Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Strength is Not Specific

What is the weight room for, anyway?

by Mark Rippetoe | January 07, 2016

training the hokey pokey

The current fad in modern strength and conditioning is to make the exercises look like the sport in which you plan to use the strength while performing. This has kept lots of collegiate and professional athletes from performing at a higher level.

Here’s probably the most often-cited instance of this thinking: sports don’t use both legs planted against the ground at the same time. They use one leg at a time, “contralaterally” in alternation, and so it makes more sense to train for strength this way. Modern “functional” training uses single-leg exercises instead, and if you don’t use both feet on the ground at the same time with a symmetrical stance in your sport, why train this way?

Because the barbell squat makes you stronger than lunges, or any variation of lunges, or any variation of any kind of unilateral dumbbell exercise. That’s it. We squat to get strong, not to make our weight room work look like our sport.

What is the weight room for, anyway? Practice is the repeated execution of movements used in the performance of a competitive sport. Batting, pitching, free throws, ball skills in all ball sports, racquet skills in tennis, shooting in pistol, rifle, trap and skeet, and archery, mat skills in martial arts, and all sports movements that depend on accuracy and precision must be practiced.

Practice is where the motor pathways of the sport become embedded, and where the execution of the motor pathways becomes automatic enough to be relied upon under the pressure of competition. Practice is an obvious part of all sports.

Training, on the other hand, is the escalating physical preparation that must be undertaken to make the time spent in practice more productive. Be it strength or endurance, training prepares the body for the general physical aspects of practice by causing it to adapt to increasing levels of effort. This enables the specific skills obtained in practice to be expressed at their highest level.

If you’re a football player, training develops strength for repeated explosive efforts while you’re tired, and so that you can apply force from any position of balance that occurs on the field. If you’re an Olympic lifter, training for the snatch and the clean & jerk develops the strength necessary to pull heavy weights off the ground while accelerating the barbell for six single attempts at a meet. Both are strength training, but the details of the stress match the needs of the sport.

Effective training is not the same as effective practice, because training involves programmed increases in the level of stress – to produce a new level of general physical adaptation, while practice involves improved accuracy and precision through repeated execution of the same or similar movement patterns. In football, practice occurs on the field and training occurs in the weight room, whereas the weight room is the scene of both practice and training for the weightlifter, although the exercises are different.

In both cases, strength is the basis for the effective display of skill. Like literacy – you have to be able to read before you can read Nietzsche – strength is the basic preparation for more productive practice. (This is actually a gross understatement, for the vast majority of sports worthy of the name. Strength is the single most important part of training for most sports.)

So, the problem with making strength training exercises appear to mimic the movement patterns in which the strength will be used is twofold. First, you cannot get stronger by doing 50-pound one-legged squats. And if you cannot already do 50-pound one-legged squats, you should not be on the team anyway.

Second, these movements are not practice, because practice is specific to the performance conditions. You cannot practice throwing a 145-gram baseball by throwing a 200-gram baseball – you will throw the heavy ball differently, and thus not be practicing to throw the lighter ball. Likewise, the only thing one-legged squats on a balance ball makes you better at doing is one-legged squats on a balance ball.

This is not complicated. Strength is the basis of training for most sports. Strength is force production – the ability to move heavy weights. Practice is the repeated execution of a movement for precision and accuracy. Practice is sport-specific, and strength training is strength-specific. Squats, deadlifts, and presses build strength in the weight room, and practice is best done on the field.

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