Written by Chad Wesley Smith
Coaches and athletes will debate until they are blue in the face what is the best program. Discussions over different programs and methods are often more heated than religious or political debates. Regardless of what program you use, whether you like bands/chains, linear periodization or any other myriad of variables, there are a few things that all great programs have in common. The 4 commonalities that any great program will possess are, 1- An Emphasis on Practicing Sport Skills, 2- High Level of Transfer of Training, 3- Addressing of Weakpoints and 4- Consolidation of Stressors. Let’s examine each of these points more closely…
Practice Your Sport Skills
No matter what sport you compete in, Strength sports (Powerlifting, Weightlifting, Strongman, Crossfit), Team Sports (Football, Basketball, Lacrosse, etc), Individual Sports (Track & Field, Gymnastics, Tennis, etc) or Combat Sports (Wrestling, MMA, BJJ, etc) there is only one thing in your training that cannot be replaced, your sport practice. Practicing your sport is the ONLY thing you must do as an athlete.
Of course it is advantageous to be able to perform exercises like the squat and bench to improve your physical skills for football or MMA, but they are not required. In fact, Derrick Thomas only performed 3 reps of 225 at the NFL Combine, a dismal result, but went on to a Hall of Fame career. Of course, cases like this are rare but illustrate the value of sporting skills over general physical abilities.
The idea of practicing sporting skills is often lost among strength athletes, particularly powerlifters. For the powerlifter, the squat (with competition stance to legal depth using a standard barbell using competition commands), the bench press (with competition grip, paused at the chest and with competition commands) and the deadlift (from the floor with straight weight) are sport practice. While special exercises (specialty bars, partial ranges of motion, etc) have their place in training, they cannot be used exclusively or even as the majority of your training if you want to have the greatest competition results.
Special exercises for the strength athlete are like drills for the team sport athlete. These exercises address a portion of the lift and for that reason are valuable, but if all a football did was practice their combo block drills, while they would be great at that portion of the game, the sport itself would suffer due to a lack of practicing the full competition.
With sport practice as the highest priority in creating a program, you must recognize and respect the stress that practice imposes on the athlete. Too often we often compartmentalize training into having a barbell on your back or in your hands, measuring jumps for distance or height or running sprints, but sport practice is training too. In the course of a practice you will sprint, change direction, jump, and physically overcome an opponent all of which a tremendous stress to the body.
The body doesn’t recognize squats, bench, sprints, pushing a sled or wrestling against an opponent; it only knows stress. When you look at the total volume of work an athlete is performing, you must account for their workload during practice.
Renown coach Charlie Francis said “weights follow speed”. Francis wasn’t just referring to the chronology of sprint training happening before lifting, he meant that after a great sprint session, it wasn’t necessary for the athlete to perform as significant a workload in the weightroom because the stimulus received from the speed work was so great. So if your athletes have a great speed training session where they are running PRs, you can and should reduce the volume or intensity of their weights sessions to avoid overtraining or ‘overflowing the cup’ (more on that later). For those of you not working with athlete’s who sprint, you must consider that if they have a particularly intense practice session in whatever the sport, you must adjust their volume of general work.
Transfer of Training
With practicing sports skills being the highest priority in designing an effective program, the next highest priority must be to select exercises and drills with a high degree of transfer to the competitive exercise. This high degree of transfer is also known as dynamic correspondence.
These exercises with a high degree of dynamic correspondence are known as Special Physical Preparedness (SPP) drills or Special Strength Exercises. The idea of special strength is often bastardized as ‘sport specific’ by coaches today who do not understand what really means. An SPP Drill is an exercise that mimics the direction, duration and velocity of a part of the sporting movement.
For the football lineman, an SPP drill could be a heavy sled push or two handed medball throw from a two point stance; for the MMA fighter punching with overweight gloves or suplexing a heavy bag; the possibilities of these exercises are widespread and limited only by your imagination and the understanding of the parameters of direction, duration and velocity.
Identifying exercises with the highest dynamic correspondence to your competitive exercise will give you the greatest return on your energy in training, particularly as you reach higher levels of sports performance. Doctor Bondarchuk in his seminal text, Transfer of Training, illustrated the importance of special strength drills in high level sports performance. Bondarchuk showed that for the hammer throw, a general exercise like the squat or clean would have a high correspondence to a mid level sporting result like a 60m throw (a good throw but non World Class) but for an 80m throw (an Olympic medalist quality result) the benefit of general exercises was greatly diminished, while the special exercises like rotational strength drills and throwing various weight hammers showed a very high correspondence to success. This type of relationship is akin to the idea that in high school football, it is often the players with the highest bench press or power clean that are the most successful, but as you reach college and the NFL those general exercises do not determine success with near as much consistency.
General exercises though are of course still of great importance, as they are the basis of the development of special strength. Both must be developed in conjunction but understand that the point of diminishing returns of general abilities is much sooner than is often thought.
The more things you are good at that resemble the competitive exercises, the more likely you are to be great at the competitive exercise. This idea is critical to success in strength sports in respect to the idea of transfer of training. For example, if a lifter is good at front squats, high bar squats, pause squats and reverse band squats, it is very likely they are a great squatter. Utilizing exercises that are similar to the competitive exercise will transfer well to competitive success. Keep in mind that while all these exercises can transfer well to the competitive exercise, they will only do so with the caveat that your are practicing the competitive exercise with the highest priority. Special strength drills need to be done in conjunction with sport practice, not in place of it.
The greatest benefit derived from special exercises is the addressing of weakpoints in an athlete’s game.
Weakpoints are a simple idea for the strength athlete, you’re bad off the floor/off the chest/out of the hole/etc, you choose an exercise that addresses that portion of the lift.
Weakpoints though go beyond just different portions of a lift, or a particular lift/event. An athlete can have deficiency in a physical skill or energy system. Every athlete will fall within a spectrum of abilities required to be successful within their sport.
Whether they lack they technical skills, alactic power, aerobic capacity, tactical skills or any other aspects required to succeed, it is your job as a coach to identify where they are weak and bring up that weakness to help them succeed.
In a sport with a particularly wide array of required physical skills, such as the decathalon/heptathalon, MMA, Strongman or Crossfit, it is of particular importance to identify the events or energy systems your athlete is deficient in and bring that weakness up to the level necessary to succeed.
When looking at weakpoints and setting goals to improve them, I received great advice from Don Babbit, the Throws Coach at the University of Georgia, who has coached top athletes like Adam Nelson, Reese Hoffa and Breaux Greer. Coach Babbit discussed finding the eight to ten indicators for me as a shot putter that had the greatest correlation to my success, whether they be lifts, sprints, jumps, throws or factors like nutrition and recovery. He said that if I wanted to improve my throw by 5% from 19.5m to 20.48m, a very daunting task, that I need to improve each of my indicators by 5%. Improving my bench from 500 to 525, squat from 750 to 785, and broad jump from 10’ to 10’6” are much more attainable goals and when they are all combined should help result in a 5% improvement in my sporting result.
Consolidating stressors is critical to the long term planning of an athlete’s program. As output capabilities improve, recovery becomes more of a premium.
Another great idea from Charlie Franics is the likening of the central nervous system to a cup. The CNS, like a cup has a finite capacity, and every stressor you impose on it will fill the cup up to some degree. The greater the stress, the more the cup is filled up. As mentioned earlier, the body doesn’t recognize exercises, just stress and that includes non-training stressors like poor sleep, nutrition, problems with your significant other, etc. Failure to account for all these stressors will eventually lead to overtraining.
As the athlete becomes stronger, faster and more efficient, all of their training will fill up their cup more so as the athlete progresses through a training plan, you need to allow more time for recovery.
The stressors can be consolidated and more time allowed for recovery through two ways, changing the weekly structure of the plan or removing elements with lower transfer.
You can’t intensify everything in your training plan at once, so you must leave yourself flexibility to remove things from your plan. You can do this by moving from higher to lower frequency training throughout a training plan or by beginning a plan by using a wider variety of training means (multiple special exercises) and removing them as time goes on in favor of only the competitive exercise.
While there are many ways to become stronger and faster, many different exercises you can use to accomplish these goals and many different periodization schemes to organize your training into; the 4 tenants discussed above will help guide you in designing effective programs for whatever sport or goal you choose.
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