Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What Are You Talking About… Specifically? - By Fred Fornicola

Originally posted on NaturalStrength.com on March 12, 2007


My original intention for this article was to go through a thorough explanation of the misnomer “sports specific training”, but after a few conversations over the last few days with some of my peers who have encountered some “debates” over this idiotic concept, I’ve decided to just cut to the chase and discuss this plain and simple.

Sport Specific Training – The Old Days

In my day, sport specific training (which I don’t believe was even a trendy term at the time) meant becoming more physically fit by strength training, running, performing wind sprints etc., along with hours upon hours of skillful practice of ones chosen sport. Currently, the term “sports specific training” has taken on a completely different connotation, largely in part because of the commercialization of the strength and conditioning industry. At the present time, the idea of sport specific training is touted as being able to duplicate or imitate a specific "skill" or aspect of ones sport in the weight room atmosphere. As for me, it meant practicing sprinting and making cuts up and down the court while dribbling a basketball, rebounding, shooting and actually performing game-like activities, not running with a parachute on my back or throwing weighted balls or jumping off boxes. Here’s a personal anecdote that I’ll use as an example. I played basketball my entire young life and back in the late 1970’s, weighted vests became popular (what, do you think weighted vests are new?) so I purchased one. I wore that thing all the time because I was going to improve my jumping, my speed and my quickness – well, so I thought. I ran, jumped and practiced shooting every day with that vest on and in the beginning I had trouble making any of my shots, my running stride was out of whack and my timing was way off. Why? - Because I was learning new motor skills. After about a week I started making my shots and started to get my timing down. Now, after that week I decided to go play some pickup games sans the vest and to my surprise, I couldn’t make a shot to save my life. My timing was way off, my stride was not right and I miss timed my jumps. Why? I had developed new learning skills with the vest on which DID NOT cross over to my needs on the basketball court.

Sport Specific Training - Today

Sport specific training in its current concept is a means of simulating a movement or exercise in the weight room with the intention of it transferring to the playing field – regardless of what that field is. It is also a protocol of lifting fast to become fast, using low repetitions to bulk and performing power cleans and snatches to make better football players. Of course these are not all of the perceived concepts attached to sports specific training but enough to make one question what the hell someone is thinking when they argue these points. It’s beyond my comprehension why anyone would think performing, for example, a walking lunge would simulate running or how throwing a weighted object will somehow cross over to throwing a football or baseball. The term “sports specific” in my definition of the term means “specific to ones sport” which means that an athlete should be doing what is specifically needed to perform their activity or sport. If someone wants to improve their golf swing then they should take golf lessons from a qualified coach and then practice, practice and practice some more. Swinging a weighted object of any kind in place of the golf club will not develop club head speed or improve your swing – what it will do is create new mechanics for your body to learn and then distort your regular swing. Plain and simple – there is no transference from one activity to another, which is why movement is SPECIFIC! The same holds true for developing explosiveness and speed. These skills are developed by becoming stronger, practicing proper skills and techniques, understanding your sport, having acute auditory and visual skills, being perceptive and of course, let’s not forget genetics. I remember watching the great Dick Butkus when he played for the Chicago Bears. You could see him watch as plays evolved and then react with such tenacity and speed. Was it because he was doing power cleans or lifting fast? Hell no, the man knew his sport and his competition and put himself in the right place and the right time. He was strong, determined, understood how to read plays and was an animal on the field – that’s what made him great - and this was all without the benefit of strength training because at that time he didn’t believe in it.

Have you ever experienced or witnessed an individual avoid a car accident merely because they see the accident unfolding as it is about to occur and while observing their surroundings, react instantly? Is it because they workout on a balance board or maxed out on their squats? Nah, I doubt it. They used their auditory and visual skills, maybe even some experience and knowledge of how to handle a situation as this. So, my confusion lies with the idea of transfer - transfer of performing one movement or skill to another. If a power clean is identical to performing movements on the football field then I should be able to eat soup with a fork because it’s the same movement as if I were to use a spoon. If you believe that one needs to stand on an unstable surface to become stable then that leads me to reason that you wouldn’t mind a house built on sand. Why put someone on an unsecured surface to develop their stability? Why have someone risk falling, twisting a knee or ankle, or worse so they can develop balance – and when in hell was the last time you saw anyone play a sport on an unstable surface? Lift fast to be fast? Gotcha, so let’s use momentum and gravity to move the weight, not our muscles to develop speed – right. Think about that, does it make sense to unload the muscle to develop strength and speed? If you give it a moments thought you’d realize that the muscles need to do the work to become stronger and just throwing a weight around doesn’t mean you are becoming strong or becoming faster – it just means you are throwing a weight around.

Sport Specific Training – But “Why?”

In my many discussions with those in my field (who I hold the highest regard), we all agree that there are many ways to become stronger. Some ways are safer than others and in some cases, more beneficial overall to the athlete but regardless, there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Because there are so many variations there are times when illogical approaches are suggested – approaches that further probing reveal a lack of understanding of form and function. Ask “why” an individual needs power cleans and you more than likely will hear a response such as “it builds explosiveness” and to which I would again ask “why”. Since their understanding is such that is merely a regurgitated response from a well known individual or because their favorite football team does it my second probe of “why” tends to stop them dead in their tracks, usually because they really don’t know why they are doing what they are doing and are just following along aimlessly. I’ve had many brief conversations with people who are sports specific – brief because they can not intelligently explain to me why they need to be specific in the gym nor can they explain to me, for instance, why a leg press, squat, deadlift, lunge or any other deep knee bending movement would somehow differ in developing the muscles of the legs and hips. At that point the conversation usually terminates because they are without an answer or logical reason. Personally, it is beyond my comprehension why it so damn difficult to have someone understand that a person who is looking to improve their performance doesn’t need more than to work at improving their strength and conditioning and perform proper practice for said activity to improve. Again, I’ll reference my own experiences. After my failed vest experience all I did to improve my basketball was work at my sport and performed resistance training. Hell, I didn’t even do any additional conditioning work because at the time I was training three times a week doing full body workouts for one set to muscular failure and just playing basketball all the time. Through this dedicated effort my knowledge of the game improved, experience was teaching me how to “anticipate” and “respond” better. My speed/quickness improved as well did my jumping (I was able to touch the rim at 5’7”) and not to mention my shooting range increased as well and I could play full court for hours. Instead of wasting time doing simulation work I was applying my efforts into the actual activities that were required to play my sport.

It’s All Vanilla To Me

I always tell a buddy of mine that with the countless number of ice cream flavors out there in the world, vanilla is still the number one favorite flavor. Vanilla is as plain and simple as you can get and yet it sits high as supreme in the ice cream world. Manufacturers add variety and invest countless hours and money into developing new and exciting flavors to wow the industry – and they do for a short time before everyone falls back on old faithful – vanilla. Vanilla, it’s simple, effective – it gets the job done, just like a straightforward strength program consisting of a handful of compound movements worked hard and consistently over time and proper practice of specific movements in your sport. Quite often this “vanilla” approach is shunned because of its simplicity and unfortunately, its advantages ignored. It’s an uncomplicated, established method that doesn’t need accreditation, sponsorship, extensive research or techno terms to define or describe –it’s just a plain old way of producing results that have benefited many an athlete over the course of many, many years.


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Bob Whelan

Bob Whelan

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