How Specifcic Should “Sport Specific Exercise” Be?

How Specifcic Should “Sport Specific Exercise” Be?

Recently at Catalyst we had a member who was an avid cricket player ask us “Why aren’t there more movements that resemble cricket in my program?” It’s a great question – after all, if you want to get better at a sport, doesn’t it make sense for one’s strength & conditioning program to include movements that closely resemble that sport?

The answer is “not necessarily.” While we of course want to consider the demands of the sport when designing a program, direct mimicry of the sport is rarely the best strategy, and in many cases, can even be counterproductive.

Sport Skills vs. Attributes
The weight room is the place for athletes (or hobbyists) to “become better humans.” The goal of a strength and conditioning program should be to develop more global attributes like strength, power, movement quality, or endurance. Of course, the attributes being considered should have application towards the intended use. For example, a shot-putter has little use for aerobic endurance, but lots of use for maximum strength and rotational power. We want to consider the demands of the sport, but not directly mimic the sport. Instead, the practice field is the place to develop sport-specific skills.

For example, when I was in high school, some of the guys on the lacrosse team would fill their sticks with sand to make them heavier, and then practice throwing, catching, and other lacrosse-specific skills. The idea was that this would make their hands, forearms, and other relevant musculature stronger, so that when they removed the weight of the sand from their sticks, they would be faster and more agile with the now lighter stick.

Instead, the effect was the interfere with their sport-specific movements. Once they removed the sand, the weight distribution of the lacrosse stick had changed, resulting in errant passes, missed shots, and an overall decline in dexterity and “stick skills.”

Metabolic Effect – How to Actually Get Stronger
Not only does this kind of overly specific resistance training hamper skill, it also misses an opportunity to get stronger. How much stimulus for adaptation does a few pounds of weight in your lacrosse stick or football provide compared to a heavy squat or 400m sprint? The former comprises mostly small-motor demands, while the latter can fundamentally change a person’s athleticism.

Much more effective is the athlete who instead spends his or her off-season improving his deadlift, power clean, flexibility, and ability to rotate. Here is the athlete who improved body composition, building muscle and losing fat. By becoming a better “human machine” he or she now runs faster, jumps higher, and can produce more rotational force.

“Don’t Live in your Sport”Another consideration for training for sports is to balance the repetitive motions or postures of a sport. Keeping the chin tucked and the head low is the proper posture for a boxer while in the ring, but if he spends his entire life in that position, neck, shoulder, or back pain are sure to follow.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a sport which requires much flexion of the middle and upper back. So one of our goals when training BJJ athletes is to preserve and restore their ability to EXTEND through these regions.

Exercising for sport should be more nuanced than “do your sport with weights.” Instead we should seek to build the attributes of athleticism that are necessary to excel in that sport. Then, we can go to the practice field or training hall and develop the skills that are truly specific to that sport. In addition, we should use strength & conditioning to balance the demands of the sport, thereby producing more resilient athletes.  

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