“Sports specific training” is all the rage on social media. It is hard to see a day go by where I don’t see something gimmicky or flashy being done by a self-proclaimed guru trainer or “performance” coach. Sports specific training would sound like the right thing to do, particularly if you are an athlete or a parent looking for something for your children. It’s totally understandable. Who doesn’t want a competitive edge? But the thing is that sexier isn’t always better.
The Fad of Sport Specific Training
Sports specific training is where specific movements or actions that are done in a given sport are mimicked or replicated in the gym with resistance or using cool props.
For example, it is usually done with resistance bands, on Bosu balls, cable machines, sprinters using treadmills for speed training, and agility ladders. It also ranges from baseball players throwing weighted balls or using weighted bats not to mention my favorite for looking hardcore, the elevation training mask. Not only are there a lot of gimmicky and flashy exercises and products on the market, trainers and martial arts coaches are cashing in on it, too.
There are a number of trainers and strength and conditioning coaches who have made a living off their marketing as being “sports specific” coaches to athletes of all levels. The claim is that these sports specific exercises will transfer to the ring, octagon, oval, field, or game-time performance.
But, they rarely do. In fact the sexier they usually are, the lesser the likelihood is of them having a direct transfer to the athlete's chosen sport.
When an S&C coach works with an athlete, there is a lot of thought and planning that goes into sessions and programming. The main focus is actually quite simple. To make the martial artist, fighter, or athlete stronger and better conditioned for their sport while keeping them as fresh as possible and injury free. Typically, four main areas need to be addressed—strength and power, energy systems (for the sport, their position, and style of play), recovery, and injury reduction.
The primary strength qualities for most sports are maximal, starting, explosive, reactive, rotational, rate of force development, acceleration and deceleration, stability, and strength endurance. A combination of these will allow the athlete to perform general athletic movements demanded by their particular sport. The sports can be cyclic, like running or rowing, or acyclic, like throwing or jumping. There is no one right way to train these strength qualities but there are definitely some methods much better than others.
The Trouble with Sports Specific Training
The problem we see now, just like the commercial fitness industry, is that S&C coaches and trainers are now ignoring exercises and methods that have stood the test of time, and instead are choosing instead the flashy stuff with bands, balls, masks, and other “sexy” tools and methods. They are ignoring proven training methods to focus on what looks cool—and this is done at their athlete’s expense.
S&C coaches get contacted for “advanced programming" often when an athlete should be focused on getting health parameters in check. This could include things like improving sleep, hydration, reducing stress, or mastering movement literacy and quality with basic movement patterns. In reality, most people that contact me or other coaches don’t need advanced programming whatsoever. They need something that is simple, they can stick to, and that gets results.
The truth is that nothing is going to give you the sports specific results that actually playing your sport will. Most sport specific exercises screw up motor patterns and often create bad habits. True sports specific training is done within the sport and should be left to the sports coaches—the striking coach, wrestling or BJJ coach, a batting coach, tackling coach, golf coach, etc. These are the people to help improve your technical sports specific abilities.
When discussing specificity in training Dr. Mel C. Siff (author of Supertraining) explains:
“While simulation of a sporting movement with small added resistance over the full range of movement or with larger resistance over a restricted part of the movement range may be appropriate at certain stages of training, simulation of any movement with significant resistance is inadvisable since it can confuse the neuromuscular programs which determine the specificity of the above factors.“
You cannot duplicate sports skills and game-like scenarios effectively in the gym. Most of the stuff I see on social media is not only silly and dangerous but has no impact on things that contribute to improved athletic performance. When improvements are gained despite this gimmicky training it's by default, not by design.
So, What Can Be Done?
Most of the time the last thing you will want to do is mimic the same movements off the field or out of the ring that you do while performing the sport itself. Due to specialization (and especially early on with children and the studies showing its detriment), the majority of injuries stem from the same repetitive movements being done over and over. You must give athletes an opportunity to develop by creating balance and undoing the damage from over-specialization.
Athletes need to address weaknesses while keeping their strengths. If you are strong but lack endurance then that is the weak link you must address. If you have great endurance but lack adequate strength in comparison, then you need to work toward more strength. Many S&C coaches miss the point of correct strength training programming. Getting strong is also about becoming more resilient and injury-proofing the body. Call it "pre-hab" if you will. Who cares how strong you get if you are always broken and can never compete? Strength training is about balancing the body from repetitive movements, dysfunction, and compensations that arrive from thousands of repetitions moving the same way all the time. Removing asymmetries to an acceptable level, improving weaknesses in particular areas, and re-establishing neuromuscular balance and control, along with becoming more resilient, should be the goal of a good S&C coach.
S&C coaches need to identify what are the basic qualities of the sport and work on those qualities in the gym. Athletes generally need to stick to developing pristine fundamental movement literacy and strength development that can be consistently repeated.
Multi-joint, multi-planar, double-leg, single-leg exercises—like the squat, deadlift, pull, push, lunge, twist, carry, and gait—are the main patterns to strengthen using progressive overload. This might not be sexy or cool but it is effective and gets results. What is sexier than looking cool in the gym, you ask? How about winning?
The Role of Strength Training
Strength training is supplementary. The thing is, while having big numbers is the gym is good for your ego, no one cares about your bench press, squat, deadlift, or whatever numbers you get in the gym if you are stagnant at your art or sport. Strength should never be developed at the expense of other attributes.
In other words, if you are a coach and your athletes get stronger in the gym but then their movement, reaction time, flexibility, coordination, motor control, and technique take a step backward then you aren’t doing your job. You must convert their strength into great technique and movement. You aren’t going to get that championship belt around their waist or be named as a good S&C coach while they are getting whooped in the ring.
Time is a precious commodity for most athletes, and fatigue is the enemy—fatigue makes cowards of men. Good S&C coaches look at what they can strip away from programs, rather than adding, so their athletes can focus on the sport.
If you take a closer look at the world’s most dynamic and explosive athletes you will not see a lot of gimmicky, flashy sport specific BS. Instead, you will usually see old-school tried and true methods that have stood the test of time for their effectiveness and results. While sexy, gimmicky, and flashy might sell, they rarely get the results.