It is one thing to know which specific strength exercises to use, but the power is really in understanding how and when to use them. And just as creating specific strength exercises is individual to each sport, so is the process of using them.
The most common question I receive from members of my site is along the lines of this recent one: “How many exercises should I choose from each category?” I classify exercises using Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk’s system, which I described in my last post. Each exercise falls into one of four categories depending on their level of specificity to the sport you are training for: General Preparatory Exercises (GPE); Special Preparatory Exercises (SPE); Special Developmental Exercises (SDE); and Competitive Exercises (CE). What is referred to as specific or special strength exercises fall into the last two categories, while the first two categories are used to develop more general fitness, strength, and athletic abilities.
Choosing exercises is key to implementing a training program, but asking how many exercises to use in each category misses the point. The key is about dividing the workload properly between categories, not the amount of exercises you choose from each. After all, doing one repetition of ten different specific strength exercises will hardly match the training effect of a hundred reps with a single exercise. One big piece of the pie is more than many small pieces.
In fact the nature of the classification system makes it so that you will always be doing more general exercises in training than specific ones. The number of exercises in each category shrinks exponentially since the criteria for each category gets narrower and narrower. There are nearly infinite choices in the GPE category since they use practically any muscle and any movement. And since they cover a much broader area you need to choose more exercises to check all the boxes, even though the investment in each one might not be that deep.
On the other side of the spectrum there is often only one exercise in the CE category. And the SDE category also has very limited options since the muscles and movements used match the sport. That limits the choices available, and you do not want to use all the options at once since you need to change exercises at the right intervals to keep the body’s adaptation process working to your advantage. Unlike general exercises, however, the few you do choose should be focused on intensely.
A better way to think about how you implement specific strength in training is to think about how much time and energy you are putting into them. I can’t think of a sport where you should spend less than 50% of your time with the competitive exercises. A common training program I would prescribe for track and field throwers would spread a minimum of half the time throwing (CE), another quarter of the time on other specific strength (SDE), and the remaining quarter of time on more general and preparatory exercises (SPE/GPE). Combined, therefore, three-quarters of time is spent on specific strength (CE/SDE) even though this might encompass just a few exercises. On the other hand we could use as many as ten SPE/GPE exercises in one period to hit the legs, back, abs and other core muscles groups. But like I explained earlier, the amount of time on each of these exercises will be limited.
The amount of time is specific to the sport. Sports with lots of tactical and technical elements, for example, require more time spent with the competitive exercise. In other sports, like fighting sports, it might not be possible to execute the complete competitive exercise that often but it can still be executed in its parts (SDE). But a common theme emerges: more time will be spent on specific work and more exercises will be used for general exercises work. It’s just a fact of nature. Choose just a few specific strength exercises, rotate them wisely, and you’ll be in good in good shape as far as specific strength training goes.