Sport Specific Gurus?
A look at questionable practices in the strength coaching profession
By Strength Sensei CP
Publication Date: 2007
Fitness writers are often a pain, but often so are those who write research papers. I want to give one striking example, using the topic of so-called “sport-specific training.”
A colleague of mine recently sent me a research study about the value of weight training for gymnasts. The four authors’ credentials included two with PhDs, one with a graduate degree, and one with an undergraduate degree.
The article cited a host of impressive references, respected sports scientists with last names familiar to any serious strength coach, including Hakkinen, Baker, Schmidtbleicher, and Zatsiorsky. The authors also cited me eight times, giving the impression that I endorsed their conclusions. But what staggered me was this comment about strength training for gymnastics: “Gymnastics-relevant lifts and exercises may be reduced to only four: squats, presses, pulldowns, and deadlifts.” Say what?! Where the heck did that come from? Did a new world order come about when I wasn’t looking?
At the very least, anyone who knows me understands I preach that pull-ups and chin-ups are far superior exercises for athletes than pulldowns. If I believed that presses and deadlift movements were vital, why not save time and do a power clean and press, or a power clean and push press? And what about including some exercises to correct muscle imbalances from the extensive sport-specific training these athletes perform? Including me as a reference in this paper didn’t make sense, especially considering the academic credentials of the authors.
I bring up this example because there are only three sports where you can perform sport-specific strength training: gymnastics, weightlifting, and powerlifting (and strongman, if the events are standardized). That’s it! Anybody who says they have a “sport-specific” training program is misdirected. Go ahead. Attach a racket to a low pulley and do tennis swings all you want. It won’t make you a Roger Federer or a Martina Hingis. The exercise will quickly destroy any inherent timing you have to hit a tennis ball. Further, from my own coaching experience, I’ve found that these types of creative sport-specific training methods may also lead to injury. Let me give you an example.
When I started working with the Canadian Synchronized Swimming Team in the 1990s, there was an epidemic of shoulder injuries. To resolve the problem, I didn’t give them rotator cuff exercises. I just had them stop all of the exercises they had been doing with surgical tubing. The tubing had caused the long head of the biceps, which acts to protect the shoulder, to shut down as the tubing took over to decelerate the arm. Then, when these athletes would swim, this muscle group did not function properly.
Can strength training make you a better golfer, a better judoka, a better pitcher, or even a better gymnast? Of course, but the design should be based on logical principles. Because there is apparently a group of well-educated gymnastic gurus who have serious problems inferring information from my articles, let’s explore some of the steps I would use to train a gymnast.
First, I would correct muscle imbalances and prepare the connective tissues for the demands of the sport. Due to the tremendous amount of hip flexor work gymnasts perform in practicing their events, a gymnast should do heavy resistance training for the muscles of the posterior chain, such as the hamstrings. Also, there is insufficient eccentric overload in the sport because athletes use only their bodyweight, so this deficiency needs to be addressed in the tempo prescriptions.
Next, I would focus on the problematic areas of the sport for injury. Steve Fleck, a respected PhD sports scientist, said one of the best ways to determine what exercises to do for a sport is to notice what muscle groups are sore after a hard sports training session. Expanding on this idea, how about being proactive and looking at what areas are commonly injured and performing additional exercises for them? The ankles are often injured in gymnastics, so this would be a good body part to address in a strength training program. An excellent reference book on this subject is “Epidemiology of Sports Injuries” by Caine, Caine, and Lindner (Human Kinetics).
Next, I would use methods to increase maximal strength and the rate of force development for the prime movers of the sport. To increase jumping ability, a gymnast should focus on explosive exercises for the muscles used in jumping. Weightlifting movements such as power snatches, power cleans, and push presses are excellent for this purpose.
A gymnast should focus on explosive exercises such as those used in weightlifting to increase power for their sport. Shown is 2019 World Champion Kate Nye, a former elite gymnast. (Photo by Tim Scott, LiftingLift.com)
Finally, I would design their workouts to increase maximal activation of the cross-section of the muscles. Gymnasts not only need to use explosive exercises but need to use the appropriate training protocols. Performing power snatches for sets of 10 would negate the effectiveness of this exercise. It would be better to use relative strength training protocols with high-intensity methods such as cluster training.
If there’s one guiding principle to take away from this article, it’s to adopt a skeptical approach to reading – and this goes for my writing! You’ll find that compared to my programs of 20 years ago, I include much more variety in my current workouts, especially for elite athletes. At the time, I was going by the best information available. Now there’s the added benefit of 20 years of my own empirical experience and 20 years of research by the scientific community. Research is valuable, but you have to take the time to read it carefully to apply it!