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Sports Specific Training

The term ‘sports specific’ is commonly used but often misunderstood. Images come to mind of exercises being made to look as similar as possible to the sporting task, with a view to making this relevant to the demands of the sport. As you will see in this article, however, specificity goes a little deeper than simply how something looks, and we may in fact be interfering with the skill element of a given sporting task.

As this is a commonly discussed area, and something that I get asked about a lot, I wanted to summarise the key principles and takehomes whilst providing actionable points for you to implement in your own training or with those that you work with.

Definition

It’s important to start by defining what it is we are talking about to provide clarity. Specificity can be defined as ‘an issue of transfer of training results’ (Zatsiorsky and Kramer, 2006). Every sport has a set of predetermined demands which need to be met, and our task in training is to meet these demands by providing training that bridges the gap between an athlete’s capability and the intended outcome of the programme. This is likely to be a parameter related to performance, underpinned by physiological adaptations that achieve this.

This is also known as ‘Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID)’, which means that our body has highly specific adaptations that it will undergo in response to a given stimulus. If we want to develop a particular physical quality, we must provide the relevant stimulus to achieve this, otherwise our body will not respond or adapt how we would like it to.

The problem

The main problem relating to this area is the misinterpretation of the principle. As eluded to already, we are drawn to seeing things as more similar when they appear visually relevant. If something does not look relevant to the sporting task, we are more likely to disregard it in favour of something more clearly related.

This however is a misunderstanding of the principle. The body responds to a training stimulus in a highly specific manner, and the mode of delivery (the method) is less relevant than the degree to which we can overload the tissue in a clearly defined manner.

Dynamic correspondence

Verkhoshanky’s ‘dynamic correspondence’ provides a useful framework for determining the specificity of a given training stimulus. His criteria include magnitude and direction of force, the regime of muscular work, dynamics of the effort, and the rate and time of maximum force production.

In layman’s terms, this means that how fast we move in an exercise, how much load is involved, which muscles are working and the direction in which we produce force all determine the transfer of training. The closer matched an exercise is on these parameters to the sporting task, the higher the likelihood of a successful increase in performance.

Examples

Here are a few examples of this in action to simplify the principle and bring it to life a little bit.

Three volleyball athletes want to improve their vertical jump to improve their blocking potential in defensive scenarios to reduce the points scoring opportunities for the opposition.

Athlete A uses a leg extension machine.

Athlete B uses a standing long jump.

Athlete C uses a loaded squat jump.

Which of these three athletes is likely to improve their vertical jump to a greater degree? For the sake of simplicity we will say that all three athletes weigh the same amount.

Athlete A is using some of the muscles involved in jumping (quadriceps) and will therefore increase their knee extension force which could contribute to vertical jump performance. However, the amount of force, the direction of force and rate of force production are not similar.

Athlete B is using the same muscles to produce the long jump, and is likely to be producing force at a similar rate and magnitude as a vertical jump. However, the direction of force is slightly different, as they are jumping forwards not vertically.

Athlete C ticks off most of the boxes, as they are using all of the same muscles in the same sequence as a vertical jump, is producing similar (if not more) force than a bodyweight jump, and is producing this force at a similar rate (if not slightly slower). As this athlete has ticked off more of the ‘specific’ boxes, it is likely that they will increase their vertical jump more than the other two.

Joint angle affects transfer of training

To highlight these points further, research into joint angle specificity has highlighted some key considerations in training.

In one research study by Lanza et al. (2019), 13 individuals performed a series of 14 resistance training sessions on a leg extension machine over a 4 week period at a specific joint angle of 65 degrees whilst a control group continued with normal activity. Pre and post-training EMG measurements at a range of joint angles determined that maximum voluntary torque (MVT) was increased to a greater degree at the joint angle which was trained. For example, there was a 12% increase in MVT at 65 degrees, but only a 5% increase in MVT at 35 degrees. The authors concluded that this provided robust evidence for joint angle-specific adaptations to isometric training.

This makes sense given that all of the dynamic correspondence criteria were met here, meaning that the training stimulus was very closely matched with the joint angle, the magnitude of force, muscles involved, and direction of the force produced.

Training age as a consideration

There is one other key factor in this process, which is the training age of the athlete. Training age is the number of years of formalised training that an athlete has accumulated, and is obviously higher in more experienced athletes.

The less training experience an athlete has, the less specific training needs to be. This is due to the fact that our bodies are more likely to adapt to any training stimulus the less exposure we have had to previous training stresses. Youth or beginner athletes should therefore complete general training programmes that don’t necessarily aim to create a specific adaptation that is relevant to their sport.

The more training experience that an athlete has, the more specific training needs to be. As training creates highly specific adaptations in the body, it becomes increasingly difficult to overload the body once we have accumulated a large amount of training. Experienced or elite athletes need more specific training, therefore, as generic training exposure won’t necessarily overload them and create positive adaptive responses in the body.

Sport is the most specific training

If we truly want specific training, then performing the sport itself will provide us with this. In an ideal world, simply playing the sport would provide all of the necessary physiological, tactical, technical, and preparatory work needed to increase performance and reduce injury risk. However, we know this not to be the case, particularly in sports that are more physically determined.

The reality is that all exercises and movements exist on a continuum from general to specific. Sport is at the extreme end of specific, and exercises which meet none of the dynamic correspondence criteria are highly general in nature. Understanding the individual athlete’s needs, stage of the season, and limitations to performance is key to knowing when, why, and how we should be using the many training modalities at our disposal.

Practical application

With these factors in mind, it’s important to consider whether the exercises that you are selecting have relevance to the sporting task. It is also important to have clarity around whether you are seeking a specific adaptation or whether you are simply accumulating a base of general training exposure in the case of a young athlete or those with a small training age.

If we can determine the answers to these questions, then we are halfway to finding the answers we need. As with all areas of training, things exist on a continuum, and knowing where on that continuum you are intending to be, will help us get closer to achieving the outcome we intended.

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References

Appleby, B. Cormack, S. Newton, R. (2019) Specificity and Transfer of Lower-Body Strength: Influence of Bilateral or Unilateral Lower-Body Resistance Training, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Volume 33 - Issue 2 - p 318-326. Doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002923

Lanza, M.B., Balshaw, T.G. & Folland, J.P. (2019) Is the joint-angle specificity of isometric resistance training real? And if so, does it have a neural basis? Eur J Appl Physiol 119, 2465–2476. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-019-04229-z

Zatsiorsky, V., Kraemer, W. (2006) Science and Practice of Strength Training. Second Edition. Human Kinetics.

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