The Practical Paradigm: Specialized Exercises Explained (Part 2)

TAGS: training means, Jeffrey Moyer, specialized strength exercises, Dr. Yessis, physical preparation, training athletes

Special strength exercises were first used as a means for motor learning in order to improve technical mastery of a motor skill to solve a determined motor task. “Solving the motor task of complex motor action accomplishes, through appropriate motor patterns, the sequence of moments that range in space and time”(1). It wasn’t until the work of Dr. Verkhoshansky that exercises were used in the part-whole method of learning, which was coupled with an external load and used to enhance the key movements of the competition exercise. Dr. Verkhoshansky was the first to apply his biomechanical knowledge to the methodology of specialized strength training in the physical preparation of athletes following the specific criteria that made up his principle of dynamic correspondence.

Former Soviet Olympic athlete and Olympic coach Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk, who also has a doctorate in pedagogical science, was the first to popularize the term “transfer of training” in the strength and conditioning industry. His studies focused on the effects of different training methods on thousands of athletes. In his presentation, "Advanced Training for High Level Sports: The Transfer of Training" (2), Dr. Bondarchuk discusses how he began to look at exercises and their transference to improving sports results. In a study of Soviet athletes' training, Dr. Bondarchuk sent out and collected over 7000 questionnaires from Soviet coaches and athletes in order to compare their training means and the results of the athletes. The most important thing was that the athletes achieved their best in the competitive event. Dr. Bondarchuk found that the more similar to the competitive event the exercises were, the higher their transference to improving sport results.

Dr. Bondarchuk believed that exercises shouldn't just be black and white (either general or specialized) but should work on a continuum and feed off one another based on the similarities between them. He put together an expansive classification of exercises that work as a range to help separate exercises based on degrees of closeness to the competitive event. Dr. Bondarchuk points out that there is always a sequence with exercises in how you make progress toward executing the exercises and improving technique:

  • General exercises: When executed, these exercises don't repeat the competitive actions as a whole or in their separate parts. They have little relevance to the sporting action.
  • Specialized preparatory exercises: Like the general exercises, they don't repeat the competitive actions as a whole or in their separate parts. However, they use similar muscle groups in their execution. Identical or close to identical regimes of muscle are worked and different functions of other systems are involved.
  • Specialized developmental exercises: These exercises are “single joint actions that duplicate portions of the sporting action" (3). They 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 and, in so doing, make it possible to more effectively and selectively have an effect on improving or developing the same or other physical abilities.

It should be pointed out that Dr. Bondarchuk’s two volumes of translated books titled Transfer of Training were originally written in Russian in the 1980s. It wasn’t until recently that they were translated to English and the term "transfer of training" was used in the strength and conditioning industry in the United States. However, Dr. Bondarchuk’s original targeted audience was Soviet sport coaches who had an understanding of the criteria for specialized exercises and were familiar with their classifications. So his working definition and practical examples lack specifics due to the established understanding of the Soviet coaches. In my opinion, because of this, there has been much confusion over practical examples for the use of his classifications.

So what does this all mean? Having an understanding of the historical and theoretical background of special strength exercises is great, but if you don’t know what they are specifically and or how to practically apply them with your athletes, all these articles were a history lesson. I must emphasize that although these articles were about the history and practical application of special strength exercises, I'm not discrediting the importance of general strength and general exercises. Special strength exercises were created out of necessity for high level athletes. Because they had such a large base of general strength, improvements in general exercises were found to decrease sport performance. Special strength exercises feed off general strength. Dr. Verkhoshansky called these exercises preliminary SST exercises. They are aimed at preparing the athlete’s motor apparatus so that the specialized strength exercises can be carried out with a higher training effect and less risk of injury for the athlete. These exercises precede special strength exercises in the preparatory period.

With lower level athletes, general strength and specialized exercises are important for motor learning and skill development. This is why Dr. Bondarchuk’s classification of exercises that have certain degrees of separation from the competitive exercise is important. They help bridge the athletes to more specialized means. Dr. Bondarchuk points out that through his research, he found that exercise selection is more important than intensity and volume. “Research has shown with youngsters that whether you use high or low intensity, you will get the same results” (2).

Dr. Yessis is another authority on exercises and exercise selection. His background is in biomechanics and kinesiology. He has been able to create exercises that enhance and replicate certain key and secondary movements that can be used in motor learning, rehabilitation, and improvement of sport skills (4).

So wherein lies the problem? The goal of specialized exercises is to improve the motor skill to solve the motor task(s). This is achieved with appropriate motor patterns or mastery of the competitive exercise. Much of the confusion over practical examples of what are specialized exercises stems from:

  • Not understanding the biomechanics of the competitive exercise (without this, everything else turns into a cluster…)
  • Confusing the definitions and criteria of specialized exercises
  • Not identifying the key and secondary movements of the competitive exercise
  • Confusing the tactics of the athlete’s position with the skill for the position
  • Not understanding how to implement them to improve technical mastery and sport performance
  • Not understanding how to bridge general exercises to specialized

With team sport athletes, there are many variables that take place in the outcome of the athlete’s success. The tactics of the sport to solve the motor task must not be confused as a specialized exercise to improve a motor skill/pattern.

Practical examples

There are three proven ways to improve and perfect athletic skills and abilities and decrease injuries (5):

  1. Improve technique (skill execution)
  2. Improve your physical qualities as they relate to your technique
  3. Improve your technique and physical abilities simultaneously

For the sake of time, I'll briefly discuss the exercises for a quarterback because the motor skills of the competitive exercise lend themselves to other sports. First, let's identify the sport/position played, the motor skills, and the motor tasks of the position:

  • Competitive exercise: Quarterback in football
  • Motor skills/patterns: Running, cutting, throwing
  • Motor tasks: Making reads, throwing to targets, alluding defenders

Identifying key movements

Throwing: Drills with the quarterback to make reads and throw to receivers have been described as specialized developmental exercises, but this is a case of confusing the motor task with the motor skill. Throwing is the motor skill. The motor task is making reads and throwing to targets. The coach must first be able to identify what aspect of the competitive exercise needs improvement and how that movement works in the sequencing of actions. Improving tactics, accuracy, and timing of a throw doesn't fall into the category of specialized exercise.

An example that has been described as a specialized exercise for throwing is a side facing rotational medicine ball throw. The claim is that the exercise replicates the lower body actions used for a quarterback. However, having an understanding of the biomechanics of throwing will show that more times than not, these examples aren't special exercises. The key movements of the lower body/torso in throwing are seen in the weight shift, hip rotation (separation between the hips and shoulders), and shoulder rotation. Oftentimes, this exercise is performed without a sequencing of these actions. You'll often see a locking of the hips and shoulders together as well as the use of a medicine ball that is too heavy and affects the mechanics. The right sequencing of actions along with a medicine ball that doesn't disrupt the technique of the lower body and torso would meet the criteria of a specialized developmental exercise.

Running: The role of the hamstrings in running has been debated and disputed with coaches for years. Exercises claiming to prevent hamstring pulls have been written about and thrown all over the internet. However, under scrutiny, these exercises fall under preliminary/general or specialized preparatory exercises. Most times, athletes will perform general hamstring exercises and then go run sprints without bridging together the two ends of the spectrum. First, you must understand where and how the hamstrings are used in running. This will allow coaches to come up with sequencing of exercises for the hamstring that will help decrease hamstring injuries and improve performance.

Biomechanical analysis will show that the hamstrings are used in the “paw-back” action of the leg. This is seen after the thigh has driven forward from behind the body. The hamstrings become strongly pre-tensed (eccentric contraction) as they stop the forward movement of the thigh. As the shin and foot swing out, the hamstrings stretch to create even more tension that stops the forward leg movement (creating a long lever) and forcefully contracts to pull the leg back and down. Once the leg has passed under the body, the hamstrings eccentrically contract to help keep the center of gravity level as you run (6). The idea of triple extension and its role in sprinting has been popularized. Olympic lifts have been described as special exercises due to their role in force development and motor unit recruitment and their involvement in triple extension. A biodynamic analysis of sprinting will show that there isn't any triple extension in sprinting and that the knee actually stays slightly bent upon toe off. More leaping will occur and more vertical forces will develop depending on the straightness of the knee at toe off. The key force contributing movements behind the body are the ankle joint extension and the knee drive. The Olympic lifts are performed in the vertical plane while sprinting is done horizontally. Therefore, Olympic lifts don't meet the criteria for specialized exercises for sprinting.

Here is an example of a continuum from general to specialized exercises for developing the hamstrings for running. This is only an example:

  • General exercise: Leg curl, glute ham raises, squats
  • Special preparatory: Good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, reverse hyper
  • Special developmental: Active cord paw-back, Yessis glute ham gastroc raise, sprinting on a downgrade hill

Conclusion

In general, we have observed Matveyev’s idea of progressing from general to specialized exercises. Oftentimes, the progression in a graduated form toward coupling strength with technique is missing. You can’t get from A to Z without the other 24 letters.

I consider myself a practitioner who relies on people with doctorates who are far smarter than I to help explain things to me. Sport science is fantastic, but if I don’t understand how to apply it with my athletes and improve their results, all we have is a bunch of books with big words. There is an elegant simplicity to training athletes that often gets complicated by trying to be the smartest person in the room or on the web. What matters most is improving our athletes' performance in their sport. Just look at what your athletes have to do for their sport. Like Yosef Johnson says, if they aren’t winning championships, getting school paid for, winning medals, or being paid professionally, not much else matters.

Sport is the art of movement. Our job is to improve movement.” — Dr. Natalia Verkhoshansky

References

  1. VerkhoshanskyYuri and Verkhoshansky Natalia (2009) Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches.
  2. Advanced Training for High Level Sports: The Transfer of Training. 2006. Seminar DVD. www.ultimateathleteconcepts.com.
  3. Johnson Yosef (2007) An Interview with Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk. At:  http://articles.elitefts.com/features/interviews/an-interview-with-dr-anatoly-bondarchuk/.
  4. Yessis Michael. Biomechanics and Kinesiology of Exercise. Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
  5. www.doctoryessis.com
  6. Yessis Michael. Explosive Running, 2nd edition. Ultimate Athlete Concepts.

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