Specificity and Transfer of Strength Training by Christopher Connelly

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[Christopher Connelly earned his Masters Degree in Exercise Science and Nutrition from Sacred Heart University where he competed for the D-I Track & Field / Cross Country team. Chris is currently an Athletic Development Intern at Athletic Lab]

Who as a coach or an athlete wouldn’t want to find the best ways to improve performance? To get the best out of an athlete, all aspects of their training need to be optimized to get greatest benefit. The normal aspects of a training program that people think of are what make up the training load; volume and intensity (Hawley, 2008). These variables can be used to provide overload in hopes of causing adaptation to help the athlete become better. But if overload is used too much or too long, it can lead to a high risk of injury. One way to combat this and provide further variables to the training program, variability can be used (Zatsiorsky and Kraemer, 2006). This would be using different conditions for parts of the training program in order to provide new stimulus for adaptation. An example of this would be to vary equipment in the weight room, vary the surfaces trained on, or even the weather.

One more variable that can be used in training programs is the specificity of the exercises. Specificity is the idea that the adaptations that come from exercise are very closely related to the mode, frequency, and duration of the stress or stimuli put on the body (Hawley, 2008). So in order for an athlete to get the most return, or transfer from their training to their performance in sport, their training needs to be highly specific to what they do in their sport. Frans Bosch (2015) laid out five categories of specificity. These categories are different aspects in which a movement pattern can have to be strongly connected to another movement pattern (Bosch, 2015):

  1. Similarity in inner structure (muscle action and cooperation)
  2. Similarity in outer structure (joint movement)
  3. Similarity in energy production
  4. Similarity in sensory patterns
  5. Similarity in intention

The similarity in inner structure is the type of muscle contractions and what muscles are working together to accomplish the movement. An example of movements that similar in this way are sprinting, step ups, and clean variations because they all use the trunk muscles and hamstrings in the same way. In these movements, the trunk muscles in the back are used to help stabilize the hips so the hamstrings can be kept at an optimal length. Training this cooperation during step ups and cleans can help improve an athlete’s ability to do the same while sprinting in a race.

The similarity in outer structure is the most commonly considered and has to do with having the same kinematics between movements. So if one exercise produces a quick flexion of the knee followed by an extension of the hip, knee, and ankle, then it would be similar to other movements that produce the same. This is another example of how sprinting down a track can be similar to step ups or cleans because they both accomplish triple extension of the lower extremities.

The similarity in energy production is least applicable in this case because strength training isn’t typically used to train energy systems (Bosch, 2015).

The similarity in sensory patterns has to do with how an athlete perceives their environment, and how the perceive their body or their proprioception. These factors are important because if they are not similar to the movement that is performed during the athlete’s sport, there is a great chance they may use different motor patterns to accomplish the training which would lead to less transfer. The best way to maximize the benefit for this factor would be to simulate the surface and environmental conditions as closely as possible, along with providing similar movements and joint positions that can arise from different stimuli during sport. So if a coach wants to improve a field sport athlete’s ability to accelerate and change direction, it would be best to provide the most similar surface to what they will perform on (ex: turf, grass, etc.), and provide them with stimuli that will force them to react and execute movements similar to game situations.

The similarity in intention has to do with the mentality of the athlete while executing a movement. If a movement causes the athlete to think and act in the same way as they would in sport, then it will be more specific. This is usually the factor that is missed during strength training, because most traditional ways of strength training are not performed in the same way as sporting movements. That may make this factor the most important in certain situations because if an athlete can be trained to perform movements with the same speed, velocity, and force that they with will have to during sport, then they will be more efficient and better prepared for what they will be required to do in competition.

For example, a movement that an athlete could train during a strength session that could transfer to the shot put would be a land mine press. The athlete could start with a split stance, start with the arm and elbow back with slight rotation back with the torso. The athlete can then fully extend through with the arm and rotate with the torso across the body to follow through. This would give the first two factors of internal and external structure because the athlete is using the same muscles together in a similar way while having similar joint movements. The next thing that they should do is perform the movement as rapidly and forcefully as they can while following through and finishing the move as they would a shot put throw. This will allow them to best replicate the explosiveness that would happen with a shot put throw and give them the factor of intention. They could then work on the movement on a smooth surface, possibly in a throwing circle, and in front of a set of lines set up like a throwing area. This would allow them to have more similar sensory feedback from their body and environment because they are simulating the feel of the actual throw with the environment and are able to picture finishing a throw to be measured.

Putting all of these factors together is not always a simple task and will most likely cause the athlete to have to lower the weight used for the movements. The movement above would be for training the athlete’s motor patterns to better transfer to the sporting movement. But for them to become stronger with more traditional strength training movements and joint actions, they would have to train more traditionally so they could use higher weights to train at higher levels of force. So when looking to train specificity for transfer to a sport specific movement, there should also be space in the program for movements that aren’t as specific, but allow for higher weights and force outputs to make sure the athlete is still getting stronger. This would be finding the balance between overload and specificity.

If there is too much time spent during strength training on movements that are not similar to the sporting movements then this can lead to negative transfer (Bosch, 2015). This is the idea that when an athlete spends enough time with movements that have characteristics that the sporting movements do not, such as slow speed or isolated joint movements, this may lead to training of skills for those characteristics and will hinder their motor patterns for performing movements as needed during sport. This could also happen with a training program that has too great of a training load or is progressed too quickly. The athlete will be performing under too much fatigue during training and possibly competition leading to poor motor patterns that may start to become habitual.

In summary, to have to most transfer from a strength training program to sport performance, the program must have periods of training and movements that are highly specific to how the athlete must move during sport. With that in mind, this must be balanced with overload in order for the athlete to keep getting stronger and must be planned carefully as to not provide too great of a training stimulus. Lastly the program should also avoid movements that are unrelated to the athlete’s sport in order to avoid the possibility of negative transfer.

References:

Bosch F. Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach. 2010 Uitgevers; 2015.

Hawley JA. Specificity of training adaptation: time for a rethink? J Physiol. 2008;586(Pt 1):1-2. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2007.147397.

Zatsiorsky VM, Kraemer WJ. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics; 2006.

 

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