What is Sport Specific Training?
With 14 bands attached to every limb you jump from one Bosu Ball to the other. You juggle kettlebells while dodging tennis balls being fired at you by 7 S&C coaches - all with over 20+ certifications and alphabet soup after their name. You leap from your last set into a swimming pool filled with protein powder as to not miss your anabolic window...then all of a sudden...you wake up. It was all just a horrible dream. A vision of what the world would look like if instagram fitspo trainers took over the world.
We've all seen the ridiculously high box jumps and the "sport specific" weighted drills on the interwebs. So - is any of it helpful? Should I always superset exercises with sport skill drills? In this article I hope to walk through the do's/don'ts of sport specific training.
Javelin thrower completing 110kg x 5 Barbell Pull Overs. This is exercise is meant to develop shoulder extension strength. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nswBMxazzME
Sport Specific Training vs. Skill Specific Training
Sport specific training (SST) is at it's core, good! The first thing we do as S&C coaches is evaluate the demands of a sport, test our athletes and train our athletes so they are able to display their physical characteristics in competition. It's a pretty simple concept. When I send an athlete to a spec ops selection, I know they'll be doing weighted running. So we train that. I know rugby athletes need to be good at 10m accelerations - so we train that. But, we know that rugby athletes and soldiers both need to me strong. So their squat training may look similar if we're looking to develop lower body strength. This is sport specific training. Skill specific training might be something more like:
- Weighted Rugby Ball passes
- Isometric Holds with a heavy pistol
It's important not to confuse training specific skills with how to train the body to compete. Weighted passes won't make bigger, faster, stronger, fitter, more powerful, more resilient to injury, etc... but it might make you a better passer.
Need For Overload
Let me return to to dead horse and beat it again - we need to understand why we're training and ask ourselves if we're providing enough stimulus to our body that our structures adapt. For example, if your 1RM squat is 200kg then 60kg x 5 reps is a warm up set. If your 1RM squat is 40kg, then attempting 60kg x 5 might put you in the hospital. Similarly, if you are a marathon runner, running 1km at a 5km/h pace will do nothing for you. If you haven't run in 10 years, that could get you up to your max heart rate.
How does this apply to sport? If an athlete spends 10 hours/week on the field/court/ice practicing their skill, will doing 10 lunges with a rugby ball in their hand stimulate change?
A 12 year old hockey player attaches a band to their hockey stick to do 3x10 rotations. But, they've already done 400 back and forth movements with their stick in practice that day. So have they actually stimulated change? Or could the desired effect be achieve in another way? If you aren't able to provide enough stimulus for adaptation to occur you're just peeing in the ocean.
Jujumufu showing us all how to do sport specific bench press.
The Worst Middle Ground
The worst thing you can do in training is take up time, effort and require recovery from activities that don't benefit the athlete. A classic example is training speed at sub max effort. You are running fast, but not fast enough to get faster. But, you have so much recovery you're not getting fitter. So instead of getting faster or fitter you're just wasting energy and risking injury. There are instances where something like this might be good for bringing athletes back from injury, working on running technique, sport skills, etc... but again - you need to be aware of what you want to improve in order to direct your training.
Here is a perfect example of what you don't want:
You are a soccer player with a 1RM back squat of 100kg. Your coach says that you need to work on your balance, so you change from back squats to a DB split squat with your front foot on a bosu ball. Now you're not able to use enough weight to develop strength, but you're also not working on balance enough to benefit you in game. It will be challenging and you will be tired, but you won't be stronger or more agile.
What Should Sport Specific Training Look Like?
Sport and position specific programs should aim to develop characteristics in the safest, most effective, and efficient way possible. A soccer, rugby player, military athlete and badminton player can all perform back squats @ 85% of their 1RM. So long as developing squatting strength contributes to their performance. Critics will argue that a soccer player never plays with a bar on their back. But we know that if we improve lower body strength this will transfer into things like: sprint speed, striking velocity, jump height, injury prevention, etc... Your training doesn't have to look exactly like your sport, it just needs to cause adaptations that will make you better at your sport.
As you get closer and closer to competition, training will move from general development to more specific physical development. This might mean moving from back squats to a heavy sled push for front row forwards, or from push presses to jammers for football linemen.
With our senior women's national team I was developing upper body strength and power before their November tour. I had athletes superset their heavy presses with a stiff arm drill instead of med ball throws. It was still developing the characteristics I wanted to, with the added benefit of a sport skill. This was crucial for a decentralized team that wasn't training together daily.
Hopefully I've been able to clear up what sport specific training is and isn't. The key thing to remember is that just because training is difficult does not mean it will get you the results you want. And just because you're doing something that looks like your sport, it doesn't mean that it's time well spent in getting you better at your sport.
As always - any questions just drop me a line!
Mylan Clairmont MSc, CSCS