a soccer player may be in an awkward position trying to intercept a pass. Am I going to waste time training for a position that may or may not come to pass, or am I going to train the overall resiliency of the tissue to withstand ALL positions that they may be subjected to? Or better yet, am I going to train the athlete to be agile enough to not be put in those positions at all?

Coach Jon

Sports Performance Coach

B.S. NSCA-CSCS

“Coach Jon, Irvine Strength and Conditioning Coach who is an athlete himself is someone I recommend to my patients. He knows what he is doing and his attention is on the proper form and injury prevention is what I love about him.”- Dr. Shakib, your Irvine Chiropractor