Sports-specific exercises are a real thing that absolutely should be a part of your programming if you want to maximize transfer from what you’re doing in the gym to your sport.
That said, it’s commonly misunderstood what sensible sports-specific exercise selection is and isn’t. Hence what I’m going to clear up in this article.
The Biggest Hypocrisy In Performance Training
Many of the same strength coaches who love to say “Don’t do machines because they don’t replicate sporting movements,” are the same ones who also tell you “Don’t do ‘sports-specific’ exercises because you shouldn’t try to replicate sporting movements in your training.”
You can’t have it both ways. It’s either good to replicate sporting movements with some exercises or it’s not. I’m here to tell you that it absolutely IS good to choose *some exercises that replicate the sporting movements you’re trying to improve because the principle of specificity is undefeated!
And, this is proven by the same strength coaches who say “Don’t worry about making the exercise replicate a sports movement – just get strong and you’ll be more functional.”
Improving strength does make you more functional, which is why I program many “general strength” exercises. And, I also agree that a general lift like the bench press can be a great way to improve upper-body strength.
But let’s discuss what some coaches would have me do if they wanted to improve my bench press.
They’d have me bench press often, and we’d do lots of bench press variations like close grip presses, wide grip presses, fat bar presses, 2 or 3-board presses, pin presses, and use chains/band, etc., in various speeds, loads, and rep ranges.
These exercises are all commonly called “assistance exercises” because they assist in improving the bench press by training various components of the lift. They also replicate the specific force production patterns of the bench press.
The funny thing is that all these assistance exercises happen to replicate some aspect of the bench press. The same applies for assistance exercises used to increase the squat or deadlift – they all replicate some aspect of the movement they’re supposed to be “assisting.”
So to improve my bench press, I should do lots of stuff that’s similar to the bench press action – surely you don’t believe that using assistance exercises to improve performance only applies to the squat, deadlift and bench press?
Assistance exercises are just sports-specific exercises for powerlifting. What I do is apply this same logic towards assistance exercises to sports-specific exercises for other sports.
Transfer For Improved Performance
The goal of exercise programming for enhanced human performance is to maximize training transfer. Some exercises provide obvious and direct transfer to improved performance in sporting actions and overall functional capacity, whereas others provide less obvious transfer—that is, indirect transfer.
It’s for this reason that I classify exercises as either Specific or General. These two categories of exercise—specific and general—offer different benefits; more specifically, each type benefits certain interdependent components of fitness and performance that the other category may miss.
Specific exercises provide obvious and direct transfer to improved performance because they are based on the principle of specificity. That principle has been defined very well by Dr. Everett Harman in the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (2000, 25-55)
“The concept of specificity, widely recognized in the field of resistance training, holds that training is most effective when resistance exercises are similar to the sport activity in which improvement is sought (the target activity). Although all athletes should use well-rounded, whole-body exercise routines, supplementary exercises specific to the sport can provide a training advantage. The simplest and most straightforward way to implement the principle of specificity is to select exercises similar to the target activity with regard to the joints about which movement occur and the direction of the movements. In addition, joint ranges of motion in the training should be at least as great as those in the target activity.”
Specific exercises create a more ideal environment than general exercises for enhancing the specific force-generation and neuromuscular-coordination patterns of the targeted athletic movements.
General exercises are essentially conventional strength-training exercises and may consist of either compound or isolation movements using free weights, cables, or machines. In most cases, general exercises create a more ideal environment than specific exercises for stimulating increases in overall muscle strength and size. Therefore, these applications offer general transfer into improvements in human performance by increasing muscle hypertrophy, motor-unit recruitment, bone density, and connective tissue strength, which can improve overall health and reduce injury risk.
On the other hand, because these exercises do not necessarily reflect the specific force-generation and neuromuscular coordination patterns of many common movements in athletics, their positive transfer into improved performance potential is less obvious. This fact has led some personal trainers and coaches into mistakenly labeling them as “nonfunctional” and therefore not valuable. That is a false belief.
Granted, the further an exercise gets away from replicating the specific force-generation patterns of a given movement, the less directly it carries over to improving the neuromuscular coordination of that movement. However, this fact doesn’t make an exercise bad, and it certainly doesn’t make it nonfunctional. It simply means that the less specific an exercise is, the more general it is.
For this reason, instead of referring to some exercises as “functional”—which implies that others are “nonfunctional”—it is more accurate (and less confusing) to refer to exercises as either general or specific. Each of these types offers a unique set of benefits that transfers into improvements in performance.
Common Confusion Associated With Specific Exercises
Working on sport skills with specific exercises is not the same thing as working to improve specific force-generation and neuromuscular coordination patterns, which transfer into targeted athletic movements. Unaware of this distinction, some trainers advise athletes and clients to perform what they call “sport-specific exercises” or “functional exercises” by attaching a resistance band to the end of a golf club or hockey stick, for example, or shadow-boxing against bands strapped around the back. Loading specific sport skills in this manner misapplies the principle of specificity and rests on a misunderstanding of how to properly use specific exercises.
In reality, improving one’s ability to perform certain sport skills is not about replicating what a specific movement looks like but about replicating the specific force-generation patterns involved in the movement pattern. In other words, when training focuses only on what an exercise looks like, one can easily make the mistake of loading sport-specific skills instead of working to improve the specific force-generation patterns used to perform sport movements.
The problem lies in the fact that sport movement skills involve accuracy components that are not just similar but exact. For example, consider studies of the use of weighted bats in baseball. Contrary to general public understanding, studies have found that the heavy bat not only alters the batter’s perceptions of bat heaviness and swing speed, but also slows the batter’s swing speed for as many as five swings after using the weighted bat! Sure, some baseball players might prefer to “warm-up” by using a weighted bat, but the smart ones will also take several more swings with an unweighted bat to normalize themselves before stepping up to the plate.
You can test this effect for yourself: Shoot 10 free throws with a regular basketball, then take 10 more shots with a 2-to 4-pound (1 to 2 kg) medicine ball. You’ll quickly find that the fine-motor pattern (i.e., skill) used to throw the heavier ball accurately is completely different, and your shots with that ball will likely come up short until you hone the pattern. After shooting with the medicine ball, go back to the normal basketball for 10 more shots. Your first few shots may go over the backboard because shooting the much lighter basketball involves a different fine-motor sequence than shooting the medicine ball.