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How Important is Sport-Specific Training Really?

The idea of sport-specific training has become a huge topic among athletes, trainers and physical therapists. This has become such a big topic that many people have created whole exercise programs that only use exercises that simulate the movements that are done on the field, created course on them for trainers and therapists, and created businesses around those exercise programs.

The real question is “Is this type of training worth it?”, or at the very least “Is it correct?”

To answer these questions, we must first discuss what it means to do “Sport-Specific Training”.

True sport-specific training is done on the field, court, or course with a coach and is commonly called PRACTICE. Practice is training to be better at your sport and is done with your hitting coach, pitching instructor, golf teaching pro, or head coach; and is meant to improve a specific skill that your sport requires.

The Sport-Specific Training that most people refer to is done in the off-season and especially during pre-season of a sport. So, the real question is does pre-season sport-specific exercises make a difference during the season versus a traditional exercise program?

To answer that question, we have to break exercise programs down even further. We need to break it down into cardiovascular conditioning and strength training.

Cardiovascular Training

Cardiovascular-wise, the answer is simple….YES, sport specific training does REALLY help. If you play a field or court sport, your conditioning can and should include an aspect of that sport. For example, a soccer player dribbling a ball during sprints would be a very effective use of sport specific training. Basketball players may run while dribbling too. Hockey players skate with sticks while controlling a puck, lacrosse players run with their sticks, and volleyball players run and simulate a stop to jump and spike during their training.

For most ball sports, cardiovascular conditioning should include longer endurance runs that can (and should) include aspects of their sport, as well as multi-directional explosive training that uses aspects of their sport. Cornerbacks should turn to run with their head peeking back at where the cornerback should be, outfielders run forward, back and side to side with their head turned toward the plate, tennis players train explosively side to side, and volleyball players have to move, bend and jump explosively.

By training in this way, athletes prepare their bodies to react in a manner that is consistent with their normal movements. There is a huge neuromuscular (how the nerves control the muscles and create coordination) component to sports. The more often an athlete trains by simulating activities done in the sport, the more efficient their bodies become in that sport—thus minimizing injury risk and improving performance.

Strength Training

So, intuitively, it only makes sense that strength training will follow the same structure as cardiovascular training, in which simulating the sport activity will add strength in that motion. Such as if you are training to throw a ball, why not take an exercise band and perform a throwing motion against that band? I agree, this exercise is very specific to improve throwing strength…it is a LOT of muscles that get used, but is not very efficient at improving strength.

Increasing a muscle’s strength and power capacity allows that muscle to apply more force against an external resistance…any resistance. For example, if the goal is to throw a baseball harder, you must train the muscles that throw a baseball…your chest, lats, hips and core muscles to allow them to create more force.

“Heavy” weight training is indicated for all sports. When athletes refer to heavy weight training, they are talking about using weights in the 80-90% of their one repetition maximum for 2-6 repetitions for multiple sets. This type of training has been shown to have the greatest effect on muscle strength and power. At these weights, simulating an athletic movement exactly is virtually impossible, so for a muscle to grow, athletes must train in straight planes of motion…such as with bench presses, shoulder presses, lat pull downs, squats and deadlifts.

Many people will say that the strength gained from barbell movements are not “functional” and won’t “carry over” to sporting activities. What these people do not realize is that STRENGTH is a GENERAL adaptation, and can be used against any external force, whether that force is a barbell or a ball against gravity. In other words, when an athlete performs bench presses or shoulder presses and experiences increases in the size and strength of their pectorals, anterior deltoids and triceps, those gains can be used at ANY time and against ANY force, not just a barbell.

The absolute best way to gain strength for a sport is to gain general strength, then train that muscle to do that sport with the new strength. For example, do your heavy bench press AND mix in spiking the volleyball to use that strength to create a harder, faster spike. This combines the strength and neuromuscular control needed to do the sport.

Designing a Sport Specific Training Program:

Working with young athletes to create a sport specific program requires a mixture of strength training, neuromuscular control training, and conditioning to allow the greatest efficiency in the training.

Set up your athlete for success by following these principles:

  • Implement a safe, effective and efficient full body strength program that includes all the major muscle groups including exercises to strengthen the hands, calves and neck. Use a high level of effort with controlled movements. Always include 1-2 multi-joint exercises per session, such as squats, deadlifts, bench press and some Olympic lifts. Each session should contain 7-10 exercises and move quickly between the exercises. Strengthening should be done two to three days per week.

  • Additional conditioning work when an athlete is intensely strength training a couple times per week and practicing their sport is optional. Over conditioning an athlete can lead to injuries and burnout, so if conditioning is needed, it should be broken out and structured.

  • Include balance and core stability into as many strength and conditioning workouts where possible.

  • PRACTICE. But make sure the athlete is practicing properly. Properly planned practices are the best way to transfer the added strength into a proper and effective improvement in sport.

  • Athletes must be a STUDENT of the sport. Have them watch other athletes of all skill levels to learn proper practice techniques, proper situational actions, and further understand the game.

  • Athletes should spend time working on auditory, visual and communication skills to improve their effectiveness on and off the field or court.

When trying to develop a Sport-Specific training program, it’s important to identify the basic qualities that the sport and position demands and work on training to improve those qualities. The athlete may have a sloppy technique, but by increasing your explosiveness and strength the athlete may increase their ability to perform their sport’s needs. If you combine this new power and some technical work with the coach, the athlete will excel on the field or court. Proper training in the weight room will give the athlete the capacity to work harder and move more powerfully.

Remember to do your research before you invest your time and money into a training program. There are many unproven (scam) methods of training that are being heavily marketed that must be avoided. Discuss any new training methods with the athlete’s coach, doctor, PT, or athletic trainer before starting to get the results you are looking for.

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