Train for Functional Ability, Not “Explosiveness”

Parents would be wise to check on strength-and-conditioning protocols for their student athletes, no matter what age.

By Jay Primarolo 

It would be safe to say that every National Football League (NFL) fan is familiar with the name Saquon Barkley. This young football prodigy was a college sensation and performed on a level that can be accurately described as breath-taking in his first season in the NFL. Unfortunately, shortly into his 3rd season in the NFL, Barkley suffered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) ending his 2020 season. This is a common occurrence in the NFL and professional sports as a whole. But, why so common? Are they just unlucky? The answer lies in their faulty preparation methodology. Their off-season strength and conditioning efforts are not only having very little effect on their ability to perform, they are a large contribution to the rate of injury in not only professional sports, but collegiate and high school and even younger sports as well.

Strength and conditioning is one of the many facets of sports performance preparation. It is now taken very seriously among collegiate and professional sports. There is even a specific coach whose job it is to provide programs to the athletes and monitor them along the way. The coach’s job (so he thinks, erroneously) is to make the athletes as fast, strong, and explosive as possible. He does this because he believes that improving these factors of functional ability will have a profound effect on the athlete’s performance. This belief has inspired the implementation of “explosive” exercises like the hang clean, power clean, plyometics, agility ladders… and the list goes on. Unfortunately, the beliefs of these coaches are flat out wrong and not rooted in any sort of scientific evidence. Most of these exercises and drills are either doing nothing to improve the performance of the athlete, and in many cases affecting performance in a negative way and causing them to perform worse.

The enormous misunderstanding in professional and collegiate sports is that if you perform exercises which “look like” or are “similar to” movements you perform in your sport, the improvement in the performance of the exercise will translate to the improvement of the sport’s movement.

There are 5 general and trainable factors of functional ability: muscular strength, muscular size, cardiovascular efficiency, bone and connective tissue strength, and metabolic efficiency. These are trainable factors, meaning, exercise has a direct effect on improving them. Notice you don’t see the words “explosiveness,” “power,” or “speed,” That’s because these characteristics are a secondary effect of improving the 5 general, trainable factors – but combined with one other aspect: skill.

The enormous misunderstanding in professional and collegiate sports is that if you perform exercises which “look like” or are “similar to” movements you perform in your sport, the improvement in the performance of the exercise will translate to the improvement of the sport’s movement. This is WRONG. This can be explained by the Principle of Specificity. Motor learning research over the last several decades shows that your activities must be specific to a skill for maximal improvement to occur. Here, “specific” means “identical,” not “similar” or “just like.” A barbell squat may be similar to a vertical jump, or a bench press similar to blocking technique used by an NFL lineman, but barbell squats will only help you get better at barbell squats, and bench press will only help you get better at bench press.

Skill training should be the primary focus of the athlete.

These “functional exercises” have been indoctrinated into the minds of athletes over the last 10-20 years all due to a clever marketing gimmick to sell subpar equipment and silly exercise classes. A lot of the popularity of “functional exercise” also has to do with selection bias. Basically, you’ve got a huge sample size of people using these silly training techniques. This includes the top-level athletes and winningest teams. When the athlete or team performs well, many people give credit to their strength-and-conditioning program. The problem is, nobody takes into consideration the thousands of other athletes and hundreds of other sports teams implementing the same training approach, but with very little success. Observers also don’t take into consideration various other factors that contributed to the success of the individual or the team. Emulating the behaviors of high-level athletes is usually a step in the wrong direction because the individual’s genetics are mostly responsible for his or her success. As such, star athletes are mostly born, they are not made despite the appeal of that fantasy.

The proper approach that athletes should be taking is to completely separate exercise from sports specific skills. Your strength-and-conditioning program as an athlete should follow evidence-based approaches: training each major muscle group intensely using joint congruent movements, all while focusing on rest and recovery to allow the adaptation to occur. Basic, multi-joint movements done through a modest range of motion with a slow and controlled lifting and lowering cadence is the most effective and safe way to improve the 5 general trainable factors of functional ability. Not to mention, it will largely reduce the chance of injury in the training room to potentially 0%. Keeping an athlete safe is far more important than improving his or her “speed” or “power.” What use are those improvements if the athlete is injured and can’t perform on the field of court?

Skill training should be the primary focus of the athlete. If the strongest and fastest people of the world were the most successful at a given sport, then the NFL would be composed of all Olympic weight-lifters and strong men along with Olympic sprinters, which, as we know, is clearly not the case. The athlete’s ability to perform sports specific skills is the most important factor in sports performance. The ability to catch or shoot a ball, pass, dribble, serve, etc. will all contribute to the athlete’s success FAR more than improving “explosiveness.”  Athletes should choose a safe and time-efficient strength-and-conditioning protocol utilizing High Intensity Training principles so they can spend the majority of their time working on sports specific skills to be the best athlete they can be.

Jay Primarolo is owner of BioFit Personal Training Studio (biofitny.com) in Saratoga County, New York. As a certified personalized trainer, he specializes in using science-based High Intensity Exercise and nutrition counseling for improvements in physical health and fitness, injury and disease prevention/treatment, weight loss, and strength-and-conditioning of all age groups and physical conditions. 

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