A specific exercise: but what is specific?

The term specificity is often used by coaches when determining whether an exercise is general or specific.  Specific in this context simply means: an exercise or movement pattern (or a part of it) that looks like the dominant movement pattern in competition.

But now the question arises:  what is specific? I use the following guidelines to analyse whether an exercise is specific or not:

1.  uses the same muscle group as in competition

2.  uses the same muscles as in competition?

3.  uses the same muscle fibres as in competition (fast twitch vs. slow twitch – or better: to which proportion)

4.  has the same recruitment order as in competition

5.  uses the same energy systems as in competition

6.  do the kinematics look like those in competition e.g. joint angles, space-time parameters

7.  do the dynamics look like those in competition (like the force-time dynamics or the contact-times, angular velocities)

8.  do the muscle contraction patterns look like the ones in competition (eccentric- concentric, isometric)

9.  is the arousal level the same as in competition

Of course there is some inevitable overlap in some of these criteria. But you realize it is pretty difficult to develop a specific exercise outside of competition.

But more important: what is meant by the word “same”? To keep this practical I always stick to my empirically 10% rule. As a rule of thumb a difference of 10% in a quantifiable parameter from the level during competition I call specific.

So let us look at some examples. I think we all agree that bench press will not be a great exercise to increase leg strength in runners or that the use of slow fibres will contribute a great deal in explosive events.

But is pulling an elastic rubber tube fixed at a wall, at high speed, in a fashion that resembles a javelin throw, a specific exercise?  Well, it might qualify according to the criteria, 1-6, 8 and 9, but  contrary to a real javelin throw or other implement throw, the resistance becomes higher and relatively slower towards the end of movement. So completely different force-time curve compared to a natural throw, in other words, not specific.

Another simple example: sprinting with resistance e.g. a harness/pulling a sledge. Coaches always ask how heavy the resistance should be in kilograms. The truth is that it does not really matter since the friction of the running surface is the main component. On ice or on a wet track,  one can pull a heavy load without experiencing a lot of resistance. My rule again, if one is running e.g. 30 meters standing start without resistance in 4.00 seconds the resistance should be such that the time of 30 meters standing start with resistance should not exceed 4.00 seconds + 10% = 4.40 seconds! In this way the coach ensures the specific character of sprinting. If the load is heavier, the time becomes slower and the exercise becomes a strength exercise and no longer a specific sprint-exercise. If you are looking for strength exercise, go to the weight room.  And when you do that, remember that when you enter the weight room: forget specific exercises, unless you are a body-builder, a power lifter or a weightlifter!

So do I only advocate the training of specific exercises?   NO!     Weight training and general exercise are crucial components of most if not all training programs, dependent on the sport, the age and the level of the athlete, the individual characteristics of the athlete and the planning.
Doing squats is in almost no way a specific exercise for the improvement of the take-off in sprinting (vertical vs. horizontal, two legs vs. one leg, low knee angular velocity vs. high knee angular velocity), but I do not know of many sprinters who will do without squats. It is the appropriate mixture of general and specific exercises that ensures the progress in physical conditioning.

About Henk Kraaijenhof

My name is Henk Kraaijenhof and I started this blog as a random collection of concepts, ideas, stories and events that are important or interesting to me in my work as an international performance consultant in a wide range of fields, and sometimes outside of my work. I will try to post a new entry every 3-4 days. Feel free to comment if you like.
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