Sports-Specific Training: When Overuse is Overkill
by Michael Mejia, MS, CSCS

Recognizing the fact that athletes need to train much differently than say, bodybuilders, coaches and trainers alike began incorporating more "sport based" movements into their conditioning programs. Soon athletes everywhere were forgoing more traditional gym exercises such as bench presses and leg extensions in favor of things like single leg squats and explosive medicine ball throws. Rather than focusing on how their bodies looked, athletes began to appreciate the importance of flexibility, balance and core strength, as well as the measurable impact those qualities had on both performance and injury prevention. Before you knew it, a cottage industry was born and having a designated strength and conditioning coach went from being the exception to the rule in most team sports settings.

Yet, despite its widespread acceptance there was still one question going unanswered in regards to sport-specific training: Just how specific does the training really need to be? Although there's little arguing that multi-planar movements such as various types of lunges and rotational core exercises offer athletes more benefit than isolating specific muscle groups, is it really necessary to try and precisely mimic actual sports skills? Is adding external resistance in the form of free weights, rubberized tubing, or medicine balls to skills like swinging a tennis racquet necessary to improve athletic performance? And if so, at what age should such a targeted training focus commence?

A long time advocate of the benefits of sports-specific training myself, I'm certainly not going to try and make a case against specialized workouts for athletes of various sports. What I do take issue with however is the overuse of this approach with younger populations. The issue of overspecialization at too early an age is already an area of tremendous controversy in the field of youth sports. Far too often, whether driven by their parents, or done of their own volition, young athletes devote all of their energies to one particular sport. Rather than improving their overall athleticism by exposing themselves to a variety of sports, kids today tend to gravitate towards those sports for which they demonstrate proficiency. The problem this creates besides the possibility of eventual burnout is the constant overuse of certain muscles by repeatedly engaging in specific movement patterns over the course of numerous practices and games.

Already at least somewhat accomplished in their chosen sport, these athletes come in with a laundry list of things they're seeking to improve. In fact, many athletes go so far as to bring me a note from their coaches detailing specific areas they want me to concentrate on. The ironic part is, these are almost always the same areas where the athlete is overworked! I can't tell you how many times I've had coaches instruct me to focus on the exact same muscles an athlete is pounding everyday in practice as a means of enhancing performance. It's insane! It's as if they're completely oblivious to the inevitable muscle imbalances such an approach would create and the resulting injuries they would cause.

Case in point, several of my young swimmers come to me with instructions to work on their pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), quadriceps (front thigh muscles) and lats (large muscles of the upper back). Because these are all of prime importance to propelling the body through the water, coaches think that strengthening these muscles will increase the athlete's speed in the pool. What they're not factoring in however is the fact that many young swimmers practice up to six days per week, sometimes twice per day often logging anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 meters. Now I ask you, does common sense dictate that taxing these muscles further would lead to improved performance? To say nothing of the injury potential associated with such a rigorous practice schedule. For instance, swimmer's shoulder, a painful condition in which the soft tissue structures (tendons and ligaments) of the shoulder joint get "pinched" between two bones is becoming increasingly common; particularly amongst younger athletes who maintain practice schedules that are often too strenuous for their young bodies to endure.

My solution is to concentrate on the opposing musculature which balance out those areas which are overworked and in the process help reduce injury potential. Once this balance has been achieved I can then focus on increasing speed and power through the usage of exercises that will help develop overall athleticism and not just necessarily swimming performance. Promoting more balanced physical development will lead to improved athletic performance if for no other reason than reducing the athletes potential for injury. Once they're old enough and have decided to concentrate on a particular sport, there'll be plenty of time for more specified training.

Micheal Mejia, MS, CSCS is the co-founder of Spectrum Conditioning Systems in Port Washington, a physical performance center geared towards the needs of young athletes. To find out more about the unique services they offer call them at (516) 767-1718, or visit them at