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Two Extreme Training Myths

Do you have the right training plan to prepare for a tournament?

When it comes to strength and conditioning, there is a big need to debunk two training extremes:  Training specificity and cross training. 


    Training “specificity” has become a hot topic lately, and simply says that you need to mimic the exact motions of the sport to get better at the sport.  This makes sense to a point, but many people have gone overboard by saying that anything else, including weight training, is a waste of time.  This has become especially prevalent in a few extreme baseball schools of thought.  For example, pitchers who don’t believe in lifting weights, or position players using pulley machines to mimic their swing in a slow, controlled manner.  The argument of the latter is that you are strengthening those exact specific muscles used to swing.

    Sure, you may slightly strengthen those muscles, but you are also messing with a very complex, learned, neuromuscular pattern by mimicking a swing.  Additionally, performing this movement in a slower manner (which it will always be, if resisted) can lead to a slower swing, since a slower pattern is being reinforced.  This is the same reason that using resisted weights on a bat (a doughnut) right before stepping into the batter’s box has been shown to actually lead to a subsequent slower swing (granted, at the top levels, the mental aspect may be worth it).  Some have theorized that this is due to fatigued muscles from the weighted bat, however what’s more likely, is that the pattern is being performed slower from swinging a significantly heavier bat.  In most of these studies, the amount of swings taken with a heavier bat is hardly enough to “fatigue the muscles.”  The fact is, when it comes to training a complex, neuromuscular pattern, it is more advantageous to instead strengthen the entire body, rather than mess with a specific pattern.  Overall bodily strengthening then transfers to the specific motion at hand because of the gained potential to develop more power.

    Here is a great handball example I have been asked before- “Would it be beneficial to play handball wearing a 20 lb. weighted vest?”  If your goal is simply to burn more calories, or get a workout, then yes, but if your goal is to improve your

A weighted fitness vest: Use for boot camps and pull-ups,
but please not for handball!

handball game, the answer is no.  In the long-run you’ll just get good at moving around the court 20 lbs. slower (in the short-run it would just be a waste of time, and extra sweat).  Sure, you may “feel” faster when you remove the vest, but you’re not getting anywhere.  What is the goal here?  Is it to strength the muscles used to move?  If so, there are much more superior ways to strengthen the body, especially the legs and core, so important in moving well, through weight training.  Moving slower around the court in a vest won’t equate to moving better or hitting the ball harder (as it’s a very fast, complex pattern).  Lastly, know that mechanics do rule above all, even though sufficient strength and mobility are necessary for good mechanics as well as injury prevention.

    Let’s take a look at the other extreme, cross-training.  Cross-training is a broad term that encompasses any training besides the particular sport at hand (i.e. handball), and is usually done in a “conditioning” aspect.  Spinning for hours, running half-marathons, or even swimming are common methods of cross-training.  While cross-training has its place depending on one’s goal or where they stand in their tournament schedule, the “conditioning” aspect is being made a lot more complicated here than it needs to be.  Not all endurance is created equal.  If it were, Lance Armstrong would not only have been the best biker in the world, but also would have dominated in any marathon, swimming endurance competition, triathlon, etc.  He also would be able to “endure” my lectures in weight training class, which no one has been able to stay fully awake for yet!

    While he was one of the best on the bike (specific), he would be no match for the top marathon runners and swimmers in the world.  They have become very efficient at their particular motion, and their endurance is tied right into that movement pattern.

    Here’s a baseball example: traditionally pitchers have always run distance for endurance training.  This started before we knew much about strength training, as it was seen as the best way to “strengthen” the legs.  We now know better

Cardio Training:  While putting in the extra time on the treadmill may improve your cardio,
it won’t necessarily equate to better court endurance.

ways to strengthen the legs, and we know that too much slow aerobic work is actually counterproductive to strength- the body’s muscle fibers become less explosive and it becomes advantageous for the body to shed muscle.  Not good for a powerful pitching motion on the mound.  Additionally, consider that many power pitchers, such as C.C. Sabathia, are starting pitchers.  Does one really think he’d be a better pitcher, have better “endurance” in other words, if he ran distance?  Their endurance on the mound is specific and complex- too complex in fact to break apart and think we can cross-train effectively.  The best way to develop pitching endurance is to simply pitch bullpens.  That’s right, I don’t care if they’re able to run a sub-five-minute mile, if their body has adapted to throwing 150 pitches on their high bullpen days, that’s about where they’ll start to fatigue in games.  Their endurance will be specific to the motion at hand.

    Don’t get me wrong, having a few sessions a week of light aerobic work can help assist in recovery and help maintain an aerobic base.  But be careful about going overboard, because handball is as much about power as it is endurance, and research has conclusively shown that too much aerobic work hinders power production.  So if you’re trying to get in handball shape, stick to handball specifically as your main means of conditioning.  Keep in mind that handball specificity doesn’t necessarily mean actually playing.  If you have the ambition this could mean movement intervals of lateral shuffles on the court, quick 3-4 step bursts, etc., but make sure to rest similarly to what you would in a game.  Or, even better, don’t complicate it- practice often and play someone who will run you around the court for your “handball conditioning.”  After having developed a good aerobic base, don’t get much more aerobic than what playing simply requires.

What if you already play a ton and still want to improve your conditioning? 
Let me answer that question with a better question: if you’re already playing a ton, is it a lack of conditioning that’s holding you back? 
Would improving your conditioning really make you a better player in this case? 
Or would you be wiser to spend that time practicing shots on the court, playing multiple games in a row to mimic tournaments, and devoting 2-4 days of the week to weight training?

    Finally, one might say, “well it can’t hurt, can it?”  Actually, it can in terms of resourcefulness.  The more you do, the less you’ll get out of each modality.  A guy like Jimmy Costigan might have been able to bike from Denver to Boulder and win a handball tournament, but besides simply being one of a kind, the fact remains that the less fatigued you are from cross-training while tournaments approach, the harder you can push yourself on the court.  So if your top training priorities are to get better at handball, don’t forget to prioritize handball first when it comes to conditioning, and strengthen the body through a good weight training program which will carry-over to better power and won’t interfere with your swing by being “too specific.”  In summary, get stronger on days devoted to getting stronger, play handball on days devoted to handball conditioning (with maybe some movement intervals afterward), and use light, aerobic recovery sessions sparingly and only when necessary.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Travis Owen is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA, has a Master’s degree in Health & Physical Education.  Having interned at the University of Louisville, Travis is passionate about a comprehensive approach to sport performance, including proper movement, strengthening, conditioning, and nutrition.  Travis started the Northern State University Handball Club, bringing them to the national collegiate tournament in 2010, and competes as often as possible in handball tournaments.  He has two open division wins in Colorado (DAC Open and the Great Gorilla) and finished 3rd in the 2011 Minnesota State tournament.

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