Saturday, April 25, 2009

General Conditioning, Specificity and Funcitonal training

There have been some great comments on this debate on recent posts. Please make sure that you read the comments if you are interested in this stuff. Thanks to everyone for their comments.

In particular John Sifferman's comment pointing to his post: Specificity in Training - How much carry-over does weight lifting have in real life? Will your time under the iron help you on the field, on the mat, or in the ring? is really worth reading.

I hope he doesn't mind re re-posting it here:

I have read numerous studies that have concluded that specific weight lifting activities have very little, if any, carry-over to athletic activities. It sounds crazy, I know. Believe me, I was pretty skeptical when I started reading these research abstracts myself. How could getting stronger hinder an athletes performance? Isn’t it the biggest, strongest, fastest athletes that are always the best? These questions were racing through my mind, and I had to ask myself, “how much does my training help me perform?”

I read research testing bench pressing strength and it’s applicability to football linebackers. I read research testing 10RM squats and its impact on high jumpers. I read a LOT of research, and what I found shocked me. In every research study that I dug up, there was very little, if any, carry-over to sports performance from weight training. Let me say that again. Lifting weights did NOT have an impact on sports performance.

That fact hit me like a lead brick. I had been lifting weights since I was 11 years old - and there was no way I wanted to think that all my work wouldn’t transfer to a better athletic performance in any activity.

Once the dust of confusion settled, and I decided to take an objective look at everything I knew at the time, something suddenly began to make sense. It all became clearer when I was told “everything is an act of conditioning.” The second half of that is that “all conditioning is specific to the activity performed” for conditioning.

Said another way, everything we do will condition us SPECIFICALLY for a given activity. Now this begins to make more sense. If you want to get better at pullups, do pullups. If you want to squat more, keep adding more weight to the bar and training with it. If you want to be a better boxer, practice your jabs, hooks, and footwork. But don’t perform the best deadlift program in the world and expect it to help you wrestle any better. To get better at anything, to have your training carry over to your life, you need to PRACTICE specifically for those activities.

Now, I still believe that such a thing as “general conditioning exists.” However, in order for it to transfer over to a better performance, in life or sport, it must be specific to that activity. Sure, I can get in generally better shape for dancing by dancing more, or doing cardio training that will help my VO2 MAX improve.

However, you cannot run, swim, or bike all the time and expect it to help you row on a crew team. Even if you’re well conditioned for a triathlon, put yourself into a different activity like rowing or powerlifting, and your conditioning will be zero for that activity.

And it’s also impossible to train for anything and everything. We just can’t do it all. Some fitness systems were created to train for everything, for the unknown. What you get every time is a group of people that are very well conditioned for a certain activity, or activities, and very poorly conditioned for anything outside of the context of that fitness system.

So, we must choose the principle of specificity instead of just doing general training. That’s the take-home message. I hope to explore this topic more in the future as my own understanding continues to evolve. Of course, I would be welcome to a discussion, please leave your comments below.


SB said...

In every research study that I dug up, there was very little, if any, carry-over to sports performance from weight training. Let me say that again. Lifting weights did NOT have an impact on sports performance.We have to be very careful of one thing, though: restriction of range. Is that an issue in this research?

Let me explain: If you were going to look at whether 40-yard dash speed correlates perfectly with football ability, then if you looked at the whole population of people, you'd find a pretty good correlation. People who can sprint 40 yards in 4-something seconds are going to be better football players than fat people who can barely waddle the distance. But if you look just at a restricted range -- say, at players who are already in the NFL -- you might not find a very good correlation. That's because when everyone is already at the peak of ability, whether they run a 4.3 or a 4.35 isn't going to be the defining characteristic any more.

I'd bet the same is true with weight training. If you're looking at who's a good soccer player, and you just look at pro soccer players, there might not be a correlation between weight training ability (strength) and soccer ability at that point. But that doesn't mean strength is irrelevant: look at the broad range of people, and I bet you'd find that people who can squat 250 pounds are better soccer players (on average) than people who can't even squat down with their own body weight without falling down.

Ian said...

To use the example in the post - let's assume I am a competent wrestler with good wrestling skills but against my contemporaries it is obvious that I am weak - I am not strong enough to compete.

What am I going to do to get stronger?

Chris said...

i still think people are not getting this.

The stronger athlete will always be at an advantage. Weight training will make you stronger.

But of two wrestlers of similar strength it is the more skilled that will win.

This whole debate is not saying that strength is unimportant. Strength is very important. However it doesn't carry over directly to your activity. You need to practice the skills.

Chris said...

Interesting point form SB there too.

John Sifferman - Real World Strength Training said...

Thanks for the link Chris!

I think SB makes a good point about research in general. We always need to check on the scope of whom is being tested.

Most of the studies I've read were testing specific athletes and the possible transfer of weight training to sport-specific skills - like high jumpers, shot putters, linebackers, etc.

Ian, the key to strength training effectively to improve sports performance is to move from General Physical Preparation to Specific Physical Preparation to Activity Specific Physical Preparation, and peaking at Mental/Emotional preparedness (which plays a huge role in a full contact sport like wrestling or MMA).

The transitions between these levels should be seamless, but the specific sports skills that the athlete is trying to improve (like a hockey slapshot or baseball pitch) must NOT be simulated in strength training. Instead, exercises should be selected that STIMULATE aspects of the movement, without coming so close to the actual sport skill as to SIMULATE it. The nervous system will meld the two skills (1st = strength exercise, 2nd = sports skill) together, and sports performance will suffer.

So, in order to improve specific strength for our activities - we need to stimulate the movement patterns involved, not simulate the sports skill itself.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

I think we should reframe the question here to one of power output within the desired time reference, as this is what really determines who, between equally skilled/talented athletes, will be the better performer. Strength is only one aspect of the overall power equation; an important aspect, no doubt, but still just one aspect.

Anonymous said...

What you posted was 100% true in my own life. I lifted weights, swum, and cycled in addition to my sport, XC running. Whenever I tried to do anything other than these sports I felt like my metabolic, and more perplexing, my strength conditioning was zero. However, after finding CrossFit, this changed. It has had a carryover benefit to everything imaginable. I don't know why, but it just does.

Anonymous said...

"...the specific sports skills that the athlete is trying to improve (like a hockey slapshot or baseball pitch) must NOT be simulated in strength training. Instead, exercises should be selected that STIMULATE aspects of the movement, without coming so close to the actual sport skill as to SIMULATE it. The nervous system will meld the two skills (1st = strength exercise, 2nd = sports skill) together, and sports performance will suffer."

Whoa! If that is true, then why do infantrymen carry heavy backpacks during forced marches? why do fireman train with weighted vests? Doesn't carrying a pack simulate.... carrying a pack? I'm not saying boxers should punch with small dumbbells in hand, if thats what the author means. We know that will kill the joints. But 'coming close to the actual sports skill' with resistance seems like exactly what is done to increase performance!

Chris said...

carrying a pack doesn't simulate carrying a pack....carrying a pack is carrying a pack. it is as specific as you get.

people aren't getting this. I think neither I nor the people I am quoting are explaining it well

John Sifferman - Real World Strength Training said...

theorytopractice is right, power output does play a role in sports skills improvement, but just like strength, it isn't the only conditioning attribute. Some research studies have looked specifically at power output in relation to sports performance.

I think training should be comprised in this way, like a pyramid: health should be at the bottom making the foundation, mobility is the next layer up (if you can't move that way, you certainly won't apply strength that way), functionality is the next level, in that training should actually be applicable to your life and sport, then we have attributes on the 4th level (this is where strength, endurance, power, etc.), and then physique is on top of the pyramid. It would be impossible to conduct research that tests development in all of these categories, so we'll have to piece what little research we have together to draw our theories and conclusions.

This is a VERY heavy subject, and I've found it's also very opinionated from coach to coach. Sure, every coach has his opinion based on his experiences with athletes, but that's not enough. Coaches have theories, and GOOD researchers have proof - and I know there is a lot of bad research out there, anyone who looks at it will tell you that.

Chris, it would probably take a whole book to cover this subject in depth, especially in an easily digestible way. I think we're covering it pretty well for anyone who is following your blog consistently.

If someone is interested in getting some real answers to these questions, I'd recommend Thomas Myers book, Anatomy Trains, as a start.

Best regards,

John Sifferman

Chris said...

Cheers John - Myers' book is excellent.

Anonymous said...

I have an anecdote to share regarding the transference of an exercise gain to a sports skill, for whatever it's worth...

I have never been a very good golfer, but recently have been trying to improve my game. As of last fall, I could barely drive the ball 200 yds, despite not being a particularly weak person (300# deadlift @ 155# BW).

Over the winter, I worked out at a local Crossfit facility where I spent time learning and working with kettlebells. I was interested in knowing whether heavy kettlebell swings would have any carry-over to the golf swing. I figured that the KB swings might strengthen my grip and shoulder stabilizers, allowing me drive the ball farther.

Well, I have been quite pleased to find that I am driving the ball much farther than ever before -- around 250-260 yards (a 25% increase). This after doing NO golfing whatsoever during the winter. My body feels very different during the swing -- much more balanced and connected. Incidentally, my drives are much straighter now as well -- I used to slice the heck out of the ball; now I rarely slice it and even hook it occasionally.

I *believe* that it was the kettlebell swings that lead to my improved golf swing. However, I am doubtful that kettlebell swings made any certain muscles *stronger*. I.e., I don't think that the improvements are due to stronger rhomboids or something like that, and that any exercise that would strengthen the rhomboids (like reverse flys, for instance) would have had the same effect on my golf swing.

I believe it is more likely that swinging progressively heavier bells lead to improved coordination and balance, which allowed me to channel my already existing strength into a golf swing. Or maybe the kettlebell swings improved my ability to generate power from my hips and transfer it to my arms. (Is that just another way of saying it improved my coordination?)

My take-away from this is experience is that whether a given exercise will improve one's performance in a sports skill is very individualized. I cannot say that kettlebell swings will add distance to EVERYONE'S drive -- it will probably only work for relatively uncoordinated people who are having difficulty channeling their pre-existing strength into the swing. My brother-in-law, who has a beautiful, powerful swing and can hit the ball over 300 yards, would probably not benefit much from kettlebell work (but this is just a guess...)


Bryce said...


Don't get too frustrated. I was a little confused at first, but I feel I understand now, so at least one person is getting what you're talking about.

Part of what I didn't understand, but I feel I do now, is:

In essence, using a diverse blend of strengthening exercises to become stronger could help me have a more effective baseball swing, due to the power I could generate, but I shouldn't expect mastery of cable wood chops, or of med ball slams, to carry over to better technique in the swing. Is that about right?

I think the lesson here is to pick the exercises you do carefully, and with good reason. The more specified the movement, the more you have to ask yourself "why do I want to be good at this?"

Some examples for me are:
The deadlift (of course!). I want to be good at it so I can use it to safely grow stronger. It's a pretty general movement, with a groove similar (but not identical) to many things, so being good at it probably won't hurt my ability to move trees or furniture. Being good at it will enable me to safely increase the load over time, facilitating general strength/hypertrophy gains.

The Press to Hand stand and pistol are a bit different, I think. Though they both train great strength, they are both very specified movements, and being good at them will probably have less carry over to other general areas (at least in my opinion). Though I do think they are good strengthening movements, I want to be good at them simply because they are fun, because they look cool, and because having the skill to do them means I can always get a quick upper/lower body workout in at high resistence anywhere.

Oh, and Ben, your experience might be similar to my deadlift analogy (on the other functional strength debate post on Chris's blog). I said that deadlifting taught me how to approach an object and lift it safely, even if they groove was different. The same thing might apply here. The swings may have given you added grip/hip strength, but they may also have taught you how to use your hips and relax your arms, allow the power to flow from the feet to the hands. If you try to muscle a kettlebell, it won't swing right. Same thing with a golf club. You generate power with the hips, and then just let it move ...

Jon said...

This article that you have posted up seemed to only support a previous blog post you had up:, it seems to have a heavier support for Mark Twight and Rob Shaul's training method of "You have to train long, to go long." and "There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch."