The concept of sports specific training is rapidly growing in the health and fitness industry. There are specific programs dedicated to golf, baseball, football, soccer, and more. Now, I know the demands of those sports are different and require different abilities, but does that mean their programs should look dramatically different from one another, or even from the average exercise program? In this blog, we are going to dive into some concepts that may challenge what the industry is trying to SELL to the consumer.

First, let us talk about the human body since most of you reading this blog are humans. The human body has rules and physiology that are common amongst individuals. Even though the physiological traits (we have bones, muscles, organs, etc.) are common from person to person, they are, in fact, extremely different (joint shape, bone lengths, and muscular abilities) and have different needs at the same time (almost a paradox of statements, I know). I want to start with looking on the inside (Resistance Training Specialist by Tom Purvis). Concentrating on a very basic view of how the joints individually work in the body takes away all the glory of what awe-inspiring activity a person may be doing. Looking at hip flexion and extension is not as sexy as watching someone dunking a basketball, hitting a home run, or throwing a touchdown pass; however, all those awesome movements are accomplished by what is going on within our joints! From a skeletal and muscular perspective, the movement is accomplished the same way, whether standing up out of a chair or attempting a broad jump. The difference is obviously the demand (weight, speed, etc.) that each of those movements requires.

Let’s take the basic concept of a hip joint. A healthy hip joint should be able to move throughout its available range of motion. So, if we look at one motion of the hip, like hip flexion (leg coming towards the belly), and we only saw the bones moving (6th sense, “I see dead people”), we would not be able to tell if the person doing the action was running, kicking a ball, or just walking upstairs. All your body (nervous system, skeletal system, and muscular system) knows is that you desire to accomplish a task or goal at hand and those systems are providing the solution to the problem or task you are presenting. The ability of those systems is what determines our success in accomplishing physical tasks.

A great analogy I learned from the Resistance Training Program was the concept of baking a cake without all of the ingredients (skill set and proper muscle function). Our clients are coming to us with all the ingredients (working or not working pieces), and we should not be asking them or expecting them to make a cake without the proper ingredients. They only get to use what they have at that moment (oh, how I wish we could matrix ourselves and our clients and just automatically download stuff to our brains and bodies!). If we ask our bodies to do something they currently are not capable of doing, our nervous system will then, on the fly, mix in other ingredients that it finds as the next best solution.

The problem with asking the body to do things with its next-best options is that we can create more problems rather than good adaptations. But what does this have to do with sport specific training? I’m glad you asked! It has everything to do with sport specific training. All movements, whether participating in a sport or just picking up the laundry, are accomplished by the amazing design and integration of our joints and muscles!

Professional athletes are truly blessed with highly functioning muscular and skeletal systems, and also must have some sort of work ethic and dedication to physical tasks. What I have begun to see is that many athletes are not able to meet their dreams because of physical problems or injuries sustained due to poor training philosophies that did not customize exercise strategies to the individuals. The result is that only those who are able to tolerate the sports specific, explosive, and a high-intensity model created by the fitness industry end up succeeding. This model has produced physical specimens for sure! But, what about all those athletes who were lost along the way? Is there something that could have been done in the beginning or along the way to help them keep going?

I have a theory that youngsters and weekend warriors are constantly training at levels that are causing more problems than progress. How do I define progress? It’s not just how fast you are today, how much you can bench, or how much body fat. All of those are solid objective measures, but I’m looking more at how specific joints move and how those joints control different types of tasks. I’m not just looking at the weight stack, dumbbell, kettlebell, or tire moving, which is what I call object focus. I want to know how in-tune an individual is to be able to do very specific tasks with their muscular system.

In the object focus system, the individual is only focused on the task and completing several reps, or distance. This can and has been done at the expense of physical pain, or injury. When we change our focus to internal focus (muscle contraction and joint position), the experience and outcome are dramatically different.

I have had the privilege of working with several Dallas Cowboys and other professional athletes. One of the biggest reasons they are coming to see me is to find a way to feel better and not be in so much pain or discomfort. These athletes are the ones who made it, despite all the pounding they put their bodies through, on and off the field. Yet, even though they are physical specimens, they are some of the most dysfunctional people in terms of being able to have focused muscular effort.

As I take these athletes through their exercise program, I discovered that most of them have no ability to maintain a slow and focused muscular contraction. Huge athletes who can bench press and squat a house cannot move minimal weight with control and are absolutely gassed when we do a set of 10 reps with focused muscular contraction. After a couple of exercises, the athlete usually asks me why this is so hard with such little weight. I tell them that the reason they are struggling to control low weight is that all they have ever done is train explosively. All their training and skill development has centered around power and explosiveness, which is something that should be included in a professional athlete’s exercise program. My question is, to what extent? I believe many of their issues or complaints lie in the fact that they have never entered into a program that focused on control of muscular contraction and joint positioning.

How can this be? Great question! I don’t think there is one answer. I do believe a piece of the problem is that we have an epidemic of people simultaneously engaging in sports on the field and sports in their exercise program. Sports on the field are your typical sports; where participants are trying to run faster, hit the ball farther, and so on. This is all done via our whole body (integrated) doing all it can, as fast and powerful as it can to accomplish the task. The consequence of such movement being done so much is that there are inherent risks of participation ( the reason why we have sports medicine) and potential long-term joint/muscular damage.

Now, sports on the field in and of themselves is one component. The other component that is leading to the problem is how sports have translated into the exercise realm (yes, there are realms). I don’t know how this all originated, but I think the rational thought was, “hey, look at Adrian Peterson. He works out hard. I want to do what he is doing so I can be just like him.” That seems harmless, right? I mean, it would make sense that if it worked for Adrian, it would work for me. But, how many Adrian Petersons are there? I’m sure that there are dozens of people who can train as hard as Adrian, but how many of them achieved or did what he has done? Adrian is special and can do things that us ordinary people cannot. He has been blessed with a musculoskeletal system that can do extremely difficult tasks better than 99% of people in the world. Based on amazing genetics, I would argue that you could do many different strategies with an athlete like Adrian and he would still accomplish what he has so far.

Sorry, got me on a soapbox; back to the topic. Youngsters are engaging at an early age in very rigorous sports and at the same time exercise routines. Kids are doing exercises that look like their sport and loading them with extra weight. There is a saying in the functional training industry that says doing an exercise that “mimics” or looks like the sport is what you need to do. A problem with this thought is that we should be using exercise to enhance the pieces of the body. Make the knee better at being a knee. Make the hip and spine better at being a hip and spine! Isn’t that obvious? Remember what I said near the beginning that the body will use only what it has and will use multiple secondary options in place of the best option? When we are doing integrated or functional exercises, we are not really improving one thing or able to target one specific thing, but your body will use what it is best at to accomplish the task. This will only enhance the body’s secondary options. Instead of creating better functioning individual joints, the body improves in the ability to compensate to complete the sport specific movement which creates more dysfunction in the body, leading to decreased performance.

If we want specific things to get better, stronger, and more stable (which will increase performance in sports and life), we must prescribe specific exercises. Tom Purvis has a great analogy for this: it would be like 100 people with different symptoms and problems going to the doctor/pharmacist and having the same drug prescribed to all of them. We all agree, that would constitute as malpractice and would not make sense. The growing body of a kid needs even more very specific control of the skill of using their body correctly. The gym should be like a professional race car garage. Before and after a race, the car gets taken to the garage and lots of tests get run on the car and they make sure every aspect of the car is specifically enhanced. Our bodies need the same attention in the gym.

The problem is that we have become accustomed and indoctrinated in what exercise should feel and look like. The major fitness fads out there are prescribing a one-size-fits-all, no-pain-no-gain sacrifice of personal safety for the sake of achieving what is being sold to them as the goal. We must break this concept if we want young people to be able to participate more fully in life and athletics, not just in school or professional, but the rest of their lives!

My opinion is that sports provide the individual with the explosive and skill training that is required to perform that sport. The exercise program should be geared towards improving the individual pieces of the body. This means that you have specific exercises planned to address the individual’s needs (goals and areas that need to be improved). At Muscle Activation Fitness, we go through a very thorough consultation and evaluation to help come up with this plan. We know every person comes in with different structures and needs and they need to be addressed differently. There is not a workout of the day for all of our clients, as each client has different abilities and needs that have to be addressed specifically in order for them to pursue their best! That is the difference between a personalized program versus a workout of the day that everyone needs to follow.

So, in closing, whether young or old, sports and exercise are separate but related things. If we can create a specific exercise strategy to improve an individual’s body piece by piece (knee, hip, back, shoulders, etc.), they will have much greater success in being able to tolerate what their sport is asking them to do. The more the exercise routine continues to look like sports, the more compensation gets reinforced, forcing people out of sports due to overuse injuries non-related to the risk of playing that sport.

Here is a very funny yet to-the-point video of functional training that I feel makes a great point.

Here are a couple testimonials from our clients at Muscle Activation Fitness, who were taking part in sport on the field and exercise. Look at how specifically training to improve the pieces of their body helped them improve their athletic performance as well as their overall quality of life.

“After seeing many doctors, Jordan was diagnosed with compressed nerves, in his right shoulder. He was in therapy for four months and his condition never got better. He was in pain, and his hand and fingers were going numb. He was out of sports during that time, in which he thought, he would never play again. The doctor said he may have to look at the possibility of removing a rib. It wasn’t but a couple of sessions with Glenn doing MAT, my grandson Jordan, was getting better. This was absolutely a miracle. After about a month, he was back participating in sports. He is playing varsity basketball, and going into his junior year, in the fall. He was just put on a watch list for a D1 college.”

Mark Kapiloff (Jordan’s Grandfather) 

“I have been working with Jake for about 3 years. I’m a competitive 53 year old CrossFitter and his services have been invaluable to me. Muscle Activation has been able to help me with problems that no other treatment methods could. Not only does he keep me moving well, I have actually gotten much stronger in the areas that needed it most. I have recommended him to athletes at my gym, co-workers, and many others who have movement related pains or limitations. He’s the best!”

Jeff Lynch  

Check out our testimonials page for more stories and examples of how specific training can help improve your life!*

*There is no guarantee of specific results and the results can vary

Thanks for reading!
Glenn Haugk
Co-Owner, Director of Education at Muscle Activation Fitness