We get a lot of parents and athletes asking us for exercises that are "specific" to their sport. Hockey players want hockey specific training, football players want programs that relate to their position, etc. And rightfully so - most athletes who train are doing so with performance in mind. They want their work in the weight room to translate to the fields of play. The question is, what constitutes a sport-specific exercise and how much does an athlete need to train in that way?
It is true, some exercises are similar to movements we see in sports, and therefore translate quite well. Take, for instance, a quarterback doing rotational medicine ball work. Or, take a boxer doing a landmine single arm press. These movements are both visually and functionally very similar to way an athlete would move while playing the sport. What we must remember is that a training program that consists only of these "specific" movements is not a well rounded program and can lead to decreased performance and injury.
Exercise selection should first take into account each athlete's biomechanical integrity. If an athlete is restricted in a certain movement, we can't load it no matter how specific it is to their sport. We first must fix the pattern before moving onto the loaded exercise version. Take a squat - this movement I would consider "specific" to offensive lineman; they move and push in bilateral patterns, and their firing out of a stance can be similar to a squat. So, for offensive lineman, yes, we would like to program squats. However, if an athlete fails the squat portion of our analysis and doesn't yet possess the mobility and stability to do the movement properly, we can't just throw it into the program because it is "specific." Exercise selection needs to be specific to the athlete before it is specific to the sport.
If an athlete has the mobility and stability to do the required movements then we can begin to specify. What that means is when we choose exercises for each major movement (push, pull, knee dominant, hip dominant, etc), we choose exercises that relate to their sport. However, we won't leave a major movement category. So, when looking at what knee dominant movements we want to accentuate, we might choose a rear-foot elevated split squat for a wide receiver, and a front squat for a lineman.
The end point here is that doing exercises that are specific to a sport is important for athletes who are ready and capable, but don't take that for granted. Many athletes need to work on movement patterns, mobility, and stability before they can progress to some of the "specific" exercises.
There is always talk about the best exercise or the best piece of equipment in the performance training industry. Everyone always get excited to talk about what they think is best. Young athletes also get exercised about doing what their favorite college or professional athlete is doing. Young athletes try to emulate their favorite athletes training program and this is where things get really dicey.
Young athletes and unfortunately their parents see what a college or professional athlete is doing and thinks it would be a great idea for little Johnny or Suzy to be doing the same exact thing. Ummmmm, this is a problem. Just because a physically mature athlete can perform a certain exercise does not mean it is appropriate or in the youth athletes best interest to be doing the same.
There is a time and place for all exercises to be performed during a training career, but it must be an exercise that is best suited for each individual athlete at the specific training level they are currently at.
Below I will give a few examples to give you an idea of what I am talking about.
1. The bench press is a great exercise at building upper body strength. It is simple enough that most athletes can perform it without many issues. And here is another point, just because an athlete can perform an exercise does not mean there isn’t a better option that will give them more bang for their buck at their current level of training. The push up will ingrain proper pushing form, teach the athletes to engage their core musculature and stabilize their scapula as they maintain proper posture. On the flip side of the coin, when pushups are too difficult or cannot be regressed, the bench press would actually be a regression. It’s funny how that works and that is just another reason that a professional sport performance coach should be involved with the athletes training program.
2. The chin up is arguably the best exercise at building upper body strength for the back. Again, this does not mean that every athlete is ready to perform a chin up on day one. Some might have poor shoulder stability or extra weight that would make performing a chin up detrimental. A chest supported row on the other hand would be a better option in either of these cases. This would allow the athlete to work on their shoulder stability in a supported manner without the fear of creating great shoulder instability.
3. The Back squat is king and the majority of high school athletes cannot perform it properly. There are many reasons for this, but a few could be that an athlete is going through a growth spurt limiting their mobility to perform a squat. Other reasons include limited hip and ankle mobility, poor core stability, poor external rotation at the shoulder and poor thoracic extension in the upper back. As you can see there are many reasons that squatting is going to be problematic in most high school programs. A goblet split squat is usually a better option in most of these situations as it limits many issues seen in the back squat.
I hope this gives you an idea of how even though an exercise is great it might not be appropriate for an athlete at their current training level and physical maturity. This doesn’t mean that you cannot work towards those exercises. In fact I hope you are working towards performing these exercises with the majority of your athletes, but it takes time to develop the qualities needed to make them ready for these great exercises.
Most folks look at the word love as a noun - it's a thing, an item, something you gain and lose. It's something we feel, we possess. It's something that happens to us, that we hold onto, that we cherish, and in some cases fear. We tell ourselves that all we need is love. We symbolize it in rings, in jewelry, in art, in poetry. The noun 'love' isn't a choice, action, or decision - it's something we feel in ourselves and are granted from others. Right?
Let's re-examine the word love, but this time as a verb. Love isn't something we have, it's something we do. When we love something, we give our all to it. We can actively love someone or something. Love as an action makes the world a better place, our relationships a stronger bond. Love isn't an item, but an act. Does someone really love another if they don't actively show that love? Is love as a noun really love at all? I would argue no - if we truly, deeply love something we show it, we work at it, we give it. Love is a feeling that we must act upon in order to truly bring it to life, for it to mean something.
This idea of love being an action evokes the strongest connections to our interpersonal relationships, as it should. But, let's look at it from the perspective of sports. How do we love football, or baseball, or whatever sport we say we love? How many young athletes say they love a sport? How many put in the work, consistently, to get good at that sport? Are they using love as a noun, or a verb?
One of my favorite parts of my job is seeing a kid who truly loves a sport. He works everyday to get better at it, puts in the work even when no one is watching or giving him credit, who looks for new avenues for improvement. He doesn't just enjoy playing, or want the attention, or like winning; he truly loves the sport. He shows it in his work ethic, in his dedication, in his pursuit. He shows it in his relentless attention to detail, in his consistency of purpose, in his spirit to succeed.
When we look at love as verb, we also turn love into a conscious decision instead of a happenstance feeling. Loving something is an action we choose to do. We all have the benefit of conscious choice. If we feel strongly towards a sport, we can choose to love it. That idea of conscious decision making is the root of our motto, "Choose Greatness." We have choices we make all day. Love is a choice, and when you choose to love a sport you give yourself the best opportunity to succeed at it, to achieve greatness.
What choices do you make, each day? Do you truly love the sport you play, or do you just say you do? Choose Greatness.
SPU's Alex Drayson and Matt Migiano write the SPU Athletic Performance Blog.
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