What exercise classification can and can’t do for your training

You can classify exercises in a number of ways: on a scale of specificity, by the plane of movement, by degrees of freedom, by the speed of movement, or through various other methods. One approach is that of Anatoli Bondarchuk, who we have covered many times on our podcast and in our webinar on his training methods, which divides exercises into four categories based on his definition of specificity. In talking with coaches over the past few years, his method provides a simple tool that coaches in any spot can implement. But let’s be clear, it also has it’s limitations, like any method of exercise classification. Exercise classification is the start of a process, not the solution itself. There are certain things that exercise classification can and cannot do.

What exercise classification can’t do

  1. Predict transfer

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. When most people talk about exercise categories, there tends to be a value judgment attached to each category, e.g. specific is better than general, or specific will make you better. After all, if you want to get better at basketball you are better off shooting lots of baskets than focusing on the bench press. But in elite sport, as with most things in life, training isn’t always that simple. Predicting transfer is hard, and certainly a few categories cannot do that. The only time we can really predict is with beginners, where almost everything works.

If you read Bondarchuk’s work, he takes care not to infer that one category is better than any other, even when he has data showing higher correlations among specific exercises for many sports. The reason is because what transfers is very specific to the sport and to the individual and even within a category there can be huge variation. There can be good and bad exercises providing high and low transfer in every category. Throwing a 100-pound kettlebell might be specific in that it looks more like my sport, but I’d much rather my athletes do a simple back squat.

In the end each exercise needs to be looked at individually. Exercise classification merely provides them a map; it is up to the coach to find out where transfer lies.

  1. Find the magic exercises

The quest for the best exercise has accelerated in the social media era. Everyone wants to find the best exercise, rather than the best process. Exercise classification has often been used as a tool in this hunt, but more often than not the tool is misused.

Like the search for the holy grail or the fountain of youth, the search for the best exercise is a lifelong pursuit that will only leave you frustrated. The reason is because it is never about one exercise; you need a bit of everything. When you look at how Bondarchuk trained the hammer throw you see an example of this. His data clearly showed that the squat had little correlation to success in elite hammer throwers. Yet every day we squatted in training, sometimes twice a day. This apparent contradiction shows he sees value in all exercise categories. People forget this fact when they talk about Bondarchuk and instead focus just on his analysis of specific exercises.

All parts of training can provide value. Specific work can prepare athletes for the demands of the sport, but more importantly general training prepares athletes for the demands of training. If you are not prepared to train, you will never get any specific work done in the first place. As Bill Knowles explain on our podcast, he incorporates small doses of general work into every training for that exact purpose: it helps keep his athletes healthy which allows them to do more specific work over the course of the season. If you get injured, you won’t be doing any work in any category.

Furthermore, no matter what category the exercise comes from, if all you do is the same thing, you will stop improving at some point. Therefore variety from all categories is just as important as which exercise comes from each category.

  1. Tell you how to overload

Optimal training is often about finding the right tradeoff between specificity and overload. By definition, the more you overload a movement, the less specific something comes, but the overload can come in many different forms. You might not notice this, but Bondarchuk never uses the term specific strength, and that’s because specific overload is not just about developing more strength.

In rugby, for example, if your goal is to improve an athletes running ability in rugby, one way to do that is to provide overload to develop strength (e.g. have them pull a sled). Another way would be to overload the speed element (e.g. assisted running). Or you can also add variety, as John Pryor demonstrated in his robust running webinar. In many cases, this last point is the most important. Success is often determined not by how much force you can produce, but how many positions you are able to produce that force in. Strength is therefore not the only way to overload athletes.

  1. Take into account the complexity of the game

In track and field  we lose sight of this final point since we are dealing with a limited number of movements that have very limited degrees of freedom. Field sports, such as rugby or football, over numerous different movements with nearly infinite degrees of freedom. How does a coach decide which movements to focus on?

By itself, exercise categorization doesn’t answer this question. It can tell you what category an exercise belongs to, but not whether it is the right thing to focus on. It won’t tell you if you should develop specific exercises to address different parts of the game or, instead, identify common threads between the elements and focus on those, as I discussed last week.

Additionally, motor learning is not accounted for in most classification models. Athletes need to progress from learning a skill to mastering it, and require different training to do that. Tom Farrow, strength coach for the English 7s rugby team, uses Bondarchuk exercise classification in setting up his system, but one thing he adds on is this motor learning component. In each category he also asks how he can progress athletes from learning a skill and executing it in a controlled environment, to mastering it in a chaotic and increasingly unpredictable environment.

What exercise classification can do

  1. Organize training and find balance

Despite its shortcomings, exercise classification is a tool that I use almost daily in training. In talking with other coaches, some of the top teams and programs in the world have found great benefit by implementing Bondarchuk’s exercise classification or other systems. The main reason is that it provides a quick and useful organizational structure. In just a few seconds you can look at any element of training and see where it fits in.

As I mentioned above, all elements of training have importance and, no matter our level, we all need to do a bit of everything. But you would be surprised how many athletes simply neglect one area of training. After time, that will catch up with them.

It is not just that we need each category of training, but that we need the right balance of each category. Some elements we need daily, some more irregularly. Some we need in high doses, others in small doses. The ratios will be different for each sport and athlete, but once you have a good guideline, you can use classification to easily go back to check if your training is covering the areas it is supposed to.

Having a simple system like exercise classification makes sure you are ticking all the big boxes in training. There is a reason why complex tasks like surgery and flying profit so profit so greatly from checklists: they make sure we don’t skip over the simple but important stuff.

  1. Better understand what you are doing

With an easy method to help ensure you are doing the big things right, you can instead focus energy on making sure the little things are being done right too. The real value is not in the categories, but in how we make each category better. Doing that means understanding the role of each category. Once we know the role of each category and our overall goal, we can break down how work in each area will contribute to the overall plan.

Without clear categories, the function of each exercise can become blurry.With clear categories we better understand the role of each exercise and, therefore, can better assess whether it is effective. For example, a coach might look towards a general exercise to improve specific technique. This could mean trying to make a weight room exercises look more like our sporting activity in the hopes that it will transfer. As Professor Warren Young wrote about earlier this month, at a certain point that is like trying to fit a square block in a round hole. By focusing back on the categories we can see where to best accomplish that work, and often it will lead to creative solutions. In rugby, Eddie Jones and other teams have started to adapt tactical periodization models from soccer. In the process they are looking at how they can better design drills to provide overload, rather than looking for it in the weight room.

  1. Find a better starting point

Exercise classification may not be able to predict transfer, but it is not like coaches need to reinvent the wheel each time they write a training plan. Categories do give us a shortcut by providing coaches a better and more informed starting point. Lots of research is out there on different types of exercises transfer to sporting results. Correlation is not causation, but we can learn from this. The numbers might not always be applicable to our individual situation, but it is better than starting out with no knowledge, and if we are trying something new we can draw parallels to similar exercises and move forward from there.

  1. Shift the focus to variation

One of the key concepts to Bondarchuk’s training is that how you change the exercises can be as important as what exercises you choose. Front squat might be better than the back squat for one sport, but if all you do is the front squat it will stagnate and stop being better. Adaptation comes from trying new things.

Bondarchuk uses the exercises classifications as the building blocks for periodization. There is not one way to periodize training; periodization is about when and how you change exercises in each block. Knowing which block an exercise belongs to, therefore, helps you better know when to change and how to keep moving training forward.

How do you use exercise classification?

These are just initial thoughts I had on the topic of exercise classification and there are surely more points we could add to the lists above.. It would be interesting to hear your own approach, and how you have found exercise classification helpful or not. Get in touch with me and let me know as I plan to continue to explore this topic. Hopefully we can create a conversation around the topic, and Jake Jensen has already started a series of posts related to this.