When a Strength & Conditioning (“S&C”) coach works with an athlete, there is a lot of thought and planning that goes into each program. However, the main focus is simple: to make the athlete stronger and better-conditioned to perform optimally in their sport. A S&C coach will typically address four main areas in a training program. These include: strength and power; the appropriate energy systems for the athlete’s sport, position, and style of play; assisting in recovery; and reducing the potential for injury.

Athletes choose to train with S&C coaches for a variety of reasons. Mainly, S&C coaches are experts in designing resistance training programs for specific purposes, proper lifting technique, nutrition, recovery, and motivation. In addition, most athletes have more important things to worry about than studying all year in order to write an off-season training program for themselves, and they are motivated to maximize the results of their training efforts and their competitive results.

Strength and conditioning programs are designed to improve the various strength qualities that are specific to particular sports and athletic movements. Just to clarify, the goal of a strength program is to improve STRENGTH QUALITIES that are specific to particular sports and athletic movements.

The primary strength qualities required for most popular team sports, such as football, hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer, etc., include maximal, starting, explosive, rotational, and reactive strength; rate of force development; acceleration and deceleration; stability; and strength endurance. It is a combination of these qualities that allow an athlete to perform the complex GENERAL athletic movements demanded by their particular sport. These athletic movements can by cyclic – such as running, swimming, skating, cycling, back pedaling, side shuffling, etc., or they can be acyclic – such as throwing, jumping, swinging a bat, taking a slap shot, etc.

It is important to understand that there is no single way to train these strength qualities, but there are definitely superior methods and inferior methods. Some strength coaches have made a living off marketing their training style as “sport-specific” to athletes of all ages and skill levels. Sport-specific training methods claim that the performance of various special exercises in the weight room will “transfer” to a very high degree into game-time performance.

I have seen some ridiculous examples of sport-specific exercises, from baseball players throwing weighted balls, or sprinters training on treadmills for speed, to golfers with resistance bands attached to their shoulder, hip, wrist, and club head (true story – a golf pro tried to market this product he was developing for the club where he worked!). Being a Canadian, I see a lot of horrible exercises and products aimed at our hockey players. One athlete recently mentioned that his skating coach suggested he do his weight training in a shoe that mimicked a hockey boot. How do you suppose you can do a proper squat if you can’t flex your ankles?

Two very popular sport-specific gimmicks geared towards our hockey players are skating treadmills and slide boards. The reality behind these sport-specific training methods is much less impressive than their marketing would make you believe. The truth is, nothing is going to give you the same “sport-specific” results that actually playing your sport will give you. If you use a skating treadmill you will only mess up your motor patterns and create bad habits. When you get off the skating treadmill and hit the real ice, you will find that everything feels different. If you are using a slide board to improve your stride, think about how often you slide laterally with both feet facing forwards. Don’t get me wrong, I think slide boards can be a useful way to develop lateral movement strength in a low-impact manner, or for thoracic rotation and a variety of other exercises, but keep it in the physio clinic.

True sport-specific training should be left to the sport coaches: your goalie coach, your batting coach, your golf instructor, your tackling coach, etc. If you need to improve a certain skill that your sport requires, consult your coaching staff and private skill coaches because they are the experts for improving your technical abilities.

The overlap between the strength coach and sport specificity is found during conditioning. If you play a field or court sport, your energy systems training can include an aspect of your sport. For example, it wouldn’t be uncommon to do sprints while controlling a soccer ball, to sprint to the volleyball net and jump for a block or spike, to sprint your receiver route and catch a pass, or many other examples. Hockey players may skate with the puck, lacrosse players may run with their sticks, and basketball players may run while dribbling the ball.

Therefore, TRUE sport-specific training doesn’t need to include any special equipment, and rarely will. In fact, you can train for explosive strength in the gym by adding a particular sport-specific action, such as jumping, sprinting, or change of direction, directly after lifting to help improve sport-specific performance (such as power cleans followed by hurdle jumps or sprints). Even without incorporating this “complex training,” training basic strength and power qualities on their own have been shown to improve specific sport actions, such as jumping ability. Focus on lifts that are multi-joint, multi-planar, double-leg and single-leg supported, because those are the types of athletic actions you will encounter during the game.

So don’t feel cheated if you can’t train at the football-specific facility because they do the “football specific lifts”. It is important to identify the basic qualities that your sport and position demands and work on training to improve those qualities. You might have a sloppy swing, but by increasing your explosiveness and rotational strength you will have the power to hit the ball farther than you used to. Combine this new strength and power with some technical work on your swing with your batting coach during the pre-season and you’ll send the ball over the fence! If you need to work on your skating stride, lace up your skates and find a rink. Proper training in the weight room will give you the capacity to work harder and move more powerfully on the ice, but your skating coach will help you fine tune the specific motor patterns needed for a good, efficient stride.

Remember to do your research before you invest your time and your money. An open mind is great, but don’t be fooled because there are many unproven methods and scams being heavily marketed, especially to younger athletes. Go to the experts and get the results you want instead of unfulfilled promises.

Stay Strong.

Szymanski, DJ, (2007) Collegiate Baseball In-Season Training. Strength and Conditioning Journal; 29, 4; pg. 68-81
Meylan, C; Malatesta, D. (2009) Effects of In-Season Plyometric Training Within Soccer Practice on Explosive Actions of Young Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research; 23, 9; pg. 2605-2615
Bennett, S. (2006) Sport Specificity: How Far Do You Take It?. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28, 4; pg. 29 – 30.
Sheppard, J., Cronin, J., Gabbett, T., McGuigan, M., Etxebarria, N., Newton, R. (2008) Relative Importance of Strength, Power, and Anthropometric Measures to Jump Performance of Elite Volleyball Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22, 3; pg. 758 – 765.
Castillo-Rodriguez, A., Fernandez-Garcia, J., Chinchilla-Minguet, J., Alvarez Carnero, E. (2012). Relationship Between Muscular Strength and Sprints with Changes of Direction. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26, 3; pg. 725 – 732.
Comfort, P., Haigh, A., Matthews, M. (2012). Are Changes in Maximal Squat Strength During Preseason Training Reflected in Changes in Sprint Performance in Rugby League Players? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26, 3; pg. 772 – 776.