Understanding Sport Specific Exercises

By: Kelly Baggett

I get a lot of questions along the lines of, "Is this exercise specific for _____(fill in the blank) sport?" "Do I need to be doing all these unstable sport-specific exercises on bosu balls and other assorted unstable training?"

With that in mind I thought I'd write this article on general to specific training.

What is a sport specific exercise?

Let's start off with a definition of sport-specific. A truly sport specific exercise must:

A: Duplicate the exact movement witnessed in certain actions of the sports skill

B: The exercise must involve the same type of muscular contraction used in the skill execution.

C: Develop strength and flexibility in the same range of motion (ROM) as the actual skill.

As an example, alternating bounds duplicate the extension witnessed in the sprint stride over the same ROM. They also duplicate the type of contraction found in the sprint. The difference is, the magnitude of force and tension in the bound upon both landing and toe-off is greater, which can provide a positive training effect to the extension and plant that occurs in the sprint stride.

There are basically 3 classifications of exercise along the general to specific continuum.

Classifying Exercises

General strength exercises - These exercises are necessary to develop general muscle strength (force component of power) and do not need to duplicate sporting tasks. (Squats, front squats, deadlifts etc.) These exercises are heavy and slow in nature thus do not replicate the exact demands of sport and power events. They are, however, specific to the sport of powerlifting. Anything that increases general strength could be considered a general strength exercise. Exercises that best impact general strength are the best general strength exercises.

Special strength exercises - These exercises attempt to convert general strength to power but are still "strength" oriented. Most explosive oriented loaded lifts and movements fit in this category. Some examples include Olympic lifts, jump squats, heavier sled towing, and various kettlebell swings and exercises.

Specific strength exercises- These exercises attempt to provide power improvement in a way which is very specific to the required technique of an athlete. Examples of such exercises would include unloaded and lightly loaded plyometric exercises, sprint drills, and towing a very lightly loaded sled. The most specific strength exercise for any given movement is the actual movement skill itself.

A loaded specific strength exercise should not be loaded to the extent that an athlete's technique is compromised much at all. So, someone using loaded sprints as a specific strength exercise would not use a load that causes his sprint times to drop off by more than ~10%. In contrast, someone using loaded sprints as a special strength exercise could use more weight as he's seeking more of a general effect on explosiveness. He would not need to worry so much about the load interfering with his technique.

Exercises typically are described as either general or sport-specific. However, there is a range along which all exercises fall. It's probably more accurate to describe exercises as either more or less specific in relation to one another. Where a particular exercise falls on this continuum depends upon how well it meets the criteria for a specific movement for a particular sport.

So What is Sport Specific Again?

Based on that information it should be obvious that unless you're a skateboarder, surfer, or trapeze artist, most unstable implements and exercises are not really sport-specific at all! Wobble boards, bosu balls and the like would be general training movements..just not very potent general training movements (due to the lighter loads they inherently entail).

The Recipe

To improve athletic performance, general strength exercises should be used in the initial stages to build a base. The goal of these movements is to stimulate and strengthen the same muscles involved in the sports skill. Once a strength base is in place, exercises that are truly specialized (sport-specific) can be incorporated to zero in on targeted weaknesses involved in the sports skill or to help enhance the transformation of general strength into specific strength. In this way, maximal strength is developed initially and then used to enhance explosive strength that can be incorporated into the sport action.

I think there is a time and place for exercises in every category depending on the situation of a given athlete or coach, however, there's also not exactly anything wrong with taking the straight line approach.

The Straight Line Approach

The straight line approach would entail taking the most direct approach to boosting up the general strength (lift heavy and get stronger in basic movements), and engage in and hone the technique of the most specific strength exercise. Or practice the specific movement you're trying to improve in order improve the capacity to express strength in that movement, whether it's sprinting, jumping or whatever. With this approach you have both ends covered. Although simple, this can work well because a lot of people already do plenty of sport-specific exercise just by virtue of playing their sport. In fact, many people are apt to regress by partaking in an excessive volume of sport specific work while neglecting general supportive work.

Additionally, research comparing groups of people who use a very multifaceted approach to development to those who use the simple straight-line approach to development, don't tend to demonstrate many advantages for the multi-faceted approach. In other words. Let's say we take 2 groups of sprinters:

Group A: Squats heavy, engages in explosive lifts (cleans or jump squats etc.), pulls loaded sleds, engages in plyometrics, and sprints.

Group B: Simply squats heavy and runs sprints.

Despite the more holistic and multifaceted approach implemented with the group A, you don't tend to see a consistent variance in improvements between the 2 groups.

The ability to properly administer the more multifaceted approach takes more knowledge and skill. Ideally, you'd individually evaluate and assign target exercises based upon individual needs.

Some people are in situations where they'd benefit from a general lean towards more or less specific exercises. For example, most people that run training studios do not have a sprint track in their facility so they might use more specific exercises for training the sprint.....Basically boosting speed without doing any sprinting at all. The same athlete or coach who runs a facility in the north where it's cold all winter might also engage in and assign more "specific" exercises during the winter months. In contrast, the guy who has year around access to a track or football field in a warm climate is in a different situation and wouldn't have much, if any, need for so many specific strength exercises. An athlete who plays sport year around would also be in the same boat.