The Role of Specific Strength Exercises in Team Sports

A question that comes up nearly every time I present on specific strength exercises is whether such work in the weight room is really necessary for team sports. Athletes from these sports spend large quantities of time on the field and little time training off of it. As a result many strength coaches feel a need to balance out their training and focus only on general exercises once the athletes enter the weight room. I must admit, it is a great question. In fact, I’ve been pondering it for a few months now.

Stuck in the Middle

Disregarding the middle seems to be a trend lately. Stephen Seiler has done some amazing work on how polarized training methods have been used successfully by endurance athletes in a variety of sports. Charlie Francis is oft cited in regards to polarized training intensities for sprinters as his high-low method cuts out medium-intensity runs since such running is deemed too slow to be specific and too fast to help enhance recovery.

But what about exercise selection? Does the same logic apply to the middle here? Are specific strength exercises not specific enough to develop coordination, and not loaded enough to provide a stimulus?

What is the Point of Specificity?

Before I share my thoughts on the debate, it helps to take a step back. While most people do not ever discuss it, the term “specificity” is just a shortcut. In the end we are after performance and therefore seek exercises that will transfer into results. The SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) states that the a specific stimulus will lead to a specific response. Doing push ups, for example, will not help us squat more. Therefore we tend to think that the more specific something is, the better it will transfer.

But this is not always the case. Something does not have to be specific to have great transfer. John Kiely gave me a great example last year: if my hamstring is injured, rehabilitation will give me more transfer than hammer throwing even though rehabilitation is not sport specific in any conception of the term.

Specific exercises also do not always transfer well. Part of this is due to ambiguity about what specificity actually is. There are many definitions floating around, such as those by Bondarchuk and Verkhosshansky, but few coaches have been able to find a definition which can be easily taken from theory to practice and from closed skill to open skilled sports. As Frans Bosch said in our recent interview, “There should be big thick books on specificity, but there is nothing out there.” Specificity is complex and just because something might look superficially similar doesn’t mean it ticks all the boxes required for specificity.

The key point to remember is the specificity is just a proxy for transfer and should not be taken for granted. If you are using specific exercises you should take the time to verify that they actually transfer.

Specificity is just a proxy for transfer. Specific or not, we just want exercises that transfer. Click To Tweet

Specific Strength Exercises for Throwers

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how and why we use specific strength exercises in the throwing events and see if we can learn from that when looking at team sports. Track and field events are, for the most part, closed-skill sports. In the hammer throw, for example, we train for one movement. This makes it easier to define the role of specific strength exercises. Bondarchuk has done extensive research on the transfer provided by specific strength exercises for throwers. When you look at why that is the case you see specific strength exercises provide value and benefit to us in the following areas:

  • Variety in movement. If we just do the same thing over and over, we will reach a plateau technically and physically. Therefore we are seeking ways to bring variety to the movement in order to deepen the movement attractors, as described in my chat with Frans Bosch.
  • Variety in loading. As the competition movement does not change, the loads to not change. Supplemental exercises allow us to overload certain strength or speed elements of the movement.
  • Additional volumes of specific work. We can only take so many throws in training while retaining a high technical quality. By breaking a movement down in to parts, we can continue to train after initial fatigue sets in, allowing both quantity and quality together.

Specific Strength Exercises for Team Sports

Team sports provide different challenges and therefore must be analyzed independently. Transfer is more difficult to quantify and no one has run the numbers at the same level Bondarchuk has in athletics. So let’s start by seeing if the same benefits we have seen documented in track and field pass the litmus test:

  • Variety in movement. Unlike throwing, team sports are open-skilled sports. No two training sessions will therefore be the same even if you follow the same script. The need to use specific strength exercises in order to introduce new movements is therefore reduced as there is already so much variety in a standard training session.
  • Variety in loading. Loading is also something that can be altered without the need of specific weight room exercises. In a recent interview, Eddie Jones gave a great example recently of how England Rugby does just that: “We have a fast day where we try to train for at least 60 per cent of the session above game speed.” That is one day of training dedicated solely to speed overload.
  • Additional volumes of specific work. The skill set required in team sports is so vast that when an athlete gets fatigued in one area of the game, training can simply shift to focus on another area. If a basketball player is getting fatigued shooting, for example, then they can shift training to focus on defensive skills. There is less of a need to introduce specific strength exercises in order to extend the amount of specific work that can be accomplished since the shelf of options is already so big.

As you can see, specific strength exercises no longer have the same benefits as they do in track and field. To further weaken the argument for their use, general exercises also have several advantages pointing towards their usage:

  • More general can mean more specific. General exercises can be a good tool to develop an athlete’s overall robustness. In team sports, athletes are constantly exposed to new challenges and therefore creating these challenges in training, specific or not, can help prepare them for the demands of the sport and keep them healthy. This is the key point behind the plyometrics philosophy outlined in our new webinar. As Bill Knowles and Vern Gambetta recently pointed out on the GAINcast, the most important ability an athlete can have is availability. If an athlete is injured, they cannot do any specific work. Therefore a little more general work can also mean more specific work to at the end of the day.
  • Specific can be too specific. If you have limited time in the weight room, why choose an exercises that focuses on just one of the dozens of skills needed on the field? You just don’t have enough time to cover all the specific movements. In addition, general exercises can have broad applicability in open skilled sports by targeting the building blocks the form various different movements. This is why Frans Bosch classifies much of his approach as general: athletes are not necessarily learning specific movements, they are learning the pillars of general movement literacy.

So what’s my conclusion for team sports? If athletes are already spending vast majority of their training time doing specific work on the field, additional time with strength coaches in the weight room should likely be spent on more general training. Specific strength exercises in the weight room should not play a large role in team sports. I would still use some to some extent as they can be fun and motivating. They can also help players see relevancy of training. General work can give a lot of transfer not because it provides balance and polarization, but because it can provide better transfer in many cases. This conclusion does not provide much guidance as the term general is not very descriptive. General can mean anything from loading the bar heavy with squats to doing low amplitude jumping exercises. General also doesn’t mean you do not keep the sport in mind since exercises can be adapted to emphasize sport specific angles or characteristics. Those exercises will have completely different transfers and it is up to the coach to find the exercises that transfer the best, regardless of whether they are general or specific, heavy or light.

Team sports have different needs in regard to specific strength lifting exercises. @bingisser Click To Tweet

The Catch

But here’s the catch: team sport athletes might not to spend much time in the weight room on specific exercises, but they already have a huge amount of specific work. They even have huge amounts of specific strength work. We just call it normal training. And just because training takes place on the field doesn’t mean that the strength coach can just tick off the specific box, forget about it, and focus on something else. On-field specific needs to be planned better, and I’m not just talking about counting the meters run. Some specific work will work better than other specific work. Attention needs to be paid to how we can use drills in training to overload and develop athletes.

The difficulty here is that what happens on the field encroaches onto what is the head coach’s territory in most cases. Therefore having a head coach that understands the need for plan is essential. One head coach that gets this is Eddie Jones, as described in the article referenced earlier. He uses overspeed training sessions to develop speed and sessions with extra contact to develop strength. As he puts it, “Every day we train a specific parameter of the game.” He has taken his approach from soccer, where it is called tactical periodization. But for me it is about blending the tactical and physical. When you read about John Pryor’s experience with Japan Rugby and Eddie Jones, his role as the strength and conditioning coach could easily be mistaken for a backs coach. The boundaries of a job get blurred once you start to think about how all the elements can fit together in planning the drills and on-field sessions. Eddie Jones understands that training develops physical and tactical elements in parallel. I do not think it is a coincidence that his teams continue to win as a result.

Unfortunately most coaches do not think about this area in as much detail. Most coaches spend vast amounts of time debating how structure the few hours a week they have in the weight room, but at the same time they don’t plan the vast majority of stimulus athletes are getting on the field. Planning training is not about what parts can fall into what category or if it all fits into some theoretical formula. Planning training is about finding transfer. And you need to look for it in everything the athlete does.

Planning training is not about what parts can fall into what category. It's about finding transfer. Click To Tweet

Special thanks to Nick Lumley, Mark Bennett, and Graeme Morris for exchanging ideas on this topic and providing feedback on earlier drafts.

1 reply
  1. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Fantastic post Martin! Your point about on-field training is on the money for me; this is where “specificity” is found, not in the weightroom. If I were to apply the Bondarchuk exercise classification to my own sport (soccer) it would look something like:

    CE: Soccer
    SD: Small-sided games / drills with the ball where there are constraints but retain an “open” environment with high tactical/cognitive demand
    SP: Small-sided games / drills with a closed environment and/or less tactical/cognitive demand (e.g. a crossing & finishing drill requiring repeat sprints)
    G: Everything else

    As you rightly point out, this doesn’t mean the “general” is not important, and in fact it can be the most important element in team sports to promote robustness and keep players on the field to do the “specific” work. The challenge then becomes using that general training efficiently and in a manner that doesn’t overlap with, or compromise, the specific on-field work.

    Thanks again for a great post!!


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