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Physical Conditioning versus Athletic Skill Training, by Matthew Romans

Programming is at the very heart of what we do as exercise professionals. An exercise program is a plan of action for helping the client to achieve their goal, and should be tailored to meet the needs of the individual, albeit while working within a guiding philosophy. This holds true whether we are talking about designing a strength training routine, or if we're working with an athlete in terms of specific skill conditioning for sport. If the exercises in the strength training routine do not properly track muscle and joint function, or place the client in unnecessary danger, you are doing that person a grave disservice. Further, skill conditioning needs to be as specific as possible to the nature of the sport in which the athlete participates.

The purpose of specificity is to ensure that the client/athlete works to build skill in the nature of the sport he or she is pursuing. There are three types of skill transfer: positive, negative, and indifferent. Positive transfer occurs when the activities of practice and performance are identical. Negative transfer occurs when the activities of practice and performance are close, but not the same. Indifferent transfer occurs when the activities of practice and performance are completely unrelated. Let's say that you were working with a basketball player that wanted to improve his free throw shooting. In order for positive skill transfer to occur, the player would need to shoot a regulation-sized ball at a basket that is regulation height, and at a distance of fifteen feet away, just as he would in a game. Negative skill transfer would occur if the basket were the same height and the free throw line was the same, but the player used a women's basketball rather than a men's ball. This creates skill confusion, as the closer two skills are to one another without being exact, the further away they are in your mind's perception. Indifferent skill transfer would occur if you had the basketball player toss a bean bag at a cornhole target. These two skills are completely unrelated, so it does nothing to help improve free throw percentage.

Many years ago I worked for a company that specialized in training high school, collegiate, and some professional athletes. Another trainer at the same facility had worked with Alonzo Mourning, at the time a member of the Miami Heat, a few years earlier. I learned that this trainer had Mourning shoot free throws with a weighted basketball, much heavier than a regulation ball. As it turned out, during this particular season Mourning shot the lowest free throw percentage of his career up to that point. The likely reason is that this activity resulted in negative skill transfer. Although shooting a weighted ball seems just like shooting a regulation ball, the increased weight of the weighted ball made it seem in his mind's perception that he was performing two different skills.

The principle of specificity gives exercise instructors a guide to work with in designing a program. When you are testing someone, or preparing an athlete to be tested, the training should be specific for that test. For example, if you are working with a prospective NFL football player to prepare for the Scouting Combine, you want to have him perform drills on which he will be tested. One such test is to perform the barbell bench press exercise for as many repetitions you can complete with 225 pounds. It would not make sense to have your athlete prepare for this test by performing with dumbbells, as that is a completely separate skill. You should strive to have the barbell, weights, and bench as close to, if not identical, to what he will use at the Combine. As mentioned in the article "Applications of Training Specificity for Coaches and Athletes", 2006, "The greatest degree of improvement in muscle function following training must be when modality closely matches training movement." While specificity certainly applies when it comes to weight training, I think it's important to understand that there are two types of conditioning: skill conditioning and general conditioning. Skill conditioning applies to a specific skill or sport at which you are trying to improve. Practicing scales on a piano or trying to master a certain passage would be an example of this. General conditioning occurs when you are trying to increase strength, flexibility, cardiovascular and metabolic endurance, and improve resistance to injury. These are the goals of properly-performed strength training, and important considerations include muscle and joint function, force, speed of movement, entry and exit of machines, volume, frequency, and intensity.

I think it is also important to distinguish weight training from weight lifting. Weight training should be safe, and its goal is to build strength by performing gross motor movements that track muscle and joint function. Weight lifting, on the other hand, is very much skill-based and involves more fine motor, and often explosive movements. A great deal of throwing and catching of weights is involved here, as you can witness by observing Olympic-style lifting. It also carries a high risk of injury, which one who participates in this sport assumes and understands, however, for the purposes of general conditioning and building strength, is a bad idea. I would also like to point out that the above-mentioned article had many points that I agree with, but one fallacy in particular. It made mention of "purely anaerobic training." This is bogus. There is no such thing, as you cannot completely shut off the aerobic or anaerobic pathways in any activity. Certain activities may involve a significant portion of one pathway over the other, but neither one is completely shut off. Slow-speed, high intensity weight training is the most effective way to train both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, as once the intensity of the exercise increases, the aerobic pathway realizes that the anaerobic system must be brought into play, and working to muscular failure ensures that the fast twitch muscle fibers will be sufficiently taxed.

So how would I approach the idea of working with an NBA basketball player? From a specific skill conditioning standpoint, I would work closely with the coaching staff to find out what exact drills they would do in training camp to test and/or build skill, and I would replicate them as closely as I could. As with anything, I would dutifully regulate the variables of frequency, intensity, and duration, but also make adjustments to any or all of those variables in the case of injury. Incorporating some measurement of vertical jump would be pertinent, as this is most relevant to basketball. I would supervise the player while he played pickup basketball, since pickup ball has the most similarity to playing in an official game, and also try to regulate the amount of minutes he plays. As far as weight training workouts are concerned, there isn't all that much that I would do differently with a basketball player than I would do with a lacrosse player. Muscle and joint function in all human beings is remarkably similar, so the key is to select exercises that will strengthen all the major muscle groups efficiently without overtaxing recovery ability. Strength training frequency will depend upon the additional workload that the player is experiencing, and less frequent weight training workouts may be in order. In my experience, less is often more. Strength training should be looked upon just like medication; we want the minimum dosage necessary to elicit the desired effect. Work intensely, but briefly, and move quickly from one exercise to the next after achieving muscular failure. One main difference that I might incorporate into a basketball player's routine would be regular performance of the calf raise exercise, in order to give extra attention to the ankle joint.

Overall, it's important to know your client/athlete, and to ask questions about their daily routines, nutrition, sleep habits, and other demands on their time and energy, as this input helps them to feel invested in what you're doing to help them, but also to give you material to work with in terms of crafting their exercise/conditioning program. Get to know them and their personality, and that will help you to get inside their heads and figure out how best to teach and motivate them.

Posted February 04, 2021 by Tim Rankin