The Practical Paradigm: Specialized Exercises Explained

TAGS: sports movement, sport-specific, specialized exercises, Jeff Moyer, Verkhoshansky, sports mastery

“The essence of sports activity lies in the movement of the human body” (5).

As the adage goes, exercise is like medicine. As a medical professional, you must know the different classifications of drugs before prescribing them. I believe that coaches who have written about specialized exercises don’t have an understanding of the biomechanics of sport movements and more often confuse the classifications as working definition, leading to misguiding practical examples.

Everything that was once old is now new again, and specialized exercises are sadly becoming part of this trend. In the United States, the “strength and conditioning” industry has moved like an inchworm with the popularization of old concepts. Born out of the 1960s and 1970s, “functional training” and “sport-specific exercises” are the stepchildren of these concepts. Because of tremendous websites like,, and elitefts™, publications coming from Ultimate Athlete Concepts of Dr. Yessis’s work and translated material from Dr. Bondarchuk, Dr. Verkhoshansky, Dr. Issurin, and Dietrich Harre, the concepts of specialized exercises are becoming more widely discussed and accepted. However, like most things, our industry loves to play the telephone game. Therefore, someone will catch wind of an original idea, and that idea will pass its way through enough ears and mouths that by the end it becomes something totally different.

Outside of Dr. Yessis' work, no one has thoroughly explained what criteria constitute a specialized exercise, what they are, how they can be used, how they should be implemented into a training program, or how to progress them through the process of achieving sports mastery.

“No natural phenomenon can be understood without carefully considering how it emerged” (3).

My intent for this article is to give a little history of specialized exercises, give the criteria for what specialized exercises are, give practical examples of how and why it is important to simultaneously improve technique and the physical abilities as it relates to technique, and examine the current state of their development. As Dr. Natalia Verkhoshansky so kindly puts it, “Sport is the art of movement. Our job is to improve movement.”

L. Matveyev was the first one to propose the definition of specialized exercises as an exercise that “includes elements of the competitive actions, their variants, as well as actions essentially similar to them in form of character of displayed abilities…aimed at mastering the forms of movement, and developing exercises to improve physical qualities” (2). What was the background of the development of the concept of specialized exercises in the Soviet sport science and practice?

Since the dawn of the Soviet sport system, mastery of technical preparation of the athletes had always been of primary concern. The outstanding Soviet neurophysiologist Nikolai Bernstein, who coined the term biomechanics, was the first fundamental scientist to study human movements and how they are organized. The Soviets associated biomechanics with the field of motor learning and motor teaching as a means to technically prepare their athletes. For a Soviet coach, it was fundamental to have a good understanding of sport technique.

Specialized exercises were born out of necessity in order to improve the technique of performing the competition exercise. In essence, these exercises constitute the means of improving a specific motor skill. A motor skill is defined as “a learned sequence of movements that combine to produce a smooth, efficient action in order to master a particular task.” At the time, the most accepted way to realize this learning was the so named “part-whole” method of motor teaching. With the “part-whole” method, the whole skill is first demonstrated. Then the whole skill is broken down into the constituent parts, which are practiced in isolation as preliminary exercises. After improving in these parts, the whole skill is practiced. So the specialized exercises were used as the preliminary exercises, which helped to improve the technique of execution of the competition exercise. However, it was not clear how to break down the whole skill into the constituent parts without the risk of losing “the feel of whole movement.” The question for coaches then became, how to find the correct preliminary exercises?

At the beginning, it was the matter of the coach’s professional mastery, or more exactly, his professional intuition. However, in the 1960s, the theoretical fundaments were found for solving this problem. Nikolai Bernstein wrote that an improvement of a motor skill consists of establishing the pathway of achieving the needed goal (or the motor pattern), which is resistant to its possible fluctuations under the influence of environmental conditions. This establishment of a motor pattern occurs through the assimilation of the essential parameters of a motor task (motor determinants) with gradual adaption of its nonessential parameters to the environmental conditions. “…The organism tries to realize the essential variables by completely overcoming any difficulties and influences from the environment; as for the parameters of nonessential variables, the organism, on the contrary, is yieldingly adaptable” (4).


In the context of our problem, the motor pattern trying to be established is the correct technique of executing the competition exercise. The essential parameters of motor pattern are the most important. They are the key movements that determine the correct execution of the competition exercise as a whole. So specialized exercises came into the training as exercises that reproduced the key movements of a given competition exercise. Practicing these exercises was considered the main element of training, finalized at the improvement of sport technique. It wasn’t until later that these exercises also came into the physical preparation of athletes (specialized strength training).

The conceptual ideas of specialized strength training exercises had already begun to take shape by the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Due to necessity to improve performance combined with the lack of facilities and equipment, Soviet track and field coach Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky was the first to use barbell exercises with jumpers and sprint athletes. At the beginning, barbell exercises were used, and as the training progressed, more specific means were developed based on Dr. Verkhoshansky’s biomechanical analysis of the triple jump (creation of depth jump). At the time, the use of barbell exercises went against the general theory for developing motor qualities because it was believed that strength development wasn’t good for increasing an athlete’s speed, flexibility, or endurance. However, this soon became widely accepted.

Based on the empirical findings with his athletes, along with his strong influence from Soviet high jump coach Vladimir Dyachkov and Dr. Verkhoshansky, he looked at using exercises with weights in order to increase the force efforts of the key movements. Using Bernstein’s idea of identifying key movements in an exercise/motor pattern, Dr. Verkhoshansky found that the key movements have two characteristics:

  • They are important in the motor tasks.
  • They increase the power output in the exercise.

Dr. Verkhoshansky postulated that “in order to increase the power output of a given competition exercise, it is necessary to improve the working effect of the key movements to improve the efficiency of interaction between the key movements and between the key movements and secondary movements (those that assist the key movements)” (5). So specific exercises were considered as the means of increasing the working effect of the key movements of the competition exercises. As the criteria for selecting these exercises, Dr. Verkhoshansky proposed the Principle of Dynamic Correspondence between the isolated movements, applied in-training exercises with resistance and the key movement of competition exercises.

According to this principle, these two movements must have the same:

  • Muscle groups involved in the exercise
  • Range of motion and direction of movement
  • Part of the movement amplitude
  • Character of the force effort applying (the magnitude of force effort and time of its applying)
  • Regime of muscle contraction

According to Verkhoshansky, the specialized training exercises should be applied in the training process as the most specific component of the training means. The training means include two other groups of exercises that are considered less specific than the preliminary exercises. The first group is for the improvement of the basic strength capabilities that may determine an increase in the working effect of the key movement. The second group is for preparing the athlete’s motor apparatus (the working mechanisms of his body) for more specific exercises and to help avoid injury.

So in order to begin selecting the training means for improving a specific sport competitive movement of the individual athlete, a coach must first have a working background in biomechanics to be able to analyze the kinematic and kinetic characterizes of a given competition exercise. The coach also must have the knowledge of the basic strength capabilities and the particular relationships between them (5).

This knowledge will help the coach to examine:

  • The key movements of the competition exercise (for elaboration of the highly specific exercises on a base of the Principle of Dynamic Correspondence)
  • The strength capability, which assures the increase in the specific working effect of the key movements (for selecting the appropriated preliminary exercise)
  • The muscle synergy and the other working mechanisms that are involved in the key movements (for selecting the exercises and having a more general character)

A similar way of arranging the training means was proposed later by Dr. Bondarchuk, who individualized the specialized developmental exercises (as the most specific exercises) and the specialized preparatory exercises (less specific exercises that should create the base for using the highly specific exercises).

General exercises:

  • When executed, these exercises don’t repeat the competitive actions as a whole or in their separate parts.
  • Other muscle groups take part in the work being done.
  • They have little relevance to the sporting action.

Specialized preparatory exercises:

Like the general exercises, these exercises don’t repeat the competitive actions as a whole or in their separate parts. However, they use similar muscle groups in their execution.
The training work serves to activate the functions and body systems from which an increase results in the main movement.
Identical or close to identical regimes of muscle and different functions of other systems are involved.

Specialized developmental exercises:

  • “Single joint actions duplicate a portion of the sporting action” (6).
  • These exercises repeat the competitive exercise in its separate parts.
  • In executing them, one and the same muscle groups participate together with the activation of similar systems and organs.
  • The specialized developmental exercises more or less recreate all the elements of the competitive activity. In doing so, they make it possible to more effectively and selectively have an effect on improving or developing the same or other physical abilities.

Competitive exercises:

  • In the theory and methods of physical education, the acting definition or understanding is “sport event,” in which the athlete participates in competition.
  • The exercises are executed in the process of competition as well as in training.
  • In the latter case, they can model (repeat) the competitive conditions in easier or more difficult conditions.

In the next installment, I’ll discuss many of the misconceptions and misleading examples of specialized exercises.


  1. Bernstein NA (1996) On Dexterity and Its Development.
  2. Bernstein NA (1966) The Immediate Tasks of Neurophysiology in the Light of the Modern Theory of Biological Activity.
  3. Matveyev LP (1977) Fundamentals of Sports Training.
  4. Verkhoshansky Yuri, Verkhoshansky Natalia (2012) “Key Points to keep in Mind Before Applying SST Means in the Training Process.” At:
  5. Verkhoshansky Yuri, Verkhoshansky Natalia (2009) Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches.

Great thanks goes to Dr. Natalia Verkhoshansky for her help in assisting and editing my work.

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