Running Back-Specific Training: Train the Way You Play

Introduction to Special Strength Training
The idea of sport-specific training has gained great popularity over the years. Inevitably, every coach wants to ensure that he/she is attaining maximal transfer with the strength training programming that is being advocated among the athletes in his/her weight room. There is some proven truth to this thought and approach. First of all, the all-too-familiar SAID Principle (Specific-Adaptations-to-Imposed-Demands), has been proven time and time again in both research and training. This principle states that training is most effective when resistance exercises prescribed are similar to the target activity. Furthermore, every training method will elicit a different (and specific) adaptation response in the body. Essentially, we must train the way that we want to play.

Second, research has shown us that exercises that once worked to improve performance when an athlete was at a lower state will eventually lose its training efficacy at some point as the athlete gains mastery. For example; measures of maximum strength (such as a squat 1RM) often represent direct correlation in low level athletes but non-significant correlations with enhancing movement speed in higher level athletes.

Spiller accel

Third, movement abilities like sprinting, jumping, and change-of-direction are all separate motor tasks with very specific motor ability contributions. It’s intuitively obvious to state then that all sport actions are specific and goal-directed meaning that the enhancement of each should be treated as such in training. For example; the enhancement of straight-ahead speed and change-of-direction ability have limited transfer to one another and this degree of transfer becomes even smaller as an athlete progresses.


Thus, if we truly want to enhance the on-field movement performance ability of our highest level of athletes (keeping in mind these are the ones this blog is focused on), there comes a time when we must get more detailed than simply chasing a greater squat or clean one-rep max increase. There is no other way around it. Because of this, many of the world’s most famous Sports Scientists in history understood and proved that we must also go beyond many of the traditional training schools of thought if we were to enhance athletes’ performance as they moved up in levels of mastery. This is where the concept of Special Strength Training (SST) was introduced.

Though SST can have its limitations (see below), if incorporated correctly (both with the most optimal means/methods as well at the right time of the year for the right athlete), SST can serve the athlete as the ultimate level of physical preparation. SST has actually been incorporated for decades in athletes in other countries but this has occurred mostly in Olympic sports. It is of my personal belief that SST has only been used on a limited basis by a few practitioners in the football world and can open up Pandora’s Box as it pertains to the degree of training transfer. Because of this belief, I have compiled this article to briefly reintroduce the idea of SST directly to the football coaching community in hopes of imploring all readers to investigate this power-packed training philosophy to a greater degree. Later in the article, I will use the running back position to illustrate how SST could be used in a practical way to directly enhance a number of commonly-executed movement tasks found on the field.

Notes of Caution
A caveat will be brought to light right from the start: Just like with specialization in sport, specialization in training methodology can occur too soon. Research has proven that athletes of low levels of training and physical mastery may benefit from nearly any training modality so they are likely to attain simultaneous increases in strength, speed, balance, core stability, proprioception, and injury prevention. Athletes in these early stages need to focus on increasing general physical qualities such as strength and this will carry over greatly to the increase in movement speeds. As noted above though, this level of transfer becomes limited awfully quickly because of the specificity of each movement task. In addition, if you are unclear as to how to properly utilize the training means and methods of SST, one should not simply do so blindly as you would be likely to negatively affect the neuromuscular motor programming involved in sport movement by the incorrect usage of the ideas.

Advantages to SST
There are a number of benefits that we find with the use of SST. Arguably, the biggest reasoning for using SST means and methods is that we can require our athletes to develop strength in the exact same fashion as it will be displayed in their sport movement actions. This advantage cannot be overstated as very few methods will combine motor potential (strength, work capacity, etc) and technical mastery attainment in quite the same way. Ultimately, we as strength professionals are hired for one reason and one reason only: to help our athletes attain greater performance in the execution of their sport demands. I know this seems like an obvious statement to make. However, many coaches get caught chasing quantitative numbers (increases in squat strength or decreases in 40 yard dash time) that represent the attainment of general motor abilities (basic strength or speed) that may not have direct carryover for that specific athlete group. SST will ensure that we never separate the strength from technique as the two will always go hand-in-hand in movement execution on the field.

If we are going to accurately and efficiently prescribe exercises with a SST methodology, it is important for us to thoroughly understand what the given player is being asked on to perform on the field. Obviously, these requirements change on a position-by-position basis. For our purposes in this article, when looking at RB task-specificity, we find that the athlete will be required to not only attain fast straight-ahead linear speed but more importantly, he will be asked to start, stop, and change direction at varying speeds with great frequency and fluidity of movement. The RB (of course depending on the style of the back) will have to possess high relative strength levels but even greater eccentric force control (i.e. deceleration) and stability mechanisms along with proficient stretch-shortening cycle ability. In addition, he must have phenomenal body control so the balance between stability and mobility in all movement planes is a must.

McCoy cut 5

Objectives in Training
Because of the unique nature of the RB’s training objectives, our approach must directly reflect our acknowledgement of these aims. The following Complexes, put together in a Conjugate Sequence System fashion, are designed for the enhancement of the specific strength qualities needed for the execution of a specific movement task (as this is the whole point of SST methodology). Granted, this increase (of these physical qualities) will also transfer to the improvement in other movement tasks as well (dependent on the athlete’s level of mastery and specific weakness), but the majority of their impact will be found in the movement tasks outlined below.

It bears noting that the sequences listed are samples for illustration only and does not represent a do-all and end-all to this type of methodology implementation. There are countless different training means combinations (i.e. exercises or drills) that could be incorporated and/or cycled through in a sequential fashion over the ones suggested. When selecting any exercises to utilize in this particular population (i.e. the elite running back), they should be selected based on the concept of Dynamic Correspondence which states that the all exercises be chosen to enhance a specific sport movement pattern in terms of several criterion including the Amplitude/Direction of the Movement, the Region/Time/Rate of Force Production, the Dynamics of the Effort, and the Regime of Muscular Work.

In addition, I prefer to select exercises based on the Part/Whole Teaching Theory where I will prescribe an exercise that could be considered a Local exercise immediately prior to utilizing the Global task that I am attempting to enhance (in the cases below this would be the Acceleration Phase or a Lateral Change of Direction task). The idea of a Local exercise would attempt to increase a specific strength quality or aspect of the key movement being addressed later in the complex scheme. In contrast, the Global exercise would describe those movements that are more holistic in nature. The global exercise more closely mimics the whole competition movement task.

It should also be noted that, because of the complex nature (multiple exercises performed in sequential fashion) and the possible potentiation effect (where the nervous system could acutely enhance the contractile properties of the muscle resulting in greater movement speeds), these kinds of complexes are highly intensive in nature. Thus, both optimal power output and aspects of motor learning are to be stressed. Because of this, the work should be NOT be viewed as conditioning and optimal rest periods should be given at all times. It is also recommended that each phase be incorporated for relatively short durations in the overall view of the training cycle (for example I use something like this in the 3-5 weeks prior to training camp).

Sample Complex for RB-Specific Acceleration

Charles accel

Exercise 1-
Isometric Lunge Hold (Local)

Prescription: Perform 1-2 sets of 4-6 seconds each leg
Execution: This is one of my favorite applications used for developing co-activation between both the agonists and the antagonist muscle groups at hand. I have found great increases in rate of force development in 1st and 2nd steps attributable to the way strength is being expressed in this exercise.

Exercise 2-
Single-Leg Squat with Band Overspeed Eccentric (Local)

Prescription: Perform 1 set of 6 to 10 reps (3-5 reps on each leg) in a single response fashion (brief period of time between reps to reset and focus on the task at hand)
Execution: Many progressing athletes spend a great deal of time increasing their squat strength but it is usually performed in a bilateral fashion (2-leg) which will limit the carryover to unilaterally-dominant movement patterns (such as acceleration or other linear speed movement actions). After attaining sufficient bilateral strength, I strongly advise prioritizing unilateral strength in the form of a single-leg squat or lunge pattern. Either one of these will work here as long as the explosive speed-strength qualities of the exercise are emphasized.

Exercise 3-
1-Leg Horizontal Jump (Local)

Prescription: Perform 1 set of 2-4 reps each leg with 6 to 10 seconds between reps
Execution: Developing horizontal ground reaction forces (found in acceleration) are much different than vertical ground reaction forces. Not only is the direction of force application considerably different but so are the muscle synergies utilized. Jump for maximum effort off of the working leg and then land on 2 legs in a parallel stance fashion for greater control and stability.

Exercise 4-
10 yard Acceleration Start (Global)

Prescription: Perform 2 repetitions with a 10% load (as a percentage of one’s bodyweight) OR 2 falling starts followed by 2 repetitions with 0% load. Separate each with single-explosive effort with maximum rest to ensure that the next one is completed with maximum intensity.
Execution: During this exercise task, the coach/athlete should work on specific technical movement considerations (which are beyond the scope of this article). Due to specific RB movement task considerations, I will typically have the athlete begin the drill with a 2-3 step ‘read’ period before they hit maximum acceleration in as few steps as possible.

Rest 4 to 6 minutes (don’t try to rush it past this point!) and repeat the cycle through 2-4 times.

Sample Complex for RB-Specific Change of Direction (Lateral w/Power Cut)

Ray Rice lateral cut

Exercise 1-
Lateral Wall Push with Explosive Isometric (Local)

Prescription: 1-2 sets of 6-10 reps each side with sufficient rest between sides
Execution: This exercise will allow the coach and athlete to fine-tune the action of performing a power cut without the wear and tear that often comes along with performing a large quantity of reps in an all-out execution of the global task (i.e. the actual full drill). It is important to forcefully push but vertically and horizontally to change the explosive characteristics of the neuromuscular system in a biomechanically-applicable fashion. At the bottom of each rep, hold for a brief isometric period (2-3 seconds) before exploding to the completion of the rep (and into full extension at the knee and the hip). Using the stability ball will allow the athlete the ability to push laterally into the wall and still maintain one’s balance.

Exercise 2-
Side to Side Squat (Local)

Prescription: Perform 1 set of 6 to 10 reps (3-5 in each direction) with light resistance
Execution: Traditional squatting methods typically have less carryover to lateral change of direction movement actions than it does to other movements. This is even truer as an athlete progresses. This type of squat can be used to strengthen the muscles in a frontal plane to a much greater degree. The execution of the movement is much more important than the load utilized. In fact, the load should be kept relatively light so an athlete can be forceful throughout the entire extension phase of the exercise and the athlete can attain the necessary positions that will correspond to those found when the athlete will perform a power cut laterally.

Exercise 3-
Russian Plyo Bound (Local)

Prescription: Perform 1 set of 6 to 10 reps (3-5 in each direction)
Execution: This exercise will work to more fully charge the neuromuscular apparatus to recruit musculature in the global exercise to come (in this case the Zig Zag). The emphasis should be on both the explosiveness of the takeoff leg jumping action as well as the efficiency of the landing leg as this landing will greatly impact the subsequent takeoff to come. Work to develop greater stiffness through this landing mechanism so the movement action takes place in shorter periods of contact time.

Exercise 4-
Zig Zag Slalom Drill (Global)

Prescription: Perform 1 repetition going each way with a 10% load (as a percentage of one’s bodyweight) followed by 2 repetitions with 0% load. Separate each with single-explosive effort with maximum rest to ensure that the next one is completed with maximum intensity.
Execution: During this exercise task, the coach/athlete should work on specific technical movement considerations (which are beyond the scope of this article). That said the focus should be on the proficiency displayed in the drill (especially the cutting action) rather than the speed being utilized or the time it takes to complete the drill. Perfect practice makes perfect!

Rest 4 to 6 minutes (don’t try to rush it past this point!) and repeat the cycle through 2-4 times.

This article attempted to offer greater insight into the concept of special strength training specifically for running backs that possess a higher level of sport mastery. Other positions would equally benefit from the implementation of SST as long as the coach or training professional would spend adequate time investigating the movement tasks common to the position along with the specific fashion that strength is displayed in those movements. The greatest degree of transfer will be found in those athletes who have put in the work and have spent the prerequisite time developing and honing both their motor potential and technical mastery prior to the SST incorporation which will then work to more fully optimize their on-field sport movement result. Though this article only offered a brief introduction into the ideas of SST, I implore those interested parties to either explore the more extensive resources listed in the references list or reach out to me directly.

Bondarchuk. Transfer of Training in Sports. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2007.

Siff & Verkhoshansky. Supertraining. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2009.

Verkhoshanksy & Verkhoshanksy. Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches. Verkhoshansky, 2011.

Verkhoshansky. Fundamentals of Special Strength-Training in Sport. Sportivny Press, 1986.

Yessis. Secrets of Russian Sports Fitness and Training. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2008.


One thought on “Running Back-Specific Training: Train the Way You Play

  1. Nice Post. I seriously enjoyed reading it. Very often I find it hard to find informative yet practical
    fitness info. You’ve made some good points.
    I will be sure to bookmark your blog and come back on a regular basis.

    Much Appreciated again for writing this helpful article.

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