Have you seen someone in the gym performing sporting movements with a dumbbell such as strokes,  or someone being strapped up with various bands and doing movements as they occur in their sport?

Is that sport-specific training?

It looks pretty much like the sporting movement, but what is sport-specific training?

This article and video discusses

In the life of a strength & conditioning coach, every S & C coach has had a discussion about sport-specific training as it relates to squatting depth; how deep should you squat and looking at joint angles in the squat, and comparing these angles to the joint angles, as they occur in the sport.

Whilst this comparison of angles is certainly one criterion of sport-specificity, it’s not the only one. Therefore it is important to understand, what sport-specificity actually is.

What is sport-specific training

Let’s take it away, the most sports-specific you can get is performing your sport, you can’t get any more specific than that.

Does that mean, you should only train sport-specific?

Well, imagine a marathon runner, the most specific training would be running a marathon, but should this be his or her only training? The answer is pretty obvious, right?

What is specificity?

Specificity refers to the kinematics and kinetics of a movement.

What do these terms mean?

Well, that took me a long time to understand as a young student, since my natural understanding for physics wasn’t too great.

To keep it simple, kinematics describes movement, that can be displacement, velocities or time.

Kinetics simply describes forces and the forces that cause motion; for example, gravity or torque.

In order to understand the what specificity in sports, there is a concept called ‘Dynamic correspondence’, which outlines criteria of specificity.

What is dynamic correspondence

The concept of dynamic correspondence originates from Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky, a Russian sports scientist.

This concept helps to understand, what sport-specific training is, by outlining criteria on how to describe specificity or how you can see whether a movement is sport-specific.

Following the criteria of Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky in a random order.

The amplitude and direction of movement

In order to understand the amplitude and direction of movement, look at the movement as it of occurs in your sport.

Let’s break it down.

To look at the direction of movement, is there a triple extension and triple flexion? In what planes of movement, does it occur, sagittal plane (forward-backwards), frontal plane (left-right) or transverse plane (rotational).

To look at the amplitude of the movement, look at the angles, that occur in the different joints.

The accentuated region of force development

The accentuated region of force development describes where in the movement the force is produced, or the highest peak for is produced.

Why is that important?

Let’s take another example. Imagine a tennis stroke and the rotational movement involved in this tennis stroke.

The forces within this rotational movement change, the coiling is relatively relaxed, within the following recoiling the forces increase throughout the movement.

Let’s compare to exercises with a similar movement, a cable rotation and a medicinal ball throw.

The cable rotation has a very similar and constant application of forces. Whilst in a medicine ball throw the forces increase in the recoiling similarly as in the stroke. In conclusion, a medicine ball throw is more sport-specific than a cable rotation, when compared to a tennis stroke

Another good example is the application of Olympic weightlifting exercises to improve jumping, which in my opinion is not always fully understood. If you look at the different phases of the Olympic Lifts, like the Clean or Power Clean, the first part of the ground is fairly controlled, the maximum acceleration and velocity happens during the second pull, from the mid-thigh position, when you are accelerating up as fast as you can. Consequently, the moment where most force and velocity is applied during the Clean or Power Clean, is actually the same region as in a vertical jump. Consequently, even though in an Olympic lift the force produced throughout the movement is much higher, but the accentuated region of force production is very similar. Check out the video from Catalystathletics, which shows exactly this from minute 00:58

The dynamics of effort

I have outlined a couple of different efforts in the articles about power training, where I outlined the

  • plyometric effort
  • ballistic effort
  • dynamic efforts

Consequently, you need to look at your sport and the efforts that are required in your sport, and chose the efforts depending on that.

Another example is that there are not only explosive efforts but also slow efforts. Examples are sports like swimming or rowing, where you have to produce force at an optimal velocity.

If you produce force too explosive in these sports, the water would dissipate and you wouldn’t be able to propel yourself forward effectively.

The rate and time of force production

In most sporting movements, you only have a limited time to apply force. I have outlined a few examples in the article The 101 of Power Training for Beginners, such as

  • ground contact times during sprinting: 80 ms (milliseconds)
  • ground contact times during jumps in Volleyball or basketball: as little as 170 ms up to 300 – 400 ms
  • throwing actions in baseball or cricket: 150 – 180 ms
  • kicking a ball: 120 – 160 ms

Consequently, you can only apply force during these short time frames, and in order for an exercise to be specific for a given sporting action, it needs to have similar times and rates to apply forces.

The regimen of muscular work

The regimen of muscular work refers to the contraction type, is it isometric or isotonic? Where isotonic means eccentric and concentric and isometric means static.

However, the original work of Dr. Verkhoshansky goes beyond, just looking at contraction type, and also describes the utilisation of the stretch-shortening cycle; is the stretch-shortening cycle used or not in your sport. Is it a cyclic movement or an acyclic movement, as well as looking at, what Dr. Verkhoshansky called ‘bioenergetics’, which basically means what energy systems are at work in your sport.

If you want to dive in a bit deeper on the topic, I recommend checking out the articles

Should you always train sport-specific

To answer this question, you should ask, why you are training in the first place?

The concept of training is, that you want to prepare for competition, with the ultimate goal to improve your performance in competition.

More than 2500 years ago the Greek poet and philosopher Archilochus famously said

‘We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.’

That is why you are training, you want to build capacities, which also means sometimes you want to do a little bit more than the demands of the competition, and this cannot always be done with sport-specific training.

If you think about building a pyramid, and yes, this example has been used many times before, however, it still visualizes the principle well, the bigger and better the foundation of the pyramid, the higher the peak.

This is also how you need to think about your training and sport-specific training. General training builds the foundation and sport-specific training builds the peak.

Sport-specific training and periodisation

The concept of periodisation has been heavily criticised, whether it works or doesn’t work, whether it’s applicable to certain sports or not, etc…

However, the basic concept of periodisation is just the organisation of training, with the idea to organise training into periods of a general preparation, a special preparation and a competition period.

So, how do periodisation and sport-specific training connect?

In the general preparation, the amount of sport-specific exercises are fairly low, hence you chose training with a low dynamic correspondence and exercises with low dynamic correspondence. Towards the special specific preparation, you chose training with a high dynamic correspondence and exercises with a high dynamic correspondence.

Dr. Verkhoshansky also indicated how to quantify the amount of low dynamic correspondence and high dynamic correspondence in the process of periodisation. In his original work, he outlines, that in the general preparation, 80 percent of the exercises should be general exercises, 20 percent special or specific exercises. Towards the special preparation, 20 percent of the exercises should be general exercises, 80 percent special exercises.

Concluding what is sport-specific training

Sport-specific training doesn’t mean you have to resemble and mimic any sporting actions, specificity much rather refers to the kinetics – the use of forces to create motion – and kinematics, which describes the movement.

The concept of dynamic correspondence helps to understand sport-specificity by outlining five variables to describe whether the movement is sport-specific or not.

In order to fully benefit from sport-specific training, you need to understand how you integrate general training and specific training into the planning process, that it ultimately all fits together and gives you the best chances in competition.