Quick—what's the most important job a strength and conditioning coach has? If you said, “Make athletes better at their sports,” you're right! We're here to make athletes better at their sport (among other things, but that’s first). So how do we do that?

Let me first present a quote by the legendary Anatoliy Bondarchuk from his book Transfer of Training in Sports:

“Positive transfer of training means that there is a positive effect on one exercise on another. In other words, with an increase in the sports results of one exercise, a parallel increase takes place in another exercise. [With] negative transfer of training, there is always a negative interaction between the exercises being used. Here, with increased preparation in one exercise, there is a simultaneous decrease in other exercises. In neutral transfer of training, there is no increase or decrease in sports achievement. The training does not show any effect on other training.”

We want our training to have a positive transfer to sports, and we want to have an increase in the ability for the athlete to perform the specific necessary skills that come as a result of the training we've put them through. In addition, we want to remove negative or neutral training transfers entirely.

I want to discuss my perspective on looking at the programming of training athletes. I'll start by taking a few steps back. As we all know, adaptation is the key component of training, and the number one rule of training is that you adapt to the stresses placed on your body. As strength coaches, our job is to plan and organize training in a thoughtful manner so that the total sum of these adaptations correlates to a higher level of performance on the field/turf/court/pool. We know this as training periodization, and even in this manner, there are several ways that you can go about the planning structure of your training: linear, block and undulating (and within those, tier and triphasic, which are open to interpretation by the administrator).

As strength coaches, our form of stress includes various forms of resistance exercise (as well as field work). The next great debate is what are the ideal exercises and programs to use within our desired training structure? Powerlifters need to become good at the big three, so they perform them (and variations). Olympic lifters need to become good at the highly technical Olympic lifts, so they must perform them multiple times weekly. But athletes have an entirely different set of physiological demands. Their sports are random and unpredictable. They need to be good at a variety of things in order to succeed in their sport. Every training protocol and method is a means to an end of that goal. They don't need to become great at squats, cleans, deadlifts, single leg pistol squats or leg presses. However, athletes benefit from the physiological adaptation that comes from performing these exercises including strength/rate of force development, endurance and whatever else you're programming for. When you start to view training as a series of stressors and specific adaptive responses, things are different.

As a coach, you prescribe exercises that will eventually contribute to your athlete's ability to perform on the field or that contribute to the training, which will, in turn, contribute to the athlete's ability on the field. We use those movements specifically because they build strength in a very common sports movement—triple extension, especially hip extension. Here’s the kicker. After the first few years of training, these exercises (which fall into the category of general exercises unless the athlete is competing in them) stop increasing the ability to perform specific athletic activities and begin building specific qualities to those movements and in that range of motion. This is where specialized exercises come in.

Unless the action is specifically what the athlete does in his or her sport, the exercise can be labeled as a general, non-specific exercise. Squats, bench presses, deadlifts, cleans, snatches and single leg pistol squats on a Bosu ball are all general exercises to athletes (because they aren't movements that athletes need to succeed at their sport).While these exercises are necessary to increase general strength and neural output and set the foundation for more advanced, specialized training, they aren't the end goal of training programs. The end goal of training programs is to increase the ability to perform sporting movements. Often times, we invest a very large quantity of time and effort trying to seek out small improvements in power-based testing movements (vertical jump, broad jump, 10, 20, 40). Anyone who has spoken with Dr. Yessis knows he would say that those tests are indicators of athleticism, not increased ability to perform your sport.

At a minimum, we rely on these main movements too much, and often times, we focus a significant amount of time on programming the intensity and volume of these movements, which may or may not have a significant impact on field performance. What seems to get lost in the shuffle of all this is one of the basic laws of training: we adapt to the stress that is placed upon our body. For athletes, too much maximal strength training can lead to slowness of contraction. Going back to the previous point, athletes need an entirely different set of stressors based on the skill they perform and their level of preparedness.

Most of our traditional periodization and programming for sports relies on manipulating intensity, volume, tempo, speed or variations of general exercises (i.e. box squat, back squat, front squat, deadlift, bench, lunges, Romanian deadlift). However, we are building improvements in general qualities such as the squat, bench and deadlift. Eventually, this stress (in the form of exercise selection) should be specific to the sport being played rather than specific to non-specific exercises with minimal transfer, such as volleyball players bench pressing. We often get very interested in making our athletes as strong as powerlifters, as explosive as weightlifters and as fast as sprinters, but the first thing we need to remember is that our athletes aren't any of these. Yes, they do need some of those qualities, but most of them play sports with a completely different set of physical demands that need to be addressed.

We want our athletes running their fastest and jumping their furthest when the season starts, but we also want our pitchers throwing the fastest, our volleyball players spiking their hardest, our swimmers using their most powerful strokes and our baseball players swinging the fastest. This is what specialized exercises are—exercises that manipulate a very specific action performed by the athlete in order to increase the ability of that action on the field.

Every sport has a large amount of specific demands placed on the body—swinging a racket, killing a volleyball, pitching, tackling or changing direction. Following this line of logic, special exercises seem to make significantly more sense. Why don’t we apply this logic to all exercises? Why don't we use a joint by joint approach to preparing an athlete specifically for the specific demands that are placed upon him by his sport?

In fact, when you look at periodization sequencing based on traditional Russian training models, it will give you a new outlook on the various training protocols. Dr. Vladimir Issurin states in his book Block Periodization: “According to block periodization, the transmutation mesocycle contains the most stressful sport-specific workloads. The general idea behind this mesocycle is to transmute the accumulated basic ability into specific physical and techno-tactical fitness…the targeted abilities are more specialized, [and] the key exercises are tightly connected with competitive activity...Simulation and enhancement of techno-tactical competitive behavior [are] obligatory component[s] of the realization mesocycle in many sports.”

In Dr. Yessis's article on block periodization versus concentrated loads, he states, “A block program is intended to improve performance and prepare the athlete for competition. It isn’t used simply to get stronger. This is what concentrated loads are for as well as a typical strength training program, regardless of the system used. What is typically ignored or overlooked is that the block system consists of specialized exercises.”

And finally, Tudor Bompa states, “Sport-specific exercises are essential to maximize the transfer of training effects from training to sport performance…the coach and athlete should consider sport-specific exercises as essential components of every phase of a training plan because these exercises transfer directly to sporting performance.”

Lets recap some basic ideas that bring logic to specialized exercises:

  • General strength improvements are very large early on in an athlete's training career.
  • Following introductory training, general strength comes only with large training volumes or intensity with highly diminished returns.
  • General strength exercises and improving the strength of a muscle through one pattern (i.e. hip extension of a squat or deadlift) will not necessarily increase the strength of a similar yet unrelated movement (hip extension of a baseball throw) in athletes with baseline strength levels.
  • At the end of the day, it isn't how much an athlete can squat, bench or deadlift. It's how much the athlete improves in the skills relative to his sport. Improving these lifts can and will improve athleticism and general strength, but is that enough to be successful for a long period of time?

Specialized strength exercises duplicate and strengthen the actual patterns that occur in sport.” — Dr. Michael Yessis

Specialized exercises are exercises that meet a specific set of criteria known as the Laws of Dynamic Correspondence. Originally five laws, Dr. Yessis has summed them up with three rules:

  1. Exercise must duplicate the exact movement witnessed in certain actions of the sports skill.
  2. Exercise must involve the same type of muscular contraction as used in the execution of the skill.
  3. Exercise must develop strength and flexibility in the same range of motion as in the actual skill.

Any exercise the meets one of these rules is on the continuum to “more specific” than general. Makes sense at the simplest level, right? Lets help athletes become better at the specific skills they need to be successful at their sport and reinforce and strengthen the patterns necessary for skill improvement. The entire idea of specialized exercises has to do with the previously discussed concept of transfer of training. How much is improving one aspect of training actually increasing your ability to perform the sport-specific skill?

Specialized exercises aren't meant to displace general strength training. Their purpose is to shift the emphasis to sport-specific actions over the course of an off-season and an athlete’s career. We all know about the gradual shift from general to specific. This is simply another way to make that transition in moderate and higher level athletes by duplicating and strengthening the specific joint actions that are seen in sports.

The majority of specialized exercises consist of single joint exercises. Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky relied on these single joint exercises as part of a motor learning process called the part-whole method. Essentially, to strengthen an entire motor pattern, you strengthen every specific part of it piece by piece while following the three main rules of specialized exercises.

Most people have a few concerns with specialized exercises, including negative carryover. We all know the baseball example—pitching a heavier ball can alter the mechanics of a throw and make you pitch slower and with worse mechanics. Single joint exercises allow you to avoid the dreaded negative carryover to sports. Strengthen the actions of one joint and one movement at a time instead of replicating the entire movement in its entirety in the weight room.

For example, in running, we have three major lower body actions:

  1. Explosive push off the ground (plantar flexion)
  2. Knee drive to a flexed hip position
  3. Paw back or drive back into the ground

Well, if these are the things that an athlete must do to run fast, lets strengthen them! And in doing so, keep in mind the three rules that we must follow in order for them to be specific: movement specific to sport, same type of contraction and same range of motion. Simply strengthening the muscles that perform the movements but in a different pattern would define a GPP exercise and thus wouldn't transfer specifically to the movement being performed. We want to duplicate and strengthen the specific pathway in the same way that it's used on the field.

Explosive Calf Raise

Knee Drive

Paw Back

These are simply three examples of movements that can easily be done to help strengthen a complex movement like sprinting. However, they are easy to incorporate into any training program.

What about other sports? For example, in baseball, you can use a medial-lateral wrist rotation.

Medial Lateral Rotation

It may look trivial, but by strengthening each individual aspect of the throw just a little bit, the summation of those forces will result in a vastly improved baseball swing compared to performing general exercises exclusively.

In addition, a medicine ball throw can be considered a specialized exercise for baseball as long as it is initiated by weight shift and hip rotation. Execution of the exercise is just as important as the programming. If a medicine ball rotation is initiated at the core, the exercise now becomes a core exercise, not a baseball specialized exercise.

Assisted Hip Rotation

Even exercises that you currently use such as squats and lunges can be considered specialized if they replicate the movement that you're training (jumping and running).

Most coaches will initially ask, “Doesn’t this blur the lines between strength coach and skill coach?” The answer is a resounding yes. If you train volleyball, you area volleyball coach. If you train baseball athletes in the weight room, you are a baseball coach. Your job is to develop the ability for athletes to compete at a higher level in their sport. Doesn’t that make you a coach of their sport? Special exercises most certainly help blur those lines by making the skills you develop have a better transfer effect to the sport rather than just general transfer to any sport.

The programming of specialized exercises into a yearly cycle and over the course of an athletic career is relatively easy. The 80-20 rule applies in both cases. In the early off-season, 80 percent of your exercises should be general with the transition toward 80 percent specific as you get to pre-season and competitive season. The lifespan of an athlete's career can be viewed on the same continuum. When viewing the training logs of athletes in Transfer of Training, you can see that general movements in Olympic level throwers tended to stay the same late in their careers while their competitive event numbers went up. This was due to the transition from general to specific exercises late in their careers.

The last bit of wisdom that I want to leave you with is in regards to specialized exercises. Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk says that exercise selection is more important than volume or intensity. It is more important to perform and strengthen the highly specific movement with high quality than develop any other factor in regards to specialized exercise.

Steve Olson is a strength and performance coach as well as the owner of Excel Training Designs. Steve has spent time at multiple universities learning about strength and conditioning and currently works in the private sector training athletes of all ages (youth to professional). He is available to answer questions at steveolson2202@gmail.com.