Specificity (sport-specificity) is a fundamental concept in training and testing athletes. There is not a single physical attribute that manifests itself in sports in its absolute form, but instead, they all come together to define a mélange of different combinations of strength, speed, and endurance that ultimately define an athlete’s sport-specific work capacity. A fundamental concept in the development of elite level athletes described by Yuri Verkhoshansky and Mel Siff in the book Supertraining and soon become the main theory behind the concept of special strength training for sports. This article aims to provide a practical example of this paradigm in action, using shot putters as a very representative example of how science can help to bridge the gap between theory and practice in strength training.
The principle of dynamic correspondence (Verkhoshansky and Siff) states that strength training exercises should be selected based on the kinetic and kinematic characteristics of the skill they are meant to improve (see Transfer of Training, Dr. Anatoli Bondarchuk). This theory reflects into a simple, yet often underestimated, axiom: testing also must be specific – sport-specific – in such a way that improvements in physical preparedness (strength, speed or endurance) must reflect in proportional improvements in performance in sport. If this direct correlation is missing, testing athletes loses any reliability and the whole training process, from exercise selection to program design, can be jeopardized. Strength (muscular strength) is, in this respect, by far one of the most misunderstood aspects in the process of training and testing athletes.
Oftentimes absolute strength is tested in the attempt to define a possible correlation with speed, power, and agility and, ultimately, performance in sport. However, when track and field athletes are tested according to the most standard procedures (back squat and/or bench press 1RM respectively for lower and upper body strength) the correlation between absolute strength and performance in competition has shown to be relatively weak. Especially for throwers. In a pilot study published in 2013, Dr. Larry Judge clearly demonstrated how testing elite level shot putters for absolute strength in the attempt to define any possible correlation with the personal best in competition, failed to provide a reliable model for assessing physical preparedness. Instead, he chose for his study what he believed to be a more suitable test to assess sport-specific strength: the power clean, a variation of one of the most traditional Olympic weightlifting exercises (the clean), known to share important similiarties with jumping and throwing mechanics. By doing so, he applied the concept of specificity to test elite level athletes, a concept often ignored when it comdeterminingermine the relationship between physical preparedness and performance in sport.
The relationship between an athlete personal best in competition and back squat, bench press and power clean 1RM was determined via general linear model polynomial contrast analysis and regression for a group of 53 collegiate elite level throwers (24 males and 29 females); data analysis showed significant linear and quadratic trends for distance and 1RM power clean for both male (linear: p≤0.001, quadratic: p≤0.003) and female (linear: p≤0.001, quadratic: p=0.001) suggesting how the use of Olympic-style weightlifting movements – the clean, in this particular case, but more in general explosive, fast, athletic-like movements – can be a much better alternative for sport-specific testing for shot putters (Judge, et al, 2013). These findings not only confirmed the importance of implementing snatch, clean and jerk, weighted pulls and overhead presses in the training of elite level throwers but also the benefit of testing for strength by using these movements to correlate progress during the offseason with performance in sport based on the following quadratic equation (PwrCl = Power Clean 1RM; PwrCl2 = Power Clean 1RM squared):
Male: Personal Best = -0.0008411676818853924PwrCl2 + 0.3284949945786421PwrCl – 12.08001098449343.
Female: Personal Best = -0.001045453485274876PwrCl2 + 0.2850773155884497PwrCl – 1.706062763795432
By plugging in Edward Sarul’s numbers – a very reliable source of information described in Poprawski’s masterpiece “Aspect of Strength, Power and Speed in Shot Put Training” (1988) – this equation predicts a personal best of at least 17-18 meters. Sarul, a 6 times Polish National Champion in the shot put and gold medal at the World Championship in Helsinki in 1983, could easily throw 19 meters in training, with a personal best in competition of 21.68 meters. Similar results can be found by plugging in the numbers of some of the strongest male and female shot putters. This study is an excellent example of the way science can help bridge the gap between theory (testing) and practice (training) providing the tools to develop stronger, faster, more powerful athletes.