Special strength has a role in every athlete’s training and the first step in incorporating special strength into a plan is to figure out what exercises to use. But just as special strength goes by many names, there are many definitions of makes a special strength exercise “special.”
My introduction to special strength on Juggernaut in October mentioned that special strength is a concept that has gone through more names than Sean Combs. However the core concept connects all of them: it is about developing strength you can apply in your sport. Similarly there are many definitions of special strength exercises, but they all also share many common elements. Two leaders in the field, Anatoliy Bondarchuk and Yuri Verkhoshanksy, have provided the best definitions. By looking at their work we can pull out the most important elements of a special strength exercise and see how to create them for use in your own training.
Bondarchuk and Special Developmental Exercises
To identify special strength exercises, Anatoliy Bondarchuk categorizes exercises based on the muscles, movements, and energy systems used. The end result is four categories of exercises that move from general to specific:
- General Preparatory Exercises (GE) – exercises that use different systems and movements as the competition movements;
- Special Preparatory Exercises (SPE) – exercises that use the same muscles and systems but different movements;
- Special Developmental Exercises (SDE) – exercises that use the same muscles, same systems, and parts of the competitive movement; and
- Competitive Exercise (CE) – the competitive movement itself.
For example, a discus thrower would consider jogging a GE, power cleans an SPE, rotational medicine balls throws as an SDE and throwing the discus as the CE. What most people would call special strength exercises falls into the SDE category since it mimics the movement of the competitive exercise in order to strengthen the movements and muscles used in the sport. For more information about Bondarchuk’s classification system, see chapter one of his book Transfer of Training in Sports Volume 2.
Verkhoshanksy and Dynamic Correspondence
In his Special Strength Manual for Coaches, Yuri Verkhoshanksy explains his principle of dynamic correspondence. The principle has five criteria that should be used in selecting a special strength exercise:
- Muscle groups involved in the exercises;
- Amplitude (range of motion) and direction of movement;
- Accentuated part of movement amplitude;
- Magnitude of force-effort and time of its applying; and
- Regime of muscle contraction.
The main difference between Bondarchuk’s and Verkhoshanksy’s definitions is that Verkhoshanksy is a little more specific. While Bondarchuk mentions the similarities of movements, Verkhoshanksy defines what similarities are important: the regime of muscle contraction, magnitude of force-effort, timing, amplitude, etc.
Finding Your Own Special Strength Exercises
What Bondarchuk and Verkhoshanksy have in common is a focus on using muscles and movements from the competitive exercise. This is the core of any special strength exercise. Because of this, what is considered a special strength exercise for one sport might be a general strength exercise for another sport. As I mentioned above, a power clean is not a special strength exercise for a discus thrower. However for an Olympic weightlifter it is a special strength exercise since it is using the same muscles and also part of the movement of the clean and jerk.
I could have endless material if I chose to write lists of “10 special strength exercises for football” and “12 ways to increase baseball special strength.” After all I’ve done that for my sport and more of these articles would likely go viral on social media. But I am just a hammer thrower; I haven’t played baseball since little league. Special strength is best understood by those who know the movements they are training for. You spend your days studying and practicing your sport. You are the experts. Therefore you are the best to create the special strength exercises you need.
But I can give five simple tips to keep in mind when selecting special strength exercises:
- Define your needs. As I mentioned above, what will be a special strength exercise for you depends on what you are training for. Therefore the first priority is to define what movements you use in your sport and which of them are the most important. It is critical to do this analysis on an individual basis since there can be differences between individuals even within the same sport. For example a lineman in football will need different special strength exercises than a quarterback. Tackles might have different exercises than guards. Even tackles on different teams might need different exercises depending on the offensive scheme used (run oriented, pass oriented, spread/shotgun offense, etc.).
- Think big picture. If you break down the sport too much, you lose the important elements that connect everything together. The closer the movements are to the sport the more specific it is. Therefore think more about bigger multi-joint movements rather than the smaller isolated parts that make up each movement.
- Looking the same doesn’t mean it is the same. Not all special strength exercises are created equal. While you need to focus on the big picture, you still have to make sure that the isolated parts of the movements match up correctly. For example, an exercise might look similar, but on closer inspection have a slightly different sequence of muscle movements. One popular exercise for hammer throwers is a plate twist, but much of the energy with this exercise is actually spent decelerating the plate at the end of each repetition. This is very different to the hammer throw when there is almost continuous acceleration. This does not mean that the exercise is worthless, but just that it might not be as specific as you think.
- Keep it simple and creative. One of the most effective special strength exercises for the hammer throw is throwing heavy implements such as a kettlebell or medicine ball. This is not revolutionary. It may look cool on YouTube if we do the exercise on one leg, or while trying to balance on a Bosu ball. And some might argue that these changes can improve balance and isolate core muscles. But each of these changes take the exercise further away from what we are training for. I accelerate the hammer with both feet on the ground and my special strength exercises should reflect that.
I saw another example when I visited the Germany’s Kienbaum Olympic Training Facility in November. In a special room there they have installed a custom designed hammer throw special strength machine that cost tens of thousands of dollars. It was cool, but the same work could be done with far simpler tools. The simple way is often better. Similarly, being simple sometimes means being creative. Special strength exercises are all around. Picking up and throwing a heavy rock might be as good for me as any other exercise I can think of.
5. Special strength does not always mean transfer. Special strength exercises are just a tool to increase performance. The theory is that the more specific the exercises, the more than gains in them will transfer to your sport. In most cases this is true. But in some cases it is not. Beginners, for example, can get great transfer from more general exercises. The more varied or basic the movements in the sport, the more this can also be the case. And even putting the same exercise in various programs can create different results. Using special strength exercises optimally in a well-designed training plan will create the most transfer (although this is a point for another article).
In the end the goal is to increase performance. Therefore don’t get so focused on special strength that you lose sight of this. Special strength is just another tool in the toolbox. Used well in the right situation it can work wonders. But used poorly or at the wrong time and it won’t work at all.
Martin Bingisser is the founder of HMMR Media, a website bringing together ideas on training and throwing from top names in the sport. He is also the current Swiss national champion in the hammer throw and coach at Leichtathletik-Club Zürich. Raised in Seattle, Bingisser was a two-time NCAA All-American at the University of Washington. Throughout his career he has sought out knowledge from the best coaches in his sport, including the legendary Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk, which he chronicles on the site. He currently lives in Switzerland where he splits his time between training, coaching, and working as a tax attorney.