Method Behind the Madness


When it comes to specialized exercises, there are many approaches. By doing a simple search on the internet, one can find different philosophies from people such as Verkhoshansky, Bondarchuk, Louie, Issurin, and so on. While many people can rattle off what their favorite variations are and how they include them in their program, others may not exactly have a rhyme or reason to the movements they choose to perform. The purpose of this article is to take a look at specialized movements, how they came to be, and how to effectively include them in a program.

History behind the movements

Specialized exercises aren't anything new to us, but in the 1950s and 1960s, they weren’t widely used or accepted by coaches. In Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches, Dr. Verkhoshansky describes how he came to train his jumpers with movements other than the competitive exercise itself. At the time, he was training a group of jumpers at a small university known as the Moscow Aeronautical Engineering Institute. In the winters, he didn't have the ability to train the athletes with traditional means. He began experimenting with barbell lifts and variations of the jumps. While the squatting movements evolved from full squats to half squats to attempts to use heavier loads and match the amplitude of the contact phase, he still wasn’t able to replicate the efforts.

Additionally, the increased loads stressed the lower backs of his jumpers who were anatomically mismatched for the movements. Due to this, Verkhoshansky began to research better methods and came up with the idea of the depth jump and the shock method. The falling body and kinetic energy closely replicated the strength effort that was used in the triple jump. As years passed, these methods became accepted as viable options for increasing explosive strength.

Specialized exercises also came out of the idea that prior to their use, modification to volume was becoming excessive. While adding volume and accumulating it over time is a viable approach, eventually it will reach its limit for the fact that there aren’t enough hours in a day. More directed training stimuli with more resemblance to the sport was required.

Other coaches have used specialized exercises in their training and have made great improvements to sport form. Bondarchuk is known for his use of lighter and heavier hammers as well as breaking the movement down into segments and using exercises that replicate the segmented parts. With the appropriate implements, this model has been modified and used in other events besides the hammer throw.

Weightlifters have used specialized exercises to work particular segments of the clean and snatch. This is evident in the different variations of high pulls, clean pulls, snatch grip deadlifts, front squats, and so on. Finally, everyone is familiar with the way Louie has applied this to powerlifting, which has been modified by many to fit their needs as competitive lifters. The use of variations in movements has evolved and now includes hundreds of different modifications to work exercises in different ways.

While variation is a great thing, those who have used it to their advantage have practically applied it in a useful manner and that needs to be taken into consideration. There is a large difference between variation for the sake of variation and using a movement in the correct context. To further understand this, it's important to classify movements correctly.

Classification of movements

Movements can be classified in a variety of terms. In the past, I’ve used more blanketed statements such as general, general specific, and specific or some of Sheiko’s terminology such as competitive, supplemental, and developmental. However, I think the most comprehensive terminology can be seen in Bondarchuk’s work.

Exercises have been broken down into four categories, which can be defined as follows:

  • General preparatory:These exercises don’t replicate the competitive event in its parts or as a whole. The energy system used for this type of exercise may not be in line with what is used in the competitive event and different muscle groups are used.
  • Specialized preparatory:These exercises don’t directly replicate the competitive exercise in its parts or as a whole. However, the muscle groups and energy system will be strongly similar to what is required for the competitive exercise.
  • Specialized developmental: These exercises replicate the competitive exercises in its parts or as a whole. They use similar or the same muscle groups as well as the same energy systems. These movements strongly influence performances in the competitive exercise.
  • Competitive exercise:This is the actual event, sport, or game that the athlete competes in. The exercise isn’t only part of the competition but should also be included in training to practice the event.

As far as how the definitions fit into sport, it all depends on the athlete, the position played, the events competed in, and other factors. As an example, let’s say that we have a powerlifter who is a raw, conventional deadlifter. His exercises for building his deadlift may look like this (this isn’t a comprehensive list but just some brief examples):

  • General preparatory—lat pull-downs, rows, abdominal work, back raises, glute ham raises, sled dragging, cardiovascular work, calisthenics
  • Specialized preparatory—Romanian deadlift with conventional stance, snatch grip deadlift, sumo deadlift, sumo stance variations of deadlift movements, good mornings with conventional stance, good mornings with sumo stance
  • Specialized developmental—rack/block pull with conventional stance, deficit deadlift with conventional stance, conventional deadlift with bands, conventional deadlift with chains, conventional deadlift with reverse bands, conventional deadlift with pauses or altered tempos
  • Competitive exercise—deadlift with conventional stance and same form used in competition

Let’s contrast this with a sumo deadlifter. While the general work may be similar, his specialized work will be different:

  • General preparatory—lat pull-downs, rows, abdominal work, back raises, glute ham raises, sled dragging, cardiovascular work, calisthenics
  • Specialized preparatory—Romanian deadlift with sumo stance, snatch grip deadlift, conventional deadlift, conventional stance variations of deadlift movements, good mornings with sumo stance, good mornings with conventional stance
  • Specialized developmental—rack/block pull with sumo stance, deficit deadlift with sumo stance, sumo deadlift with bands, sumo deadlift with chains, sumo deadlift with reverse bands, sumo deadlift with pauses or altered tempos
  • Competitive exercise—deadlift with sumo stance and same form used in competition

While both lifters share some movements in both the general and specialized preparatory categories, there are some choices that fit better. Note that in the specialized preparatory categories, the movements are listed from the more specific variations to less specific variations.

To further demonstrate this point, we could look to other sports. For football players, it depends on the different positions. Let’s first look at offensive linemen:

  • General preparatory—weight room lifts of all kinds whether barbells (power lift or Olympic lift variations), dumbbells, kettlebells, machines, bands, chains, calisthenics, or any other variation; sprints, jumps, tempo runs, or other cardiovascular activity
  • Specialized preparatory—pushing a weighted sled, pushing or flipping a tire, medicine ball drills that mimic punch blocking or hand drills, jumps with a medicine ball that mimic positional movements, jumps while extended through a weighted sled, light contact drills, drills with hand positioning, drills that teach positional movement without an opponent all for durations that don’t exceed ten seconds if conducted at high intensity
  • Specialized developmental—drive blocking versus an opponent in a controlled environment, pass blocking versus an opponent in a controlled environment, practicing blocking techniques against opponents of lesser or greater skill/strength/body mass, practicing blocking techniques against multiple opponents all to not exceed ten seconds if conducted at highest intensity
  • Competitive exercise—performing blocking as designated by play call in a game like environment with appropriate work to rest ratios

Now, let’s contrast this with a quarterback:

  • General preparatory—weight room lifts of all kinds whether barbells (power lift or Olympic lift variations), dumbbells, kettlebells, machines, bands, chains, calisthenics, or any other variation; sprints, jumps, tempo runs, or other cardiovascular activity
  • Specialized preparatory—overhead medicine ball throws, rotational medicine ball throws, medicine ball slams, drop backs into pass set with medicine ball throws, lateral runs that mimic positional movements all performed in the appropriate energy systems
  • Specialized developmental—throwing a lightly weighted football that doesn’t impede technique, pass sets and reads in a controlled environment, throwing drills to receivers in a controlled environment, seven on seven sided games, ball security running drills all performed in the appropriate energy systems
  • Competitive exercise—performing blocking as designated by play call in a game like environment with appropriate work to rest ratios

If we were to contrast this with other sports such as track and field jumpers or sprinters, some of the means seen as general would become specialized. Again, contrast this with a weightlifter or powerlifter and the general means become specialized. It can be argued that some of the movements such as sprints, jumps, and throws can be specialized. This is true, but it depends on the context they are used, the rate of movement, the duration of work, rest intervals, whether or not it involves positional movements, and other factors.

Same problem, different approach

The notion of the issue with using specialized exercises comes out of two opposite ends of the spectrum. When looking at athletes, many times coaches get so caught up in the general side of everything. We see it every day where team sport coaches and the physical preparation coaches for these sports are obsessed with weight room numbers, 40-yard or 30-meter dash times, and other general measurements. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some only focus on the actual competitive exercise to the exclusion of all else.

My idea about this came from an article I read by one of Bondarchuk’s students, Martin Bingisser. In some sports such as the hammer throw, he states that many coaches spend the majority of their time in the category that would be considered specialized preparatory for his sport. He describes this as being movements such as weight room exercises as opposed to specialized developmental exercises like throwing heavier or lighter hammers and performing weighted movements that mimic the technique of the hammer throw and segments of each throw. He goes on to state that the training needs to have direction toward being a better thrower, which isn’t always the focus of coaches.

Contrast this with the use of special exercises to the exclusion of all other movements. This has been popularized by Louie Simmons and the system of programming he has used for powerlifting. Traditionally, the problem with powerlifters has always been performing the squat, bench, and deadlift with very little accessory work or movements to build those movements. Westside popularized the system of programming in which they practiced the lifts in their segments or with other specialized variants, which led to increases for many lifters who previously didn't do much else but the competitive exercises. Part of the reason this worked so well is that many of these lifters were very well seasoned and had good technique competitively but had never worked their weaknesses.

The pendulum seems to swing on this topic. Now we're seeing lifters use more of the competitive movements and less of the specialized variants (in a powerlifting sense). However, everything needs to be looked at objectively. I can use my own training as an example because when I first started lifting, I pretty much jumped into an approach that used a lot of the special exercises, bands, chains, and everything else. It worked well, but anything at that time would have. Fast forward a few years and I had stripped down my approach. I thought that the only approach was to use the competitive movements and very similar developmental movements.

While this worked, it was because I actually was starting to correct my form and become proficient at the competitive movements, which I had skipped over earlier on. Now I’m at the current point where I'm somewhere in the middle of both approaches. I still favor the competitive and specialized developmental movements but recognize the need to correct weaknesses through specialized and general preparatory movements. It's important to have variation and provide stimulus, but that needs to have a direction and should work toward the end goal.

Team sports in the United States sometimes follow a different path than mine, but it still involves going in the wrong order. We specialize our youth athletes at such a young age. If they make it through the early years without injury or burnout, we then take them back through a period of general development when they should actually be entering the specialization phase. We then overemphasize the general qualities that may or may not have bearing on a particular sport. To say the least, we put the cart before the horse and then seem to forget that the horse is supposed to pull the cart, not push it from behind. Somewhere in this mess the ability to correctly program the specialized parts to the sport and the individual athlete within that sport gets lost.


When selecting special exercises, remember to look at the individual athlete and things that are unique to his event, technique, or position. Just because someone is strong, fast, or skilled at his particular sport doesn’t mean that his exact training down to the sets and reps is appropriate for you or your athletes.

When looking at the sports that involve lifting, it's important to note technique differences, supportive gear, and qualification when choosing special exercises. Movements that are specialized to one type of lifter may be less specific to a lifter with different techniques. A wide stance, geared squatter won’t need the same specialized movements or strengths that a raw, close-stance squatter would need. This is the same in all lifts.

For athletes, it all goes back to looking at the actual event or position, not the game itself. A lineman won’t need to have the same specialized exercises that a receiver would, similar to how a thrower wouldn’t need to train like a triple jumper and the jumper wouldn’t train the same as the sprinter. It's also important to remember that weight room movements, jumps, and sprints may be more specialized to the track and field athlete as opposed to the team sport athlete.