General or Specific


Jay Johnson asked me to comment on balancing specificity and generality in training. Jay is a middle distance and distance coach, but I will broaden this to include all events and all sports. Obviously the highest degree of specificity of training and the most direct transfer occurs when you do the activity itself. Frankly this is where training has advanced significantly over the last sixty years. We realized that staying highly specific would result in diminishing returns. We need to balance the actual activity with other training tasks that would improve the actual activity. This is where a fundamental disconnect began. As time progressed, especially in the last twenty years we have progressed down a path of just doing work, doing exercises that looking like the sport or event, but that we overloaded and slowed down to the point where they had no transfer. I think the distortion and misuse of the Mach drills is a good example. They are not technique drills. They are drills that break the stride cycle into its component parts in order to strengthen through a full range of motion and improve dynamic flexibility. If done correctly they have a high degree of specificity in terms of special strength development and flexibility. Certainly better transfer that riding a bike or using a stair stepper for a runner.

To me it comes down to similar or same. Similar is OK, but you need to understand what you are trying to accomplish. I like to think of it this way 1) The actual activity 2) First Derivative- similar or big component parts, no compromise on speed of movement 2) Second Derivative- Similar not attempting to replicate the speed of the movement, probably with some resistance 3) Third Derivative- very far removed, any similarities are coincidental. In laying out a training program I try to balance all three. They all need to be there during all phases of the training year, just with a different emphasis. I think a good example of this is what I read of Roger Federer’s training. They always touch on fundamental movements and they always play tennis. What I think has happened especially in the last twenty years is that there has arisen an emphasis on general work to get them fit. Fit for what? Just making them tired does not make them better. This is alarming trend in middle distance and distance training where too much mindless circuit work is justified as “general strength.” I maintain that that is just work, work that could be better planned and sequenced to specifically strength the movements that would make them better runners. As usual I am quite outside the norm on this, but I have seen it done better. Look at Coe’s training. The high school runner Peter Callahan who ran 4:05.2 in the mile this year used the “general work” very wisely. We need to wake up and realize that it is not about exercises and making them sore and tired it is about preparing for their race or sport.

Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta

Director at Gambetta Sports Training Systems
Vern is the Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. He has been the a conditioning coach for several MLS teams as well as the conditioning consultant to the US Men's World Cup Soccer team. Vern is the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. He has lectured and conducted clinics in Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe and has authored six books and over one hundred articles related to coaching and sport performance in a variety of sports. He has a BA in teaching with a coaching minor and an MA in Education with an emphasis in physical education from Stanford University.
Vern Gambetta


Athletic Development Coach & Consultant. Founder of GAIN Network. Proud dad. Love to read everything.
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Vern Gambetta

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