Training

Special Strength: Theory and Practice


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I come from the world of hammer throwing. While my sport may be obscure, it has the same core elements as other power sports: combine strength and technique to get the best result. The type of strength and the type of technique may be different, but the training is based on the same theories. For example the theory of special strength applies the same to all sports, but its practice is implemented differently for each athlete. Connecting the theory and practice, however, is not always that easy.

When it comes to looking for answers about training, hammer throwers have it easy. Since World War II 51 Olympic medals have been awarded in the men’s hammer throw. Europeans won 46 of them. Americans won just three, only one of which was in the last half century. When I started training for the hammer throw I read everything I could find by European coaches and then travelled there to see first-hand what the most successful coaches were doing. Eventually this led me to work with Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk for the past eight years.

Bondarchuk is big on special strength. A focus on special strength helped him become the most successful coach in the history of the sport. His athletes won more than a dozen Olympic medals and set numerous world records, not to mention the medals and records he set himself as an athlete. What sets Bondarchuk apart is not just his theories and research on special strength, but his ability to connect the theory to practice in a variety of events. The theory of special strength is not foreign to the US, but connecting it to practice often is.

What is Special Strength?

Dr. Yuri Verkoshansky is perhaps the best-known special strength expert, but the concept is used by many coaches and referred to by many names. Bondarchuk refers to it as specific development exercises. Some call it simply specific strength. Vern Gambetta refers to it as functional strength. The key element between all of these definitions and concepts is that they refer to strength you can apply in your sport.

You might think that strength is strength, no matter the type. But that would make things too easy. If they were the same then every pound I added to my bench press would increase the distance I threw the hammer. And every pound I added to my squat would help even more. This just isn’t always case. The bench press has almost no relation to the hammer throw since it uses completely different muscles and movements. And while the squat uses some of the same muscles, Bondarchuk’s research has shown there is only a strong correlation between the squat and distance thrown among beginning throwers. Moving hundreds of pounds in a linear motion doesn’t translate as easy as you’d think to rotating multiple times in order to propel a 16-pound hammer over 60 miles per hour. Every thrower stills needs to get strong, but in a way that they can apply to the hammer.

Special Strength in Theory

The theory of special strength is so simple that it’s hard to refute. You need to train in a way that will increase performance. Special strength is more beneficial since it actually allows you transfer gains in one type of training to another type, such as transferring strength from a special exercise into results in a competition. This is what Bondarchuk calls “transfer of training” and training special strength has a high transfer.

Special Strength in Practice

There are many ways to implement special strength in practice. Verkoshansky has a whole periodization scheme built around it. Bondarchuk, on the other hand, utilizes special strength more as an exercise selection tool by devoting more time to exercises that use the muscles, systems, and movements involved in your sport. This means I am often throwing overweight hammers and doing weight room exercises that mimic the throw, as I’ve detailed on my own site. The practice of special strength will be the topic of future posts here on Juggernaut.

Context: What Links Theory and Practice

In order to work, theory and practice have to be connected. Europeans did not just have groups of coaches and groups of scientists that built their success. They had coaches that were scientists like Bondarchuk and Verkoshansky and countless others. They were able to provide a context that connected theory with practice. But too often this is not the case elsewhere. Too much research is completed solely in labs or by researchers without an understanding of the sport. Coaches, on the other hand, experiment on their own using trial and error. This is not necessarily bad; when millions of people try and reinvent the wheel someone will find out how.

A disconnected approach will more often than not lead to coaches trying things they saw others do without much concern for what context it was used in before or whether it will actually work for their athletes. My favorite example of this is the Litvinov Workout, a complex of heavy front squats followed by a fast 400-meter sprint named after the 1988 Olympic hammer throw champion. This workout has gone mainstream with people from a variety of sports using it since it looks cool, but few ask if it helped Litvinov or whether it could also help them in their sport. No one puts the workout in context. The irony is that Litvinov confirmed to me that he never did this workout since it would not have transferred to hammer throw.

This is just the first of many posts I will write for Juggernaut about special strength, periodization, and other training concepts. Context will be a central element of all of them since it is at the core of not just special strength, but every element of training. The worst thing you can do is copy what I say or what others on this site say. The best thing you can do is add what you know to what I say. That will put it in the context of your training and see how, or even if, it can help you. How I implement special strength in my training will be vastly different than how a football player implements it in their training. What special strength is for me is completely different than what it is for him. He is trying to create strength that will let him blow off the line. I’m trying to create strength that will make the hammer fly out of my hand. Special strength for me may even be different than it is for other hammer throwers since my technique, my strengths, and my weaknesses all alter the context. Only you can provide the context.

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Thoughts on Bondarchuk by Chad Wesley Smith

Martin Bingisser is the current Swiss national champion in the hammer throw and coach at Leichtathletikclub Zürich. Raised in Seattle, Bingisser was a two-time NCAA All-American at the University of Washington. Throughout his career he has sought out the knowledge from the best coaches in his sport, including the legendary Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk, which he chronicles on his website and in frequent articles for leading track and field journals. He currently lives in Switzerland where he splits his time between training, coaching, and working as a tax attorney.

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