Progression in Exercises Selection to Improve Transfer of Training. A Biomechanical Approach.

By Dott. A. Squillante, CSCS

Performance in sports depends on the proper combination of skill, ability and talent. Cognitive and physical development, the outcome of physiological changes within the central nervous system and the muscle-skeleton system in response to specific demands (training), represent two sides of the same coin: physical legacy, what in sports is known to be athleticism, the entry-level, basic, pre requisite to further promote mastery in sport. Physical legacy is, by the end, the one and only factor, above and beyond talent, that can set apart athletes competing for the first place. Physical legacy has been defined as the ability of proficiently and efficiently perform a wide variety of motor tasks so that an athlete, at any given time, can control the environment increasing the chance of success. A broad, diverse pool of general skills, such as running, catching and throwing, jumping and lending just to name a few, can provide the blocks to build mastery in sport.   Although conceptually complex, transfer of learning – a topic in sport physiology that sits on the edge of two colliding theories, the general motor pattern (GMP) theory proposed by Schmidt in 1981 and the dynamic pattern theory (DPT) more recently proposed by Scholz in 1990 – can further support athleticism through a rational organization of the training process that can bring an athlete, along the learning process and throughout his or her career, to improve performance experiencing optimal transfer of training.

As an athlete acquires the skills needed to compete, he or she becomes competent, but not competitive yet. In order to become competitive, athletes need to develop their physical qualities – also known as abilities, a broad spectrum of attributes such as strength, speed, endurance and flexibility as well as general and special coordination – needed to execute motor tasks (skills) with the proper intensity and for the proper amount of time during competition. Athletes need to acquire skills and develop overall work capacity, a well-balanced blend of different physical attributes that matches the physiological needs imposed by the very nature of competitive sports. A well-rounded, experienced athletes will, eventually, be competitive as he or she progresses from general to special training, and from special to sport specific training. To a certain extent, however, gross motor skills can affect the ability to improve performance: the ability, or inability, to execute basic motor tasks in such a way that can be considered efficient and effective can significantly affect the overall quality of training, over-imposing limits and limitations that further prevent the athletes from improving performance. “Good techniques elicits greater neurological and metabolic responses” (R.Takano). Lack of skill, in this scenario, means stagnation.

Skill, as it has been shown so far, significantly increases the overall efficiency of the training process.   However, lack of strength, speed and endurance as well as lack of flexibility can also affect the ability to learn new motor skills, potentially hinder the ability to compete in sport. At any given stage of the training process, especially when working with young athletes or beginners, It is therefore necessary to progress through the different stages of learning – from cognitive to associative, and from associative to autonomous (Fitts and Posner’s Model of Learning) – as the athletes further progress from general to special, and from special to sport-specific training. Transfer of training – a theory strongly related with the dynamic correspondence principle advocated by Siff and Verkhoshansky – also means transfer of learning. To achieve optimal performance, training programs should be designed so that specificity in practice provides the neuromuscular and metabolic adaptation needed to express optimal work capacity while supporting the underlying cognitive mechanisms associated with learning and practicing new skills.

This theory, also known as transfer-appropriate processing approach (TAP), can further explain Schmidt’s original GMP approach within the general frame of sports performance. According to the transfer-appropriate processing approach – antithetic, under the ideological point of view, but in many way strongly interconnected with the dynamic pattern theory (DPT) emerged in at the beginning of the century – when different motor skills share a number of element in common, training should present structural similarity to promote optimal transfer along the continuum that goes from general, gross motor skills to specific (sport-specific), fine motor skills. What Schmidt called parameters, such as strength – a vector defined by the intensity of the effort and the direction of its effect, the resultant of kinematic variables such as angular displacement and range of motion – and speed – positive speed (concentric) and negative speed (eccentric) – define the differences within a group of the exercises that moves along the general, special and sport-specific spectrum: these variant features provide the rationale behind physical adaptation, which ultimately directs the outcome of the training process as it creates sport-specific work capacity. Invariant features, on the other hand, remain the same among clusters of gross and fine motor skills, general motor patterns that provides continuity regardless the constraints imposed by the very nature of different sports.

These basic motor patterns – gross motor skills – allow for a more rational classification of strength and conditioning exercises, aimed to provide continuity as the athlete progresses through the different stages of learning, to further improve athleticism. Motor pattern are defined by three distinctive traits: relative timing, relative force used, and sequence of actions. Combined together these three elements define the blueprint of gross motor skills that can further be developed to acquire new and diverse sport-specific skills such as pitching a baseball, pole vaulting or balancing on the rings. These fixed, invariant features are engraved within the motor cortex and represent a pool of motor behaviors among which athletes can “pick and choose” what they need at any given time to control their environment.  Starting from Gentile’s taxonomy of motor skills and following few basic principles in biomechanics it is possible to create the following guideline to better progress exercises throughout the learning process, providing the athlete with positive transfer of training… and learning.

#1 – Linear Movements before Rotational Movements: the CNS will, eventually, learn new movements based on a trial-and–error approach. Successful attempts will promote the development of a proficient motor pattern: repetition of proficient motor patterns will create efficient – low energy cost, maximize outcome for any given income in terms of energy available – motor pattern ultimately achieving the perfect balance between timing, relative force and sequence of moments needed to complete a given task.  In order to promote positive learning experience, linear movements should be learned and master before any rotational component is added to the equation: linear displacement will create a situation of mechanical advantage, decreasing momentum and promoting economy of movement.  Energy, in physics, is the most elementary way of measuring work, the product between force and displacement. Without moment arm in the second member of the equation (a mechanical consequence of rotational patterns) the athlete will learn how to efficiently produce power without experiencing challenging – and potentially harmful – situations.

#2 – Deceleration before Acceleration – once the proper timing and coordination needed to perform basic tasks such as sprinting, throwing, jumping and landing is learned and mastered in the three planes of motion, the coupling mechanism involved in the process of absorbing and producing force needs to be implemented. On earth, gravity reigns supreme. The CNS needs to develop the proper level of synchronization with the muscle-skeleton system – muscle recruitment, mostly based on voluntary effort but also neurological reflexes – to withstand gravity as an additional constrains, limiting the ability to move and perform in space. More importantly, the neuromuscular system needs to learn how to take advantage of gravity – and a derivative of gravity, kinetic energy – to store and produce more energy that what it could possibly generate with the sole, voluntary muscle contraction. Learning how to master the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) is therefore necessary: active, dampening mechanics needs to be mastered to efficiently store elastic energy and increase power output in any given motor tasks. The ability to decelerate, in both linear and rotational movements, is a skill that needs to be acquired in order to efficiently transfer energy from the ground up.

#3 – Power Production before Power Transfer: power, the combination of force and speed, acts upon the human body according to the third law of newton, action-reaction. For any given force acting upon the human body – including both internal forces acting within the locomotor system to create movement, but also external forces acting upon the muscle-skeleton system as in moves and interacts with the environment – there is an equal force that acts upon the environment of equal intensity but opposite direction. This force, in sports, is often considered as the ground force reaction and the balance between power produced by the athlete and ground force reaction ultimately determines the outcome of the movement. It is therefore important that the athlete learns how to produce power, managing two variables named strength and speed, in order to learn how to transfer power from the ground to the environment. Rotational  movements can then be implemented, as the athlete learn how to counteract couple of forces acting upon any given joint in rotational-based movements.  

Muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments will progressively improve as a consequence of a well-planned periodization of the training load across the season; strength, power and endurance will create the functional work capacity needed to compete; skills will improve the athlete’s exploitation capability, further improving performance. These three basic principles will help to ease the transition between general and special strength training exercises, and from special strength training exercises to sport specific training reinforcing positive transfer of training.