Sport-specific training has become one of the trendiest buzzwords in sports performance. Parents now constantly ask trainers if they offer it. In response to that demand, many trainers now frequently advertise that they provide it. To be honest, I do this myself.
In a day and age when kids are specializing earlier than ever, parents want their child’s training to carry over to their specialized sport. The term “sport-specific training” helps put their mind at ease and makes them feel like it’s a good usage of their money and their child’s time. But quite honestly, I think many parents, athletes and coaches have a tough time defining sport-specific training beyond broad platitudes. Because of this, some shoddy programming is being justified with proclamations that it’s “more sport-specific,” and since that’s what people want to hear, they’re buying it without much second thought.
What makes a certain type of training more sport-specific? Is there a different Deadlift variation for baseball, soccer, basketball and football? Should rugby and volleyball players perform different kinds of Squats? While there are indeed certain exercises I find more advantageous for different sports, there’s really only so many ways to skin a cat. When it comes to the major weight room movements, the routines for team sport athletes aren’t going to be all that different.
Strength training is about developing athletes strong enough to own the fundamental movement patterns, and a good coach is going to have a set of exercises they believe are the best tools to accomplish this. Simple is usually better, and good coaches aren’t going to add a bunch of unnecessary window dressing to their staple weight room movements just so they can sell the idea they’re making them more “sport-specific.” Questionable trainers most certainly will, and it’s often to the harm of their trainees.
With that in mind, how exactly does a strength and conditioning coach make training more “sport-specific”? In my opinion, these tweaks revolve more around rehab work, power training, and conditioning.
Sport-Specific Prehab Work
Prehab work refers to the exercises and drills an athlete performs to prevent their risk of incurring an injury. This is where the greatest sport-specific variation will be seen in my programming. A baseball pitcher and a football linebacker both need to Squat and Deadlift, but a football linebacker is more likely to sustain a concussion while a baseball pitcher is more likely to have issues involving their shoulders or elbows. For this reason, the football player will perform more neck-strengthening exercises while the baseball player will perform more band work designed to help their body withstand the rigors of a repetitive high-intensity throwing motion. There are of course going to be some overlaps, but with my athletes, the prehab work is where you’re going to see the most sport-specific variation.
Sport-Specific Power Training
There are three major planes of motion—the sagittal, frontal and transverse. These planes encompass any motion, but we are going to talk about them specifically as they pertain to power movements. Sagittal plane exercises are the most common power exercises and they are beneficial for linear sprinting and jumping. An example of a sagittal plane power exercise would be the Clean. Frontal plane exercises are beneficial for lateral power. A Lateral Bound would be an example of a frontal plane power exercise. Transverse plane exercises are beneficial for rotational power. A Rotational Med Ball Toss would be an example of a traverse plane power exercise.
Power has been shown to be plane specific, which means power gained in one plane does not necessarily transfer to another. A good training program looks at what planes of motion are most commonly used in the sport, so that the power gained in training will transfer over efficiently. For example, A baseball or lacrosse player should not be exclusively training in the sagittal plane, because their sport requires rotational power. On the other hand, a volleyball player needs a large amount of power in the sagittal plane, so their program should not consist of mostly transverse plane exercises. The caveat is that sports are dynamic and no sport occurs just in one plane. Every training program should train power in every plane, but emphasize what’s needed most in the relevant sport.
Every sport has a unique energy system requirement. Athletes should condition for their sport based on the rate of play. A football play lasts about 5-10 seconds and then there’s typically 30-40 seconds before the next play begins. Football players will perform that work-to-rest ratio anywhere from 3-15 times before the drive ends and they are off the field. Soccer, on the other hand, has two 45-minute halves with near-continuous play. These sports have drastically different needs from their conditioning programs. There could be plenty of overlap, but football’s conditioning program would be lower volume and have a greater focus on speed endurance. The soccer conditioning program would have a greater volume and a greater focus on aerobic capacity.
The next time you have a coach telling you they are providing sport-specific training, ask them what exactly makes their training more specific to your given sport. A good sport-specific training program looks at the common injuries inherent to the activity and prehabs them appropriately, examines the crucial planes of motion in the sport and prioritizes them accordingly, and considers the metabolic needs of the sport and implements conditioning to enhances those abilities.
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