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What are special exercises, what purposes do they serve and how do you use them?
A Case for Specialized Exercises
Quick, whats the most important job a strength and conditioning coach has? If you said “make athletes better at their sports”, you are right! We are here to make athletes better at their sport (among other things, but that’s first). So how do we do that?
Let me first get into a quote by the legendary Anatoliy Bondarchuk, from his book Transfer of Training in Sports:
“Positive transfer of training means that there is a positive effect on one exercise on another. In other words, with an increase in the sports results of one exercise, a parallel increase takes place in another exercise.
Negative transfer of training, there is always a negative interaction between the exercises being used. Here, with increased preparation in one exercise, there is a simultaneous decrease in other exercises.
In neutral transfer of training, there is no increase or decrease in sports achievement. The training does not show any effect on other training.”
-Anatoliy P. Bondarchuk, Transfer of Training in Sports
We want our training to have a positive transfer to sports, to have an increase in the ability for the athlete to perform their specific necessary skills come as a result of the training that we put them through. In addition, we want to remove negative or neutral training transfers entirely.
I want to discuss a different perspective on looking at the programming of training athletes, and I want to start by looking at adaptation. As we all know, adaptation is the key component of training. The number one rule of training: you adapt to the stresses that are placed upon your body. Our job as strength coaches is to plan and organize training in a thoughtful manner so that the total sum of these adaptations correlates to a higher level of performance on the field/turf/court/pool. We know this as training periodization, and even in this manner there are several ways you can go about the planning structure of your training: linear, block, undulating, (and within those) tier, triphasic, which are open to interpretation by the administrator.
As strength coaches, our form of stress includes various forms of resistance exercise (as well as field work). The great debate, however, is within our desired training structure, what are the ideal exercises and programs to use? Powerlifters need to become good at the big three, so they perform them (and variations). Olympic lifters need to become good at the highly technical Olympic lifts, so they must perform them multiple times weekly. But athletes have an entirely different set of physiological demands. Their sports are random and unpredictable, they need to be good at a variety of things to succeed in their sports. Every training protocol and method is a means to an end of that goal. They do not need to become great at squats, cleans, deadlifts, single leg pistol squats or leg presses. The goal of strength and conditioning is not to build great squatters or Olympic lifters, its to build great athletes. However, athletes benefit from the physiological adaptation that comes from performing these exercises: strength/ROFD, endurance, or whatever else you are programming for. When you start to view training as a series of stressors and specific adaptive responses, things become different.
As a coach, you prescribe exercises that will eventually contribute to your athletes ability to perform on the field, or contribute to future training which will transfer. But have you ever considered how they will help? Of course general strength ill help, but if you have a baseball athlete squatting 335, will increasing his squat to 365 make him better at baseball? Here’s the kicker: after the first few years of training, further increases in these exercises (which fall into the category of general exercises, unless the athlete is competing in them) stop increasing the ability to perform specific athletic activities, and begin building specific qualities to those movements and in that range of motion. This is where specialized exercises come in.
Unless the action is specifically what the athlete does in their sport, the exercise can be labeled as a general exercise. Squats, bench, deadlift, cleans, snatches, single leg pistol squats on a bosu ball, these are all general exercises to athletes (as they are not the movements athletes need to be good at to succeed at their sport).
Except this. Do this.
Not that these exercises are not important, as they are necessary to increase general strength, neural output, and to set the foundation for more advanced, specialized training. They, however, are not the end goal of training programs, increased ability to perform sporting movements is. Often times, we invest a very large quantity of time and effort trying to eek out small improvements in power based testing movements (vertical jump, broad jump, 10, 20, 40). And anyone who has talked to Dr. Yessis knows, he would say those tests are indicators of athleticism, not increased ability to perform your sport.
Most of our traditional periodization and programming for sports relies on manipulating intensity, volume, tempo, speed, or variations on general exercises (box squat, back squat, front squat, deadlift, bench, lunges, RDL) to manipulate different qualities out of the general lifts. From offseason volume, to winter max strength, summer peak speed training etc, we rely more on manipulations of tempo, speed, percentages, sets and reps, with far less variation on exercise selection. What seems to get lost in the shuffle of all this is one of the basic laws of training: we adapt to the stress that is placed upon our body. Going back to the previous point, athletes need an entirely different set of stressors based on the skill they perform and their level of preparedness. Eventually, this stress (in the form of exercise selection) should be specific to the sport being played, rather than non-specific exercises with minimal transfer, such as volleyball players bench pressing. That is all a specialized exercise is; one that specifically strengthens a movement an athlete needs to perform to be successful at their sport.
Consider the following training hierarchy pyramid:
Most coaches understand the GPP aspect VERY well by increasing strength, power and work capacity. Sport specific physical preparedness is often accomplished with field work, and structured weight training to peak physical abilities such as speed and jump height at the correct time of year. Consider special exercises as the weight training gap from GPP to SSP, but instead of speed and jump height, they help increase specific actions needed to play the sport.
We want our athletes running their fastest and jumping farthest when the season starts, but we also want our pitchers throwing the fastest, volleyball players spiking their hardest, swimmers with the most powerful stroke, and baseball players with the fastest swing. This is what specialized exercises are: exercises that manipulate a very specific action performed by the athlete, in order to increase the ability of that action on the field. Next time you watch your athletes playing or practicing, ask yourself “for this group of athletes, will simply increasing the squat, bench, vertical and broad jump be enough to make them better at the sport, or is there something else I can do?”
Following this line of logic, special exercises seem to make significantly more sense. Why don’t we apply this logic to ALL exercises, a joint by joint approach to preparing an athlete specifically for the specific demands that are placed upon them by their sport?
In fact, when you look at periodization sequencing based on traditional Russian training models, it will give you a new outlook on the various training protocols. Dr. Vladimir Issurin states in his book Block Periodization, “According to Block Periodization, the transmutation mesocycle contains the most stressful sport-specific workloads. The general idea behind this mesocycle is to transmute the accumulated basic ability into specific physical and techno-tactical fitness…the targeted abilities are more specialized, the key exercises are tightly connected with competitive activity.” Furthermore, he states“ Simulation and enhancement of techno-tactical competitive behavior is an obligatory component of the realization mesocycle in many sports”.
In Dr. Yessis article on block periodization vs concentrated loads, he states “ A block program is intended to improve performance and prepare the athlete for competition. It isn’t used simply to get stronger. This is what concentrated loads are for as well as a typical strength training program, regardless of the system used. What is typically ignored or overlooked is that the block system consists of specialized exercises.”
And finally, Tudor Bompa states “sport specific exercises are essential to maximize the transfer of training effects from training to sport performance…the coach and athlete should consider sport-specific exercises as essential components of every phase of a training plan because these exercises transfer directly to sporting performance.”
Lets recap some basic ideas that bring logic to specialized exercises:
• General strength improvements are very large early on in an athletes training career.
• Following introductory training, general strength comes only with large training volumes or intensity, with highly diminished returns.
• General strength exercises and improving the strength of a muscle through one pattern (aka hip extension of a squat or deadlift) will not necessarily increase the strength of a similar, yet unrelated movement (hip extension of a baseball throw), in athletes with baseline strength levels.
• At the end of the day, its not how much an athlete can squat, bench or deadlift, its how much the athlete improves in the skills relative to their sport. Improving these lifts can and will improve athleticism and general strength, but is that enough to be successful for a long period of time?
What are they?
“Specialized strength exercises duplicate and strengthen the actual patterns that occur in sport.” – Dr. Michael Yessis
Specialized exercises are exercises that meet a specific set of criteria known as Laws of Dynamic Correspondence. Originally five laws, Dr. Yessis has summed them up with three rules:
1. Exercise must duplicate the exact movement witnessed in certain actions of the sports skill.
2. Exercise must involve the same type of muscular contraction as used in the execution of the skill.
3. Exercise must develop strength and flexibility in the same range of motion as in the actual skill.
Any exercise the meets one of these rules is on the continuum to “more specific” than general. Makes sense, on the simplest level right? Lets help athletes become better at the specific skills they need to be succeed at their sport, reinforce and strengthen the patterns necessary for skill improvement. The entire idea of specialized exercises has to do with the previously discussed concept of transfer of training. How much is improving one aspect of training actually increasing your ability to perform the sport specific skill? Are further increases in squats, deadlifts and cleans going to improve your ability to play a sport?
Specialized exercises are not meant to displace general strength training. The purpose of them is to shift the emphasis to sport specific actions over the course of an offseason, as well as an athlete’s career. We all know about the gradual shift from general to specific, this is simply another way to make that transition in moderate and higher level athletes: by duplicating and strengthening the specific joint actions that are seen in sports.
The majority of them consist of single joint exercises. Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky, who needs no introduction, relied on these single joint exercises as part of a motor learning process called the part-whole method. Essentially, to strengthen an entire motor pattern, you strengthen every specific part of it piece by piece, while following the three main rules of specialized exercises.
For example, in running we have three major lower body actions:
1. explosive push off the ground (plantar flexion)
2. knee drive to a flexed hip position
3. pawback or drive back into the ground
Well, if these are the things that an athlete must do to run fast, lets strengthen them! And in doing so, lets keep in mind the three rules we must follow for them to be specific: movement specific to sport, same type of contraction, same range of motion. Simply strengthening the muscles that perform the movements but in a different pattern would define a GPP exercise, and thus would not transfer specifically to the movement being performed. We want to duplicate and strengthen the specific pathway in the same way its used on the field.
Explosive Calf Raise
These are simply 3 examples of things that can be easily done to help strengthen a complex movement like sprinting, however they are easy to incorporate into any training program.
What about other sports? For example, in baseball, you can use a medial-lateral wrist rotation.
It may look trivial, but by strengthening each individual aspect of the throw just a little bit, the summation of those forces will result in a vastly improved baseball swing, compared to performing general exercises exclusively.
In addition, a medball throw would be considered a specialized exercise for baseball, as long as it is initiated by weight shift and hip rotation. Execution of the exercise is just as important as the programming, if a med ball rotation is initiated at the core, the exercise now becomes a core exercise and not a baseball specialized exercise.
Example of an assisted hip rotation.
And lastly, ulna flexion, performed in the same manner it is performed in hitting.
Even exercises you currently use such as squats and lunges can be considered specialized if they replicate the movement you are training (jumping and running).
Most people have a few concerns with specialized exercises, including negative carryover. We all know the baseball example: pitching a heavier ball can alter the mechanics of a throw and make you pitch slower and with worse mechanics. Single joint exercises are how you avoid the dreaded negative carryover to sports: strengthen the actions one joint and one movement at a time, instead of replicating the entire movement in whole in the weight room.
Most coaches will initially ask “doesn’t this blur the lines between strength coach and skill coach”? The answer is a resounding yes, for one reason that takes a shift in philosophy: you must consider yourself a coach of the sports you train. Your job is to develop the ability for athletes to compete at a higher level in their sport, doesn’t that make you a coach of their sport? Special exercises most certainly help blur those lines by making the skills you develop have a better transfer effect to the sport rather than just general transfer to any sport.
The programming of specialized exercises into a yearly cycle and over the course of an athletic career is relatively easy, the 80-20 rule applies in both cases. Early offseason, 80% of your exercises should be general, with the transition towards 80% specific as you get to preseason and competitive season, while also taking into account the needs of the sport and abilities of your athletes. The lifespan of an athletes career can be viewed on the same continuum. When viewing the training logs of athletes in Transfer of Training, you can see that general movements in Olympic level throwers tended to stay the same late in their career, while their competitive event numbers went up. This was due to the transition from general to specific exercises late in their career.
The last bit of wisdom I want to leave you with is, in regards to specialized exercises, Dr. Anatoli Bondarchuk says exercise selection is more important than volume or intensity. Performing and strengthening the highly specific movement with high quality is more important than any other factor in regards to specialized exercise.
you can program using time, distance, add a specified RPE, tempo, desired VBT speed, or even program using % ranges or rep ranges