This article is part of a series on ‘Core Principles of Exercise Training’. It is hoped that this will give useful background information on all aspects of exercise. Training specificity is a hallmark of how precisely the body responds to exercise. Whether for general health or for sports-specific outcomes, how well an exercise session is tailored to a goal determines how quickly those goals are realised. The purpose of this article is to discuss how important the velocity of exercise is to achieving goals.
It is common for individuals exercising for general health, or for muscle growth, to be told to exercise in a slow and controlled manner. However, those who engage in weight-lifting or martial arts, as examples, are encouraged to perform exercises much faster. The velocity at which an exercise is performed determines how the body adapts. The slow and controlled approach is intended to maintain stress on the muscles throughout the range of motion, which is useful if the goal is to stress muscles into becoming bigger. The faster, more ballistic approach, is intended to train the body to produce force in an explosive manner. This is useful for weight-lifters, who are not necessarily interested in producing bigger muscles, but have a primary goal of moving the heaviest weight possible to a set finish position.
Early studies that investigated velocity-specificity utilised ‘isokinetic’ exercise machines, typically set-up for performing leg extensions. ‘Isokinetic’ means ‘same speed’, so that regardless of how hard or light someone tries to perform the exercise, the machine constrains the speed to that which was programmed. What such a study showed was that if you compare one group who trained at a slow speed, one group who trained at a fast speed, and an untrained control group, people tend to respond according to the training speed (Bell and Jacobs, 1992). Although both slow-trained and fast-trained groups can perform slow and fast exercise better than the control group, the slow-trained group becomes stronger mostly at the slow speed rather than fast speed, and the fast-trained group becomes stronger mostly at fast speed than slow (Behm and Sale, 1993; Morrissey et al., 1995).
Where velocity specificity becomes more complicated is in matching training velocity to a sports-specific outcome. It is logical to expect that if running, for example, it makes sense to run in training at the speed you would want to run during a race. The same will be true for other sports: train at or close to performance speeds, and you should be adapting the most efficiently to training. Where this becomes interesting is where people attempt to add resistance to endurance events. Adding too much resistance to a training session may cause some athletes to ‘train’ themselves to move slower than they would like to perform at. Think of sprinters using parachutes in training, cyclists only training uphill or in the hardest gears, or people hauling sleds over snow who drag unrealistically heavy loads in training.
The consequence of all this is that if too much time is spent exercising at a relatively slow rate, athletes may be training themselves to be too slow in their events. Whilst there may be benefits of integrating greater loads, the goal should always be to match training and performance speeds. Even if this is expected to take some weeks to achieve, it is likely to be more effective than using an unrealistically high resistance and always being slow.
What some studies have found is that people often misjudge velocity specificity when it comes to using resistance exercises to support a sport-specific outcome. In a study of shoulder resistance exercise for sprint kayakers, it was assumed the fastest speed would be best, but this was not the case. Instead, a slower speed more closely matched the actual speed kayakers moved the paddle through water (Liow and Hopkins, 2003).
Although beyond the scope of this article to discuss, velocity specificity is only one component of sport-specific training and goal achievement. For example, when it comes to resistance training for sporting or functional outcomes, it is also important to consider which exercises are used and how the exercises are performed. If the exercise matches the movement, then velocity-specificity is the next most important consideration.
Velocity-specificity is one of the key principles of exercise training. Whether the purpose of exercise is for aesthetic reasons, or for functional or sports-specific outcomes, the velocity the exercises are performed at is of considerable importance. Although not discussed, many of the early studies on velocity-specificity were conducted more than twenty years ago, and involved low numbers of participants and only a few groups for comparisons. There is still a lot of research needed to help us better understand what training velocities are best for a given outcome, whether fitness, function, sports-performance, or other goal
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Behm DG, Sale DG. Velocity specificity of resistance training. Sports Med. 1993 Jun;15(6):374-88. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199315060-00003. PMID: 8341872.
Bell DG, Jacobs I. Velocity specificity of training in bodybuilders. Can J Sport Sci. 1992 Mar;17(1):28-33. PMID: 1322765.
Liow DK, Hopkins WG. Velocity specificity of weight training for kayak sprint performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Jul;35(7):1232-7. doi: 10.1249/01.MSS.0000074450.97188.CF. PMID: 12840647.
Morrissey MC, Harman EA, Johnson MJ. Resistance training modes: specificity and effectiveness. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1995 May;27(5):648-60. PMID: 7674868.