Transfer of Training – What is it?


Transfer of Training

Can you actually put real numbers to tell whether your training equates to on field performance? Well, kinda.

Transfer of training is one of those topics.  Everyone that knows about it but very few understand its application to sport.  Even worse, most deny its existence to justify poor training programs.  As strength coaches, we use several training modalities (lifting weights / resistance training / speed and agility etc) to improve the performance of another activity, and thus there has to be a continuum of how much the modality we use improves the activity we are ultimately trying to improve.  This is what the concept of transfer of training is, a way to quantitatively and qualitatively describe the effects your training program has on the ultimate desired sport skill.  In this article, I am going to ask you to evaluate two things:

1.     What kind of transfer are we looking for in team sport athletes.

2.     How do we get a higher amount of that transfer from our training.

The most popular book focused directly on the topic at hand is Transfer of Training by Anatolyi Bondarchuk.  In the book, Dr. Bondarchuk defines three types of transfer:

“Positive transfer of training means that there is a positive effect on one exercise on another. In other words, with an increase in the sports results of one exercise, a parallel increase takes place in another exercise. 

Negative transfer of training, there is always a negative interaction between the exercises being used. Here, with increased preparation in one exercise, there is a simultaneous decrease in other exercises.

In neutral transfer of training, there is no increase or decrease in sports achievement. The training does not show any effect on other training.”
-Anatoliy P. Bondarchuk, Transfer of Training in Sports

To summarize Dr. Bondarchuk’s training results, Dr. Vladimir Issurin states:

“His concept involves the selection and implementation of separate sets of specific and semi-specific exercises, whose content is restructured from one stage to the next of annual preparation. Such program modification maintains the athletes’ higher sensitivity to renewed stimuli, which meets the demands of positive training transfer. As a consequence, athletes achieve magnificent results whereas the total volume of workloads is even less than in the traditional approach to training. The outcomes of this experience are extremely impressive: in two Olympic Games (1988 and 1992) all the athletes on the podium for medals in hammer throw (gold, silver, and bronze) were coached by Bondarchuk.”

Evaluating the transfer of training of exercises and programs on the main sporting movements helps you design a more effective training program by improving positive transfer, decreasing neutral and negative transfer, at minimal expense to the athlete.  In addition, it provides the information needed to more accurately structure the exercises and movements that you wish to train over the course of your annual training plan.

In Science & Practice of Strength & Conditioning, Dr. Zatsiorsky recommends using a dimensionless unit to estimate the training result:

Result Gain = Gain of Performance / Standard Deviation of Performance

Transfer = Result gain in nontrained exercise / Result gain in trained exercise

By planning the exercises with the least transfer early in the offseason, and exercises with most transfer closer to the season, you achieve multiple positive training effects.  The low transfer exercises may increase the general and functional ability to train and complete the specialized training later in the season.  Second, by sequencing training from non specific to specific, the athletes increased ability to accomplish sporting activities will have a direct transfer to the field of play, which is the ultimate goal of team sport strength and conditioning.

In addition to planning on a yearly cycle, training must be accommodated based on the development of the athlete. The volume of specialized (high transfer) work will increase over the course of the annual cycle for elite athletes vs lesser trained athletes.  The calculated transfer in lesser trained athletes can be high with general training, however in elite or highly trained athletes, these exercises and movements will develop the qualities specific to that exercise and not specific to the desired sporting movements, and may actually have negative transfer on sporting ability.  For example, in untrained athletes we can see simply increasing maximal strength will increase most performance tests.  In more advanced and highly trained athletes, increasing maximal strength will not only not improve performance ability in team sport athletes, it may actually decrease on field performance results, both in lack of specificity to the desired training goal and opportunity cost of training.

We can see this in the evaluation of a world champion hammer thrower’s testing evaluations seen in Dr. Bondarchuk’s Transfer of Training:

Exercises such as Barbell Snatch, power clean and power snatch stayed relatively stable over this 7 year period, however his sporting specific movements increased in performance.  The effectiveness of those exercises no longer increased his ability to perform the specific sporting movement, in this case a hammer throw.  You can also see how this correlation changes for multiple athletes based on qualification in the following graph:

With this table, the same concept applies: general exercises and testing modalities had a higher correlational effect to sport form in low qualified athletes than in highly trained athletes.  But, you may be saying, hammer throwing is a power sport; my team sport athlete’s require running, jumping, and other forms of athleticism.  However, even in high level 200m and 400m runners, there was an extremely weak correlation between average level athletes and general testing and training modalities and sport specific skill.

To put it into terms more recognizable to most coaches, at what point do RDL’s no longer contribute to the ability to squat more weight?  And when do weighted dips stop contributing to a bench press max?  Now this is an overly simplified view because the training exercises ARE the competition lifts, but the same process can be applied to athletes and the abilities they need to display in their sports.  Training must become more specific over time, and this is one of the reasons velocity based training is becoming more popular by the day: you can begin to more closely mimic the training needed to cause the desired training effect.

In his article on Training Transfer, Dr. Vladimir Issurin states “Low- and medium-level athletes are more sensitive to any kind of training stimuli, including non-specific ones, whereas train- ing transfer among high-performance athletes is strongly restricted by the specificity of auxiliary exercises… To maximize positive transfer of skill, an exercise should thoroughly correspond to sport- specific coordination demands. This is why a relatively narrow circle of exercises provides positive transfer to movement technique preparedness. “

Now that we have established the need for training specificity, how do you do it?  Planning your training sequence for maximal transfer can begin first by categorizing your exercises and placing them appropriately in your annual plan.  Dr. Bondarchuk recognizes four types of exercises:

General Preparatory Exercises – Do not repeat competitive actions in part or in whole.  Typically used as a “foundation” exercise, for use in all around body development.  These exercises increase the general abilities of work, flexibility, coordination and strength.

Specialized Preparatory Exercises – Exercises that use the same muscle groups as the competitive action, but do not replicate the action in part or in whole.

Specialized Development Exercises – Exercises that repeat the competitive exercise in separate parts.  These exercises follow the laws of dynamic correspondence to ensure maximum transfer to sporting ability.  The improvements seen in these abilities are realized after further execution of the competitive exercise.

Competitive Exercises – These movements are the exact sporting events which are trained in practice or in competition.

The ability for each of these to have transfer to the desired effect depends on the training status of the athlete.  An amateur athlete (think underdeveloped freshmen) may need a plan similar to this:

In this model, much more time is spent on general and specific preparatory exercises and very little on specific development.  If you were to use the aforementioned transfer equation, you would find increases in your general exercises would have direct increases in the desired testing movements.  However a senior receiver with adequate levels of development may need a plan more similar to this:

This plan would require very little development of the general and specific preparatory phase and much more time spent on specialized development.  These exercises specifically train the movements that need to be increased, as the “foundation” has previously been set and further increases in those qualities will no longer transfer to the desired sporting movement.

What is the practical difference here? The first one will have more volume and effort work, as well as a more general exercise selection for a longer period of the year. The second one will use volume and effort for short stints purely for retention and re-development purposes, then move to more sport, movement and speed specific work at an earlier period in the year.

In addition to having different exercises for each cycle, the same exercises can be used from one cycle to the next, but the execution, load and speed may differ to transfer it from general preparatory to specialized preparatory.  Lets look at the various types of strengths that can be developed (lets look at this in terms of velocity and intensity):

For most team sports, this works mostly inversely from GPP to SPP.  You can change the execution of a squat from a Parallel 93% for 3×1 in strength development phase, to a narrow half squat at 35%, using one of Dr. Mann’s velocity based protocols for maximal power development.

In Dr. Mann’s “Use of Velocity Based training in Sports”, he states:

“During my first statistics class for my doctorate, I had to do a 25-page project based on the results from a regression analysis in my field. I thought I would do something easy that wouldn’t take me much thought. I was going to be really busy at the end of the semester so I decided to do a paper on how the Olympic lifts had the greatest relationship to vertical jumps. I figured I’d fill in the statistical portion as I learned how to do them.

Well, it backfired. I wrote the entire paper, and then toward the end of the semester, I learned how to do the statistics. I ran them and was appalled by what I found. The improvements in the Olympic lifts not only had no significant effect, but the bench press was more highly correlated to the vertical jump than the Olympic lifts.

We were doing Olympic lifts as an absolute strength type exercise with our athletes. Technique suffered, but as long as the weight went up, it was good. This led to nearly no hip extension, a great amount of back extension, great amounts of lateral foot movement, limbo style bar catches, and most importantly, ultra slow bar speed… I found the speeds for the Olympic lifts that we were doing. For a repetition to count, it had to be done at the speed required. The sample size was small, but a regression analysis showed now that the use of VBT (and emphasizing proper technique) did lead to the clean having an impact on vertical jump. It went from fifth to third relationship behind body composition and the squat. “

Simply performing and executing a speed-strength or strength-speed exercise is not sufficient to have transferable effects to the field.  It must be done with proper technique, intensity, intent and at the right time of year, to have maximum transferability to sport form.  Maximal ability is still important, as doing a 60% clean with an athlete whom has a 1RM of 145lbs will have minimal transfer for that athlete, so be careful to apply these methods with the proper population.

So we have established that to ensure a high level of transfer, there must be a high level of specificity.  This brings two questions to the table: what are you trying to get better at, and how do you do it?

For most sports, we need acceleration, top speed, short area quickness etc.  For a pitcher, it may be pitch speed, and training to decrease his 60 time likely won’t transfer to that ability.  For a running back, short quickness acceleration and explosive horizontal power, with excellent change of direction ability, will contribute to his ability to compete more than a 6 plate box squat.  Putting a volleyball player on a top speed program will not help them play their sport, as short area quickness and burst are the key movement factors involved.

Unlike competition and Olympic type sports, where the final event may be a single hammer throw, a straight ahead sprint, or a squat, team sports are built off a collection of general athletic movements, comprised of several complex multi joint movements, followed by a few specific sporting activities. Specialized exercises can contribute to both of these skills to increase the transfer to the field.  They are usually single joint exercises that meet the laws of dynamic correspondence.


For most team sports, specific sporting skills (pitching and swinging a bat in baseball, spiking and blocking in volleyball, lineman blocking in football) are handled by the sport coach.  By having a solid understanding of biomechanics and a varied exercise selection to attack these various skills we need to train, we can improve these abilities without sacrificing or changing the technique that has been acquired.

However, several general training techniques are taught specifically by the strength

coach (for most sports): running, change of direction, vertical and broad jump, as well as a multitude of other tests.  By understanding your job in terms of that team and their development, you will know which exercises are appropriate to place in their training program, and which means to use with those exercises.

So what is the takeaway?  When planning your athletes programs, dump the “general” mentality and focus specifically on development of the desired tasks at hand.  Ask yourself, “the end goal of my training is for my athletes to improve at these tasks, is my program helping them get there”?

About the author 

Steve Olson, MS, CSCS

Steve is a strength and conditioning coach, gym owner, and founder and CEO of Strength Coach Pro. Prior to founding SCP, Steve owned Excel Training Designs, a company created to help coaches better learn and use Excel for programming. Steve also owns a strength and conditioning gym in Cary, NC, and has his bachelors and masters in Exercise Science.

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