Functional Training Zones

The 5 Most Dangerous Words in the Profession

by Steve Plisk

"Is your program sport-specific?" seems like a straightforward question, but there's a trap lurking beneath the surface. Here's how to avoid taking the fall.

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so. "
– Mark Twain

I've got good news and bad news. For starters here's the bad news: the subject of this article is specificity, perhaps the most mundane and unexciting concept in all of training. Why bother going there when we could tackle so many other interesting, urgent issues? Specificity is worth revisiting precisely because it's such a foundational concept that it tends to slip under our radar. Of all the time-honored training principles, none seem to get bastardized and misinterpreted the way specificity does. Maybe that shouldn't be surprising. Who wants to think about stuff like analyzing task demands when there's planning and coaching to do?

Now for the good news: Specificity really isn't boring at all, especially when you consider its place in the planning process. Think of it as the essential first step in preparing any strategy: zeroing in on the target. You can be an expert at the next two steps – understanding the situation and selecting tactics – but if you don't get an accurate fix on your performance target, odds are you'll miss it despite your best efforts.

So hopefully I've got your attention and you'll read on. I'll try to keep it interesting and present a worthwhile take-away message. If I can accomplish that, with luck you won't be caught off guard the next time you hear the five most dangerous words in the profession.

The Simulation Epidemic

There's no doubt about it, the sports training scene has come down with a bad case of simulation over the last decade or so. In my opinion, it has become the pandemic of our profession. Some practitioners are missing the target worse than ever, emphasizing "sport specific" training tasks that are based on outward appearances more so than actual demands. It's a classic example of unintended consequences: Start with a basic principle (specificity), give lots of people easy access to lots of information – some of which is sound, but some of which is nonsense – and even with good intentions, the signal-to-noise ratio gets fubar fast.

To be clear: every sport has some specific demands. However, most sports share some generic demands as well. For the majority of athletes – at least those involved in terrestrial activities – there is a skill set that matters more than passing, shooting, throwing, kicking, dribbling, stickhandling and so on. I'm talking about the common movement skills of running and jumping.

Here comes the painful part of this exercise. Think about what the demands of running and jumping really mean for training, in terms of injury prevention as well as performance. In ground-based sports from A to Z, whether the players are female or male, think about how these general demands should influence your training priorities. Consider the implications not only for advanced athletes, but also for novices and intermediates. Then – brace yourself – compare this with the "specialized" programs many coaches and parents want you to provide.

Therein lies the problem.

Of course there are sports that don't involve running or jumping – cycling, rowing and swimming are obvious examples – but you get the idea. We need to select training tactics with respect to both specificity (the target) and developmental considerations (the situation). At any point in the program, no matter how compelling the need for basic training might be, the trick is to balance needs with wants. People won't do a program that they don't accept, and it can be remarkably tough to get many folks to buy into developmentally-appropriate training.

In my experience, this challenge presents itself on a few fronts:

It's getting harder to convince many people of the need for generic training or the pitfalls of getting too specific, especially early in an athlete's development.

 Make no mistake, progressing toward specific performance targets is the name of the game, with progression being the central concept. The key is to approach training as a long-term curriculum that begins with a broad base – the prerequisites – and gradually zeros in on the target. As is the case with any developmental curriculum, however, fast-track or early-specialization programs usually backfire. Unfortunately, that's exactly what many coaches and parents want.

It's hard to convince many people of the need for remedial training, especially later in an athlete's development.

Running and jumping mechanics are rarely taught in schools, probably because they're not included in our national standards for physical education (NASPE 2004). Yet they comprise the essential language of movement that athletes need to be fluent in, making them the most "generic" and important skill set of all. As acquired skills, these should be part of the syllabus during children's critical developmental periods; but the assumption seems to be that they're innate skills and don't need to be taught. This is a big blind spot with big implications (e.g. it's one thing to accept that a high school student-athlete isn't ready for a college program, but it's another thing altogether to accept going back to elementary school for corrective work).

Many people have difficulty distinguishing specificity from simulation because of the nature of specificity itself.

It is neither one-dimensional nor a stand-alone principle, as will be discussed below. With all these stumbling blocks, we've got some work to do if we're going to set things straight. Fortunately, there's a simple way to make sure you never miss the target again, and to help guide people out of the simulation trap.

Specificity3: Triangulating On The Target

Most people would probably agree that specificity is where it's at, even if they don't agree on how it's defined. "Specific adaptation to imposed demands" (SAID) is widely acknowledged as a fundamental premise of training. Here in the West, traditional definitions of specificity usually address issues like muscle/joint involvement, range of motion and movement velocity. Beyond these, however, there really aren't any standard criteria – which leaves the door open for plenty of opinion and (mis)interpretation. As we'll see, there are some pillars we can lean on to help us come up with a working definition.

One of the central premises of the "functional training" school of thought is that movement involves the entire body. As a general rule, it's not a question of which muscle groups we use; the issue is what they're being tasked with, how they're interacting, and how the operating system coordinates them. Paradoxically, muscles that might not appear to be main movers can in fact be major contributors because of the way forces are transmitted through the system. So we can't rely just on outward appearances when analyzing a target task's demands. We need objective criteria.

Specificity exists in at least three dimensions, giving us a useful framework for categorizing those criteria:

• Mechanical
• Energetic
• Coordinative

Think of these as different perspectives you're using to try to get a fix on a 3-D target. It's important not to rely on just one or two perspectives because certain things may not be visible from each vantage point. In effect, we want to do what a good outdoorsman or navigator does when searching for an elusive object: triangulate on it.


Each perspective offers a useful paradigm we can build on. Let's take them one at a time:

Mechanics. This is where we'll look through the biomechanist's lens at the forces, or kinetics, involved in the target activity. This is a perspective that we otherwise wouldn't get by looking just at movement patterns, or kinematics.

Forces are vector quantities, which means they have direction and magnitude. They're expressed in terms of acceleration, velocity, and rate or time of application. Furthermore, they're applied via various muscle actions including concentric, eccentric and isometric – as well as reactive-elastic actions involving a combination of these, called the stretch-shortening cycle. Depending on the mode of locomotion, forces are transmitted and summated through the kinetic chain in technique-specific ways. The dynamic correspondence paradigm addresses all of these factors (Verkhoshansky 1977, 2006). According to this concept, training tasks should be specific to the target activity in terms of:

Rate and time of peak force production (impulse) and the speeds at which it is applied:

• Dynamics of effort (power)
• Amplitude and direction of movement
• Accentuated region of force application
• Regime of muscular work

It's hard to find a better working definition of mechanical specificity than this – especially when evaluating propulsive ground-reaction forces. Dynamic correspondence seems like cutting-edge stuff, but was first introduced decades ago. This idea originated in the former Soviet Union, perhaps explaining why it's still sinking in here in the West.

A comment about velocity specificity is in order. Because of the cause-and-effect relationship between force and velocity, it's rather meaningless to consider either variable independently. When analyzing (or training for) a task, keep in mind that the forces producing the action are causative factors; whereas the resulting accelerations and velocities are outcomes. Athletes must be able to skillfully apply forces across the velocity spectrum even when they're already moving fast. Achievable movement speed is also load-dependent – a major factor when ballistically launching oneself as a projectile, particularly when doing so from single support (as when running). In this sense, velocity specificity is really the final movement velocity targeted when accelerating a mass. The take-home message: regardless of movement speed, performance boils down to the forces an athlete generates.

Energetics. This lens seems to intimidate some people because they think they need to be an exercise physiologist to use it. The good news: We don't need to concern ourselves with all that unfathomable stuff about energy systems; we just need to create an exercise:relief profile of the sport to use as a model in training. For this, we'll put on our coaching hats and grab a clipboard, stopwatch and some game footage.

Few sports involve a single, brief effort. Most consist of ongoing activity with intense, intermittent bursts – or a series of plays with periodic rest intervals. Athletes need the metabolic power to execute their assignments at the required effort level, as well as the capacity (and recoverability) to do so repetitively. A simple, pragmatic way to achieve metabolic specificity in training is to model a conditioning program on the activity/inactivity patterns of competition.

That's the idea behind the tactical metabolic training paradigm (Plisk & Gambetta 1997, Plisk 2008). It involves a simple 5-step procedure we can use to model the "special endurance" demands of a sport and then prepare athletes for them. "Tactical" in this context doesn't refer to military or law enforcement. It has to do with the playing tactics used to achieve strategic goals in competition, and the energetics involved in doing so. If we identify the exercise:relief intervals and effort distribution of the target activity, and then train specifically for those, the energy system contributions will take care of themselves.

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