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Fit for Sport?

Advances in sports training for professional athletes have created a lucrative market for fitness centers. By offering sport-specific training, facilities can offer training to athletes of all ages and abilities.

Professional athletes have used advanced sport conditioning training for years to boost performance and keep injuries at bay. But, fitness centers could extend these services to a much broader market by offering sport conditioning to all levels of sporting enthusiasts.

Millions of people are playing sports, yet few take advantage of sport conditioning training. Many are unaware of the benefits conditioning can bring to their performance, and fitness centers can do more to develop and promote sport conditioning for a broader market. Still, Chip Taggart, certified strength conditioning specialist and president of FitnessQuest, and Spencer Shaver, certified personal trainer and group instructor, note the demand for sport conditioning "is at an all-time high."

And there is a wide age range of athletes - from school-age children to older adults. Mark Baines, director of education for the National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA), says that it is typically people in the 35 to 45 age range who seek sport conditioning training in fitness facilities, as they seek to regain their youth and now have the money to invest in professional help.

Significant advances have been made in sport conditioning, fueled by the intense pressure to secure victory in the professional sporting arena. "Over the years, we have seen an increase in athletes' abilities, talent and skill," say Taggart and Shaver. "This has to be a direct result of our increased knowledge of the human body, and the incorporation of sports-specific training. Trainers are continuously being challenged to develop new ways to improve athletes' abilities and keep them at the top of their game."

Most people seek conditioning in running (marathons or triathlons), squash, tennis and basketball. "This is primarily because most clubs offer programs that include these sports, and draw such members to their clubs," says Baines. He adds that golf is fast becoming a more actively sought sport for conditioning development, but demand is less than it might be because "many golfers feel their swing technique to be far more important than their physical conditioning."

There are strong arguments in favor of offering sport conditioning to help prevent injuries and prolong sports participation into later life. Healthcare professionals have called for coaches and fitness professionals to do more to reduce the risk of sport injury. Researchers estimate that high school athletes alone experience approximately 2 million injuries each year.1 An estimated 25 million people play golf each year. Many of those are blighted by recurrent injuries to hips, shoulders, elbows and, particularly, the back. The majority of those injuries could be banished by sustained and effective sport conditioning training.

Finding the right trainer

To create a sports training program, fitness centers first need to find appropriately skilled trainers. They should be certified as Speed Agility Quickness (SAQ) specialists or sport conditioning specialists by a reputable organization. There are several providers, such as NESTA, American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA), and the International Sports Conditioning Association (ISCA).

Baines says that, although skilled personal trainers can train high performing athletes, they "require more sport-specific training to be truly safe, effective and efficient." He says previous athletic experience as both an athlete and coach is also preferred. "Like all professions, knowledge is essential, but knowledge without the ability to apply it is worthless," Baines says. "An effective trainer, coach or performance specialist should have worked with an effective mentor, have a solid base of knowledge for sports performance and injury prevention, years of personal experience in conditioning and sport as an athlete (recommended), and years of experience as a coach of many athletes."

At the end of the day, the surest sign of an effective conditioning practitioner is someone who has helped an athlete to achieve and sustain outstanding performance while staying injury free. "No amount of experience or breadth of educational background is automatic recognition of a great trainer, coach or specialist," says Baines. "They have to prove it 'on the field' through the results of their clients and athletes."

Reflecting the industry's under-development of sport conditioning for a market beyond elite athletes, the quality of sport conditioning services offered varies greatly. "Most clubs tend to use personal trainers or certified strength coaches as sport conditioning specialists," says Baines. "Occasionally, they will bring in high school or club-level athletic coaches. Approximately 10 percent of personal trainers have had actual specific training to work as a sport conditioning specialist, with a lot of personal trainers who are former or current athletes feeling they can efficiently train an athlete."

He offers another note of caution: "Too often, personal trainers who have either been athletes, or who have been around athletics, feel they have enough background to be efficient sport conditioning specialists. Although formal training is not required, personal trainers need more than just a personal training certification and previous experience as an athlete to be qualified to effectively train high-performing athletes." Experience coaching an athletic team and being part of the conditioning program for that team also helps, he says.

Training criteria

To be effective in sport conditioning, trainers should:
  • Understand basic anatomy, and physiological adaptations to exercise and stress. Athletes do not respond the same to stress as other individuals.
  • Understand how to train individuals to achieve a basic level of coordination and movement pattern efficiency before progressing to more complex forms of training.
  • Know the phases of conditioning and training.
  • Know how to create a program to help athletes reach their peak.
  • Know motion skills and movement and muscle groups.
  • Understand the energy systems needed in sports.
Personal trainers also need to be able to deploy that knowledge. They need the ability to develop a plan and program that incorporates the phases of training to bring the athlete to peak performance, say Taggart and Shaver: "The art of training comes in implementing the plan."

Conditioning requires patience from trainer and athlete alike. "Too many trainers and coaches attempt to accomplish athletic performance goals far too quickly," say Taggart and Shaver. "Effective trainers, strength coaches and SAQ specialists understand that athletic performance is the highest level of training, requiring optimal levels of balance, flexibility, body composition, work capacity, muscular endurance, muscular strength and explosive power development. The most important skill is the ability to design a program that caters to all of these areas of development that is designed to be progressively timed to effectively meet the individual needs and goals of each athlete."

FitnessQuest personal trainers learn their sport conditioning skills through sports training and conditioning certification. Taggart and Shaver are certified as Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.


Having recruited or developed the right level of trainer expertise, fitness centers can then look at equipment requirements. Equipment that can be used in conditioning includes plastic cones, medicine balls, speed ladders, light hand weights, plyometric boxes or aerobic steps, and 1- to 5-kilogram medicine balls. Taggart and Shaver link the equipment requirements for offering sport conditioning to the conditioning requirements. "There are many modalities to reach a desired exercise, i.e., body weight, bands, medicine balls, weights, etc.," they explain. "The key here is what muscle and/or movement am I trying to reach? How can I best achieve this?"

Baines says other equipment, such as parachutes, sleds, slide boards and other specialized athletic training equipment is great, but not essential. Beyond that, all that is needed is an open space with a well-cushioned floor.

Marketing and pricing

Accepting that there is a large, underexploited market of people who would enjoy and benefit from sport conditioning services, what are some of the messages that fitness centers need to get across to reach them? Injury prevention and sustaining sports performance into later life are two powerful benefits of conditioning that should be mentioned in promotions and marketing materials.

Taggart and Shaver say it is essential to connect the benefits to the features. "A benefit, [for example,] would be getting faster," they explain. "A feature would be to participate in the speed, agility and quickness program. When clients walk in, they want to hear how a program can help them with what they think they need. But, always look at what it is the clients really want. A golfer who says, 'I want to hit the ball farther' could really mean 'I want to have more fun playing golf.' So, attach the skill they seek to your features - in this case, a core strength program that is specific to explosive movement for a golf swing."

As for pricing, "Clubs can charge as much or more for sport conditioning training as for personal training," says Baines. One-on-one prices should range from $50 to $150 per hour, depending on the expertise of the specialist and goals of the client. Group rates are also popular, with the price being from $15 to $75 per person per hour, depending on the number of clients being trained. As an example, FitnessQuest charges between $55 to $65 for individuals, while, in a group setting, they can be as low as $15 to $20 per person.

Conditioning examples

The sport conditioning offered by FitnessQuest encompasses SAQ, strength and conditioning. Programs can be tailored to be sport-specific.

Tennis and squash. A tennis program should concentrate on strength in the legs to improve the quick stop and start motions involved in the game, say Taggart and Shaver. Another area of focus should be in the shoulders, as well as a series of plyometric exercises to improve speed. Tennis and squash require higher levels of work capacity and muscular endurance, while also requiring efficient flexibility and mobility at the hips, torso and shoulder. Strength and power training are helpful to such sports, but it must only be developed after a solid base of flexibility and mobility at the joints is achieved, says Baines.

Golf. Upper-body and core strength are important for golfers. "Golf requires great flexibility and mobility far before any skill at the sport can be truly developed," says Baines. "It is not necessary that golfers have tremendous power development (although it always helps), as much as the need to be able to achieve a full range of motion in their swing with accurate coordination development across the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex and into the muscles and joints of the shoulder girdle and arms. [A]side from the pro tour, flexibility and mobility are two of the essential components of sport performance that most golfers lack."

Long-distance running. Endurance sports are hugely popular, and are well-represented among the prospects of any fitness facility. "Individuals who want to run marathons or complete in triathlons often spend far too much time improving their endurance, with little to no focus on stability strength for ankles, hips and spine," says Baines. "How can a runner, swimmer or biker be truly effective and efficient if they lack the proper mobility to move and recruit the muscles necessary for their sport, regardless of the extent of their endurance strength? Too much emphasis is placed on mileage on the road and in the pool for these athletes. More often that not, these athletes could extend the longevity and consistency of their performance if they spent more time on stabilization strength of supporting joint musculature and good joint flexibility and mobility."

You and your members will benefit

An important benefit of offering sports training at your fitness center is that members will use your facility more. Boosted performance and improved technique can help eliminate injury down-time. Conditioning training also adds another branch to your money tree. And with healthier, happier members, revenues and retention performance across the organization will improve.
Powell, J.W., and K.D. Barber-Foss. Injury patterns in selected high school sports: A review of the 1995-1997 seasons. Journal of Athletic Training 34: 277-284, 1999.

Principles of Sport-Specific Training

By Vilayat "Sean" Del Rossi, CSCS*D June 2007

There are a few sound sport-specific training principles that are imperative to follow, regardless of skill level, strength, genetic potential or motivation of the person involved. These basic principles will aid the trainer in providing a safe and effective program:

1. Needs analysis. When determining what type of sport-specific training program to design, trainers need to evaluate the sport that they are targeting. When evaluating the sport, they should determine the unique characteristics of the sport through movement, physiological and injury analysis. With movement analysis, trainers examine the body and limb movement patterns and muscular involvement that the sport exhibits. Physiological analysis entails the strength, power, hypertrophy and muscular endurance priorities of the sport. An injury analysis evaluates the common joint and muscular sites, and what factors cause the common injuries. Other characteristics that should be considered are cardiovascular endurance, speed, agility and flexibility requirements of the sport.

2. Assessment. Trainers must develop a battery of appropriate assessments so that they can create baselines for their clients. There are hundreds of assessments; however, the assessment needs to be appropriate for the sport. For instance, in basketball, the vertical jump assessment has been shown to be the greatest predictor of playing time compared to other athletic performance assessments. Along with determining the appropriate assessments for the sport, the trainer must also assess the client's current level of flexibility, kinesthetic awareness, balance and muscular balance (looking for bilateral deficiencies). If any of the preceding assessments are not performed correctly, trainers increase the chances of injuring their clients. Gray Cook, a leading strength and conditioning coach and physical therapist, once said, "Trying to put strength on top of an inflexible muscle is the perfect recipe for a sport-related injury."

3. Program design. For program design, trainers should remember the three S's, which stand for the three areas of specificity: metabolic, biomechanical and psychological. Metabolic specificity refers to the training adaptations to the energy systems mobilized during the particular sport. Biomechanical specificity refers to the specific muscle contraction type employed in the particular sport (i.e., dynamic, variable or constant, isokinetic, isometric). Psychological specificity refers to mental effort and intent during training. After trainers determine the different areas of specificity, they use the most important aspect of program design, which is periodization. There are hundreds of ways to periodize a program, both linear and non-linear. To get more specific information on periodization, refer to Baechle, T.R., R.W. Earle (eds). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill., 2004. There are several other resources, but this is a good start.

4. Rest/recovery. Rest and recovery can be the forgotten training principle. The majority of training adaptations occur during recovery, which is why it is such a vital component to an athlete's training. As an athlete/client accumulates more years of training experience, less recovery time is needed, because the body becomes more resilient underneath the current stimuli. Research has shown that an individual needs a minimum of 48 hours of recovery before undergoing the same training of the specified muscle group. Depending on several other components, previously discussed, the recovery time might be even longer than 48 hours. Typically, the maximum recovery time will be about 72 hours. There are multiple approaches and considerations to recovery. The most popular and effective approach to recovery is active recovery, where clients engage in an activity for a week or two with an intensity that is relatively low (approximately 50 to 55 percent of their functional capacity). Other major considerations in a person's recovery should be sleep, stress levels, nutrition and hydration. When working with elite athletes, a coach may use a process called "overreaching." This involves short periods of overwork to achieve benefits of a supercompensation in physical strength and power [Fry, A.C., and W.J. Kramer. Resistance exercise overtraining and overreaching. Sports Medicine 23 (2): 106-129, 1997].

5. Repeat steps 2 through 4. After clients have gone through a recovery period, it is time to start at the beginning again and assess their current training status, so that trainers can make appropriate modifications to the existing program. Typically, that program design might change its focus, from one aspect to another, after the athlete has been reassessed.

By following these five basic principles to sport-specific training, a trainer can implement a safe and effective training program. Omitting any one of the five principles could result in an increased exposure to injury. With further research, trainers can use the five principles to go into much further depth, but, remember, injury prevention comes before strength and conditioning.

Vilayat "Sean" Del Rossi, CSCS*D, is a senior program manager with Club One, focusing on worksite health and fitness programs for corporate partners and universities. He also manages the Bronco Fitness Center, and is a lecturer for the Kinesiology and Health Promotions Department at Cal Poly-Pomona University. He has an extensive background in sports performance, including being a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Florida State University and with the Department of the Navy. He holds certifications with NSCA, and is a USA Weightlifting Club Coach. Contact him at
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