Are you training with a chainsaw or sandpaper?

Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel was one of the most impressive athletes at last month’s Winter Olympics. After obliterating the field and setting records at both the 5000 and 10000m events, he released a free eBook detailing his training plan and philosophy. One important point he made was in what tools he choose. There is a role for nearly every tool in training, but you have to choose the right tool for the purpose at hand. He used the analogy of a sculptor to get his point across:

“If I were to sculpt a bear out of a big wooden block I would start off with a chainsaw, making the rough outlines of the bear. Then I would proceed with finer, more precise tools, as I carve out the details of the animal. Finally I would do the last touches with smoother and smoother sandpaper, up until the sculpture was a work of perfection. This is the principle me and my coaches used when we sculptured me to become a speed skater.”

This is a versatile analogy as it can apply to preparing for different sports, as well as different elements of preparation. Recently I posted our latest video lesson advanced speed strength concepts. Specific strength exercises can be, and often are, used as a chainsaw. They can also be refined and applied as sandpaper. The lesson and the tips below are aimed at helping coaches fine tune their specific strength exercises to develop a more precise training effect.

» Related content: Our latest video lesson explores how to create and implement specific strength training to meet the specific needs of your athletes.

The chainsaw effect

When we talk about specific strength training for beginners, it is often about the chainsaw effect. The main benefits of specific strength for lower level athletes are gains in strength and work capacity. We outlined this in our Video Lesson 9: Specific strength exercises for throwing. Due to the technical complexity of the throwing events, a high volume of throwing is not possible. But specific strength exercises can supplement throws to develop work capacity. They can also overload important aspects of the throw to develop strength.

Speed skaters have a lot of specific strength tools they traditionally use: inline skating, slide boards, short track skating, etc. These all offer skaters similar movements in slightly different environments. For beginners they can be very beneficial, especially in summer months when access to ice can be limited for some populations, yet the accumulation of volume is still a key factor in development.

Both strength and work capacity are easy wins for beginners that provide direct transfer to sport performance. But just like the sculptor, the chainsaw approach only works so long.

Moving beyond the chainsaw

Even Van der Poel relied on the chainsaw earlier in his career. Inline skating, slide boards, and more were a key part of his training during his developmental years. But at a certain point he changed his mind. In his eBook, van der Poel explained why his philosophy changed:

When I reached a certain level I considered dryland exercises (inline, short track, tube walking, slide board…) to actually contaminate my technical ability instead of aiding it. I felt like I was practicing a movement that was close to correct, but not correct, which made me practice doing it wrong, all whilst wasting energy that I could’ve spent skating another lap of 30.0.

For beginners, similar is enough. Finding training that is similar can improve strength and work capacity. But similar is not the same. Van der Poel had already developed strength and work capacity. Now he needed something more than the chainsaw. He needed sandpaper. As he wrote: “A sculptor doesn’t smoothen a surface with a chainsaw.”

Van der Poel found his sandpaper by getting more specific in his training: race-pace training supplemented by more general training (biking, etc.) out of season. He cut out the specific strength work. This is one way, and it worked for him. However specific strength can also be adapted as another option. Used thoughtfully, it is possible to find specific strength exercises that work as sandpaper.

Make your own sandpaper

In the video lesson I quote a lesson that Spiderman was given: with great power comes great responsibility. Specific strength training can have a big impact, both positive and negative. Time and time again I see specific strength exercises negatively impact technique, as van der Poel experienced first hand. Throwing heavy implements can have a similar effect if exercises are not chosen with a watchful eye. One way around this dilemma is to simply not use them, as van der Poel decided. The other option is to use it more responsibly by adjusting the goals and focus.

The “similar is not the same” idea can be used to our advantage as well. Doing the same thing over and over isn’t necessarily ideal training. There can be great value in training that is similar but not the same, including the following:

  • Differential learning: motor learning can be enhanced through appropriate variation in training. Doing the same thing over and over is rarely the best way to learn. Therefore specific strength exercises offer variation and a potential to improve technique.
  • Overload: a basic premise of exercise science is that it is hard to make progress without overload. Overload doesn’t necessarily mean heavier. It means more challenging. That could be heavier, faster, more coordinative demands, more challenging environment, etc. Specific strength training offers a chance to isolate and overload potential technical problem areas or key moments of the movement.

When we are choosing an exercise for the chainsaw approach, nuance doesn’t matter as much. Does it look similar? Use similar movements and muscles? Does it have a high “dynamic correspondence”? If so, then it is probably good enough.

If we are using an exercise as sandpaper, we have to change our focus and look in more detail. How do we want to improve technique? What are the critical moments of the technique? Where is technique currently failing? What are the movement attractors we want to strengthen? And so on. If we understand these, we can then create bespoke exercise to meet our specific needs. Specific strength then becomes less about whether it looks like the sport and more about whether it is training the factors we need to focus on.

An example of sandpaper

So how do the chainsaw and sandpaper look in practice? For my hammer throwers the chainsaws are heaving winding or releasing movements. We might take a heavy kettlebell or medicine ball and huck it for distance. That’s the chainsaw.

The sandpaper is used more prescriptively. One common issue I had with hammer throwers focus on posture. If you lean too far forward to too far backward, it is hard to keep a strong axis of rotation. So a few years ago I started to implement some specific strength exercises that focused on this element of technique. Here is one example where athletes are required to turn and then stop at a specific point:

What is this exercise training? First off, it develops strength. But it also develops posture. You will not be able to stop at the right point if posture you are leaning too far forward. Therefore it forces the athletes into a better posture and then specifically strengthens their ability to hold that posture.

This example looks less like the hammer throw than doing consecutive turns or releasing a kettlebell; after all we never stop during the throw. But if we are fine tuning a throw this type of exercise can often be more helpful than something that looks more similar. As I’ve written about before, we need to move beyond dynamic correspondence. We are chasing transfer in the end, not how an exercise looks. This is the most true with elite athletes.