Is Sport-Specific Training a Myth?

Coach Mike explains why the exercises an athlete doesn’t perform can have the biggest impact on his success in a training program.

Strength training is and always will be a major part of the conditioning process for athletes. In fact, nothing seems to help sport performance more than the development of strength and power. This is great news for those of us who’ve made a career out of helping athletes reach those goals.

But even though we all agree about the importance of strength training, and even though there’s some general consensus about the best ways to improve athletes’ strength and power, debates have raged for years about the specifics. One particularly contentious debate is over the very idea that there are specifics for training players in individual sports.

Athletes and their parents or coaches love to hear that a particular exercise is good for a particular sport. It makes strength and conditioning specialists like me sound like we know what we’re talking about, and it gives athletes confidence in our ability to help them with their individual needs.

Plus, let’s be honest about this: The guys who write for fitness magazines love you when they’re assigned articles called “The Best Exercise for Every Sport” and you can actually supply them with material that pleases their editors and helps them get paid.

So it’s in my best interest to tell people that such things as “sport-specific training” and “sport-specific exercises” actually exist. But is it true?

Let’s think about what we’re asking here:

Say I’m training two high school kids. One’s a cornerback on the football team, and one’s a center fielder on the baseball team. Both are fast and would benefit by being even faster. Both would benefit by being stronger and developing more power. Both want to add some muscular size, but not at the expense of their speed or agility. Do I train them differently, even though their goals are basically the same?

In the most fundamental sense, the answer is no. The best methods to develop speed and power are somewhat universal.

However, there is a catch. Although it’s dubious to say that certain exercises are better for certain sports, I think it’s fair to say that some exercises are worse for athletes who play particular sports.

Should Basketball Players Squat?

Those in the hard-core crowd love to bang square pegs into round holes. One size fits all. If the squat is a great exercise, it must be great for every athlete in every situation. I was one of those guys for years, forcing my basketball players to squat, and searching endlessly for ways to help them learn the right technique.

But then I figured something out: There’s a limiting factor in squatting, which I call segmental proportion. What I realized was that athletes with long femurs relative to the length of the torso will be lousy squatters. These guys were almost always forwards or centers, six-feet-five or taller.

But it’s not just about height - some tall basketball players are actually very good squatters. And before you launch into keyboard-commando mode in the discussion thread, let me assure you that these segmentally challenged athletes don’t lack desire or put out less effort than anyone else.

The problem is that a guy with these proportions needs an extreme forward lean when he squats, making it look like he’s doing a good morning. He’ll generally be frustrated with his inability to do the exercise correctly, and may suffer back pain.

Eventually, I could identify these athletes before we got anywhere near the squat rack. Basketball players with exceptionally long femurs always look short sitting down. I remember sitting next to one and realizing that, despite the fact he was eight inches taller than me, we were eye-to-eye in a chair.

My advice to athletes and fellow coaches: If you or an athlete you train is built proportionally and can squat with good form, go for it. If the athlete is “all legs,” be careful: You’re looking at a square peg.

The problem of segmental proportions isn’t exclusive to basketball players anymore. In the past five or six years I’ve seen a growing number of offensive linemen in football who have what I call “basketball builds.” They tend to be 6’5" or taller, with long legs and relatively short torsos.

Everyone knows football players in general, and linemen in particular, should squat early and often. But this square peg/round hole training methodology leaves a lot of the taller linemen with back and knee problems. The back issues are exacerbated by the fact they play positions requiring spinal extension.

Good Solutions for Bad Leverage

For strength, use front squats, belt squats, single-leg squats, single-leg squats with the rear foot elevated (also called Bulgarian split squats), and/or trap-bar deadlifts.

For power, try Olympic lifts from the hang position above the knees, along with Vertimax jumps.

Final Thought

Physics rule in all sports. The reason there are so few short NBA players is the same reason there are so few tall Olympic lifters. It’s much easier for a short person to do an Olympic lift from the floor than it is for a tall person. Keep this in mind if you’re unusually tall, or train tall athletes. The diameter of a plate is constant; it gives short athletes good leverage and puts tall ones at a disadvantage.

Should Overhead Athletes Do Overhead Lifts?

Swimmers, baseball players, football quarterbacks, and tennis and volleyball players would seem to have little in common as athletes. Until, that is, you work with enough of them as a strength coach. That’s when you notice a common predisposition to shoulder injuries, particularly rotator cuff tendonitis. Why? Because their sports require repetitive activities with their hands above their heads.

So the simple and logical fix is to avoid most overhead exercises. It’s not that the athletes can’t do them; the problem is the amount of time they already spend with their arms above their shoulders. Overuse is the enemy of the overhead athlete.

That said, not all overhead exercises are equally damaging. We’ll do shoulder presses with dumbbells, but not with a barbell. We also avoid snatches and overhead squats, along with behind-the-neck exercises, which we don’t do with anyone. (This is old news, but the behind-the-neck position, which involves extreme abduction and external rotation, isn’t really safe for any type of athlete, and it’s especially dangerous for people whose sport involves serving, spiking, or pitching.)

Staying Away From Bars

Barbells aren’t conducive to good shoulder health. Because they don’t bend or rotate, they determine the mechanics of the shoulder joint, something you never want an unyielding hunk of iron to control.

Ten years ago we didn’t have many choices, and used bars for overhead athletes out of necessity. Now we just use them out of habit, despite the fact there are so many alternatives.

Just to pick one exercise, most people still use the Smith machine for inverted rows, or a barbell set low in a squat rack. But I prefer the TRX, or gymnastics rings, all of which allow the shoulder joints to move through their normal spiral-diagonal patterns. Using any of those implements, you can also do rotational inverted rows, pulling up with one arm at a time.

Similarly, a lot of cable machines now have dual handles for pulldowns and rows – a much better option for overhead athletes than straight bars, which are outdated for pulling exercises and should be used sparingly, if at all, for pressing. (Dumbbell bench presses – flat or incline – get the job done.)

With dual handles, you can do this exercise, called an X pulldown:

For power, I like kettlebell overhead swings, since there’s no catch phase to bang up the forearms and lots of eccentric challenge for the muscles of the upper back. I also like the hang clean for the overhead athlete, assuming there’s enough time to teach proper technique, as well as the Vertimax, which I mentioned earlier.

Another great tool for the overhead athlete is the medicine ball. I use it with all my players, to varying degrees, but I consider it essential for the overhead athlete. Overhead throws with the medicine ball are one of the best power exercises for these guys, helping them develop the core power that’s so vital to effective throwing. As a bonus, they offer terrific eccentric work for the rotator cuff.

Two warnings: Use light medicine balls (one or two kilograms) for upper-body work, and always use two hands. One-arm throws are more “specific” to what overhead athletes do, but they’re also more dangerous.

Final Tip

Overhead athletes almost always need to focus on shoulder flexibility. The side-lying external-rotation stretch is a good choice. (It’s also called the sleeper stretch, for reasons I don’t understand.) I apologize for the fact the video is missing its audio track, but I think you can see the technique clearly enough.

I Also Like Wall Slides.

Stand with your back against a wall. You want your shoulder blades and butt touching the wall, and minimal arch in your lower back. Lift your arms so the backs of your hands and forearms are against the wall. Your upper arms should be parallel to the floor, more or less, with your elbows bent 90 degrees. Now slide your arms up and down the wall, without losing contact with it.

Your range of motion may be short at first, but with work over time you can expand it.

Can Targeted Exercises Prevent Knee and Groin Injuries?

To a sports fan, soccer and hockey don’t seem to have much in common. But strength and conditioning professionals know that soccer and hockey players share an unusual risk for sports hernias – muscle tears in the lower abdomen. The link is that both sports require athletes to generate power with their hips in external rotation. (Rugby and tennis players, to a lesser extent, deal with the same problem.)

Unlike the other two examples in this article, the challenge with hockey and soccer players is to add exercises to mitigate the problem, rather than subtract exercises that exacerbate it. Specifically, you want to add targeted stretches and hip-mobility drills that improve hip internal rotation.

Soccer players have another injury risk that requires targeted training: Because they’re always up on the balls of their feet, with very little knee bend, they make adaptive changes over time that leave them particularly prone to ACL tears. The problem is made worse by a cultural disdain for strength training.

What God Has Put Together, Let No Sport Tear Apart

Soccer players need to do knee-dominant exercises like squats and single-leg squats.

Hockey and soccer players – and to a lesser extent tennis and rugby players – should add some or all of the following: lateral lunges, rotational squats, slide-board intervals (which you can see in the background in several of the videos that follow), and progressive hip-flexion exercises.

One possible progression is shown below. The first video is a supine alternating hip-flexion exercise with a band:

Next is a supine unilateral hip flexion, using a low cable:

Then we go to a standing hip flexion:

The final exercise combines hip flexion with internal rotation:

In addition, all these athletes should do the stability-ball internal rotation:

Wrapping It Up

Smart and experienced trainers like to remind gym rats that there’s no such thing as the “best” workout. That’s true if we’re talking about building bigger muscles or improving body composition. But when it comes to training athletes with the goal of increasing their speed, strength, and power, the opposite is true. There really is a best way to do it.

The problem is that what works for most athletes isn’t a good choice for every athlete. That’s when you have to make specific adjustments for individual players, or types of players.

Sometimes this means adding targeted exercises to address imbalances and help prevent injuries. But more often, training specificity is defined by what you shouldn’t do with those special cases – avoiding exercises and movement patterns that create problems, or that make existing problems worse.

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