What happens if you ignore the fact that strength is specific?
The other day, while in the center of town doing some shopping, I was approached by some tourists.
They wanted to know how to get to a local landmark. It was not a difficult route, and I quickly gave directions for how they could drive there. But as I turned to leave, they stopped me.
“Can we not walk there?” They wanted to know.
I paused, torn between giving an accurate answer and a useful one, which is a dilemma I often face as a science communicator.
“Technically yes, but it will take you a very long time,” I said, compromising. They looked quizzically back at their maps, and I took the opportunity to disappear politely.
Like many other things, this brief exchange made me think about how different strength coaches try and use strength training to help prepare athletes for sport.
How can we use strength training to help prepare athletes for sport?
When we use strength training to prepare for sport, we are ultimately trying to improve our ability to produce force *in the context of* a fast, and often repetitive athletic movement.
Reducing things to the simplest possible level, there are two quite different ways in which we can increase our ability to produce force in a sporting movement:
- Either we can increase muscle size by using training programs that increase muscle size, which indiscriminately improves the ability to produce force at most velocities, lengths, and contraction types (lengthening or shortening), albeit to differing extents,
- Or we can identify which specific types of strength we require (fast contraction speeds, short muscle lengths, lengthening contractions, etc.), and do strength training programs that improve those specific types of strength individually.
The usefulness of each of these methods differs, depending on whether the athletes we are working with have a long history of strength training, or are relative beginners.
How does the effect of strength training differ between beginners and trained individuals?
As a beginner, you can increase muscle size very quickly. This leads to strength gains that are very transferable to most similar movements.
(Yes, there are also fast improvements in the coordination of an exercise, and these contribute substantially to the strength gains that we measure, but that is a topic for another day.)
Consequently, almost any strength training program causes improvements in athletic ability in untrained people. The quick increases in muscle size cause large gains in force production when tested in almost any other context. And ultimately, movements like jumping and sprinting are just tests of high-velocity strength.
In contrast, as an intermediate lifter, or as an advanced lifter with several years of consistent strength training behind you, you are unable to gain very much muscle mass from one month to the next. Monthly improvements might be *just about* measurable with a weighing scale. Your ability to improve strength by increasing muscle size is quite limited.
Yet, the neuromuscular system remains highly adaptable in trained athletes, despite the inability to add muscular size. Such adaptations occur in response to specific types of strength training, and increase our ability to produce force only in certain situations (like high-velocity movements or during lengthening contractions).
In other words, to achieve meaningful strength gains for sporting movements in more advanced athletes, we need to learn how to apply the principle of specificity.
Ultimately, as an advanced lifter or athlete, aiming for specific strength gains is the fastest route to improve force production in sporting movements, not trying to add half a pound of muscle mass per month, distributed across the whole body.
What is the takeaway?
Strength coaches often ask me if they can just *ignore* the adaptations that enhance strength in ways that are specific to sporting movements.
They want to know if they can just focus on increasing muscle size, which should transfer well to force production in all contexts.
“Technically yes, but it will take you a very long time,” I say.