3 Ways to Program For “Sport-Specificity”

The most common questions posed by young ballplayers and coaches alike all seem to be variations of the following:

“What exercises are most important for baseball?”

“If you had to choose just one exercise, which is best for baseball?”

“Can you send me a baseball-specific program?”

Likewise, other sport coaches and athletes aside from those in baseball ask similar questions.

To be honest, I have a very hard time answering these questions – especially for amateur athletes with relatively little to no training experience – simply because my philosophies for strength and conditioning very rarely change between sports.

Overall, the consistent theme driving my beliefs on training amateur athletes is to build a base of general physical preparation, which includes the development of movement quality and proficiency, and the development of relative strength, and then (and only then) can we enhance other more sport-specific qualities.

This core philosophy will not be changed by the sport for which I am programming. Amateur soccer players and baseball players, like football players, swimmers and golfers all need to learn to move better and get stronger.

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Thus, to completely rewrite a year-round program for every single sport that you work with (at the amateur level) may prove to be more costly (in terms of time) than it rewarding (in terms of improved performance).

This is not to say, though, that no individualization occurs based on sport in my programming. I simply use alternate methods for producing the programs for multiple sports, each with a sport-specific hue to it, if you will.

Today I am going to share with you three alternate methods – all of which costing less time for the coach and causing less confusion for the multi-sport athlete – that I use in order to meet the demands of different sports within the overall strength-training framework.

1. Allocate Time Spent and Training Volume Based on Sport Demands

If you were to look at my programming templates, you’d notice a fairly consistent structure across strength training sessions. Each “tier” (or grouping of exercises) remains the same no matter the session.

Tier 3 final

For example:

  • Tier 1 generally consists of the Primary Lower-Body exercise (1A) and a trunk stability exercise (1B).
  • Tier 2 consists of the Primary Upper-Body exercise (2A) and a global mobility exercise (2B).
  • Tier 3 consists of three exercises; the Complementary Lower-Body exercise, the Complementary Upper-Body exercise, and some sort of Unilateral or non-saggital plane exercise.
  • Tier 4 consists of auxiliary/accessory or individual-needs work

Red text = used in an example below…

Although this format remains constant, the exercises that are selected can vary. Again, all young athletes need to move well and get stronger, so (per my own beliefs) all athletes will squat, hinge, push, and pull. But, the focus of each movement or the time spent doing certain components of that movement may shift depending on the sport or position.

For example, over the course of their entire program, my baseball players will perform more upper-body pulls relative to upper-body pushes; generally a 2:1 ratio, if not a little more skewed toward the pull. Thus, in a given workout, their Upper-Body Primary may be a pull, and there Upper-Body Complementary exercise may too be a pull (whereas for most sports this would be a push to complement that day’s Pull emphasis). This in itself exemplifies a shifted focus toward the demands of the sport: the sport demands a strong posterior shoulder.

Let’s take this “shifted focus toward sport demands” even further. Not only do my baseball players usually have more pulls than pushes, they generally have more “reaches” than bench press variations (I subdivide my “pushes” into reaches and presses).

By doing more reaches (think landmine press, push-up variations), the baseball player is able to freely move the scapula during the movement, unlike a bench press variation where the scapulae are locked into retraction on the bench or floor.

While we can argue the importance of absolute pushing strength (i.e. heavy bench press variations) for throwing velocity – the pec is an internal rotator of the humerus after all – I don’t think anyone would argue with the opinion that absolute pressing strength is more important for, say, a football lineman than a baseball player, and that the converse can be said about scapular function.

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Does this mean that football lineman don’t need strong posterior shoulders, or that they don’t need to do reaches, or that they should only bench press? Or, does this mean that baseball players should never press heavy? No – what it means is that each sport’s demands places a certain value on each aspect of training, and we can then shift our training focus toward that value without excluding any other aspect entirely.

In this way, we can bridge the gap between general programming and sport-specific programming by shifting the emphasis of certain training aspects depending on the demands of the sport. And, changing a few upper-body presses to a reach or pull is a lot more time-effective than rewriting the entire program.

2. Base Auxiliary/Accessory or “Corrective Work Around Sport Demands

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I am of the believe that, even without time constraints, training time should be kept as short as possible for the student-athlete (in other words, we want the minimal effective dosage). As you can see, my programming template and tiers reflect this belief, with the emphasis for all sports being on the building blocks of movement and strength; the big bang-for-your-buck exercises. In any given training session the athlete should, in the very least, get through Tier 3, meaning they will hit 5 compound exercises (Upper and Lower Primaries, Upper and Lower Complementaries, and a Unilateral or Non-Saggital Movement), and 2 “corrective” type movements (trunk stability and mobility), and if they reach Tier 4 (whether during class or if they come back to the weight room after school) they will have more of the “fun” exercises or individual needs programming.

While the bulk of the programming is dedicated to non-negotiable type of exercises (we are going to squat, hinge, push, pull one way or another, even with the concessions given for specific sports that we discussed above), the trunk stability, global mobility, and accessory work inherently has more leeway. With this being said, these aspects of the training program can be used to individualize a program based upon sport demands.

For example, it is necessary for all athletes to enhance trunk stability for injury reduction and movement efficiency, but for some sports, certain aspects are more important than others. Keeping with our baseball and football comparison, the pitcher might require a greater emphasis on anti-rotation trunk stability, while the lineman may need more anti-lumbar extension trunk stability work. In terms of mobility, the baseball pitcher might need to address scapular upward rotation mobility more often than the lineman.

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Again, is this to say that any one aspect should be excluded from the mobility/stability/accessory work portions of training based on the sport? No, but we can shift the emphasis toward a particular characteristic as needed to match the demands of each sport.

3. Modify Specific Exercises Based on Sport Demands

With the overall training philosophy remaining the same for most sports (move better and get strong by using our staple movements), all athletes will squat, hinge, push, and pull. But, certain sports create adaptations in the body that make some exercise variations more difficult or uncomfortable than others.

Consider the overhead athlete; the baseball, softball, or volleyball player. Due to the repetitive and violent nature of their throw/serve/hit, the upper extremities generally undergo chronic adaptations that can make upper-body exercises more uncomfortable. In order to accommodate these sports, more comfortable and safe variations can be used. For example, upper-body movements can use neutral grips when applicable, and the emphasis of overhead work can be shifted toward minimally loaded exercises, or unloaded altogether.

If you have an athlete in a throwing sport, or one that utilized extreme precision of the hands (such as bowling), but you’re an Olympic-based program, you can opt to use Olympic lift derivatives (e.g. the clean pull) rather than the entire movement with these athletes. By eliminating the catch you can mitigate the risk of injuring the hands, wrists, etc.

By modifying select exercises to meet the demands of individual sports, you can tailor your general program to each sport without spending hours rewriting the entire program 10+ times.

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If you work with elite athletes, or just one sport alone, individualizing a program further than these three methods might not only be worth the cost of time, but it may also be necessary.

But, when you’re a lone strength coach working with multiple teams at the amateur level, sometimes it is best to keep things simple and as time-efficient as possible. Going into this year I will have an estimated 600 athletes and more than 14 sports to accommodate once we get everyone on board. I am limited by man-power (1 coach [me] for all athletes) and time.

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If your situation is any way similar to mine, using an overall general training template/program can ensure that all of your athletes are held to the same standard and accomplish the goals of your own training philosophy. And, by using any combination of the three methods above, you can tailor your overall training program to each sport, not only rendering it more effective, but also helping to get all athletes and sport coaches on board with the program itself.

Respectfully,

RJF

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