The Truth About Sport Specific Training
I get asked how 5/3/1
can be adapted for athletes. It's a legitimate question, right? Surely the needs of the performance-driven athlete would be different from the guy who just wants to be bigger, stronger, and more awesome in general. But regardless of the sport you're playing on the field, not much really changes. This goes against "sport specific training specialists" who are trying to convince you that each athlete and sport is a special snowflake. But let's examine the facts.
What All Athletes Need
All sports require an athlete to have strong hips, legs, shoulders, arms, and midsection. The best way to develop these areas is with a basic and effective barbell-training workout.
There are no "sport specific" exercises as weight training for sports is nothing more than General Physical Preparedness (GPP). So the goal is to use the most efficient exercises in the weight room to develop these parts of the body. Athletes must develop things other than strength, and thus don't have hours and hours to spend in the weight room. At least they shouldn't.
An athlete must train speed, strength, agility, conditioning, and most important, skill work. If one were to spend too much time on one thing, other areas would be compromised. In the United States, especially with football, the weight room seems to take up the majority of the time.
If you're an athlete, you should be mobile enough to achieve the proper positions in the sport, and strong and explosive enough to move from those positions.
With any sport, the basic barbell lifts are the best and most efficient ways to train the entire body. These include the squat, deadlift, press, bench press, and power clean. Perform them with a full range of motion and proper loading and the athlete will become stronger. Pepper these exercises with assistance work and you'll have a complete strength-training program.
The Benefits of Assistance Work
The assistance work is where the strength coach and athlete can infuse a little creativity, but don't use this time as a free-for-all in terms of exercises. Assistance work for athletes should be used for the following:
- Muscle mass.
- Injury prevention – "pre-hab" – refers to an area of an athlete or his/her position that's often injured and needs some preventive medicine.
- Balance. Assistance exercises are chosen by their ability to balance the whole of the athlete. This would include upper back training, lat training, and abdominal/lower back, otherwise known as core training.
The right assistance work can fulfill these needs. This is training economy: getting the most out of the fewest exercises. And when training in the weight room, training economy is vital. If the exercise doesn't serve a function, leave it out.
The Right Assistance Work
Choosing the correct assistance work is easy. For athletes I recommend doing hamstring, single-leg, lat/upper back, abdominal, lower back, and in some cases, neck work. The lifts you choose are going to be entirely based on what you have access to as an athlete.
Remember that athletes have become explosive and strong long before fancy machines and equipment came into vogue. You don't need much equipment, just the right coach and smart programming.
If you've been injured, it's smart to do a couple sets of a proper exercise to help strengthen the area. If your sport or position is predisposed to a certain area of injury, adjust the assistance work to avoid an injury. For many athletes, shoulder, back, hamstring, and knee injuries are part of the culture. So hit these areas with glute ham raises, external rotation (internal rotator stretches), extra ab work, reverse hyperextensions, and back raises. Properly performed squats and single-leg work will help strengthen the areas around the knee to help prevent knee injuries.
The In-Season Workout
Not in the off-season? Do two workouts per week. The set up should look like this:
- Squat 5/3/1
- Bench Press 5/3/1
- Assistance Work
- Deadlift 5/3/1
- Press 5/3/1
- Assistance Work
In-season assistance work can be 3-4 exercises of 8-12 reps per workout. If you choose to keep power cleans in your training, you can do them on either day.
There's no greater feeling than going into the final games of the season and feeling strong. This will give you a physical edge over your opponent. More importantly, this will give you a mental edge, which is invaluable.
As an athlete time in the weight room can and should be used to develop other physical areas. This includes flexibility, mobility, jumping, and medicine ball throws, amongst other things. Look into the Parisi warm-up. An abbreviated version of it should start each workout. Have 3 or 4 variations handy and start each workout with one of them. Not only does this prepare the body for the upcoming workout, it can also address mobility problems. That's training economy at it's most basic. Additional mobility and flexibility work can be done in between the sets of the main exercises. Try hip and piriformis stretches between sets of squats to help address depth issues and hip mobility problems.
Between sets of upper body pressing, don't be afraid to stretch the internal rotators or do some kind of upper back or lat work. This will allow you to get more work done in a minimum amount of time.
Jumping and other explosive work should be done after the warm-up and before the strength work. When designing your program, look beyond just the sets and reps and exercises. Use this simple training template when preparing athletes:
- Speed This includes sprints, jumps, throws – anything explosive
- Strength This is any barbell work.
- Conditioning Any kind of conditioning that is appropriate for the sport and current fitness level of the athlete.
Done in this order, you prioritize the most important areas of athletics when you're fresh. Don't turn the speed/explosive work into conditioning, or you'll sabotage your strength work.
Be sure you get sufficient rest between maximum efforts. It's always better to do things better, not do things more. Save conditioning work for after the speed and strength work.
There's a never-ending urine stream of coaches and experts who lay claim to the "latest and greatest" and there's constant pressure to always use the newest ideas. I know this because I've experienced this pressure – you feel like you're in a turbulent Sea of Genius getting tossed around on your Idiot Raft, but before you abandon ship, let me give you a few pieces of advice.
Don't coach (yourself or others) what you don't know or don't feel comfortable with. You may read something that sounds great, but if you aren't sure of the information or application let it go. There's nothing more dangerous than applying a concept haphazardly and without knowledge.
Drop your Philosophical Anchor! If you don't have a core philosophy when training yourself, athletes, anyone, you'd better develop one. I don't care what it is, but you need to take a stand on the things you believe in. This doesn't happen overnight. I had to sift through years of training and reading to get to my own philosophy. There's big pressure for people to always be open to new ideas and that's fine – but you can't fall for everything. If you have a solid, well thought-out philosophy, you'll be able to learn new things and apply them to your current training without selling your soul.
Advice For Coaches
Learn to coach. Coaching is more than teaching – coaching is about getting your athletes to do the things you want them to do, in a language they understand. I've seen countless smart coaches fail miserably because they can't get their point across. Just because you know your stuff doesn't mean you know how to coach your athletes. There's no book or course to learn how to coach – you gotta' get your hands dirty.
No matter what sport you play or coach: boxing, MMA, basketball, lacrosse, football, baseball, whatever it is, the same principles of training apply. With the 5/3/1 program, this means the main lifts are done as the program is laid out and the assistance work is done with the athlete and sport in mind. For almost all sports, this entails work for the hamstrings, upper back, lats, and core. The only change made per sport/athlete is the exercises chosen for rehab and prehab. This is up to you, the athlete or coach, to determine. And that's pretty easy – just look at the training room and the injury roster. Now train in such a way to prevent those issues.
In the off-season, you can train 2, 3, or 4 days a week. The days don't matter as much as the principles that are applied. Once you've embraced the principles, you'll realize that everything falls into place. The minutia is no longer important.
When in doubt, remember this: get them mobile, get them strong, and get them fast. There are no hidden exercises. The secret lies in smart and simple programming.
(Note: this article was written for TNation many years ago
- the core philosophy of how I train and how I recommend training athletes is the same. We are always trying to improve on the programming and constantly trying to get better. Stagnation is death.)