Every Great Training Program Has Some Level of the Principle of Specificity

By 23 February 2021Training

The specificity principle is arguably one of the most important factors to consider as you progress in your strength training career. The specificity principle states that as one progresses in their sport and goals become more specific, then training should reflect that.

In layman’s terms, as you develop as an athlete and lifter and pursue a specific sport or goals, then you should train with methods and movements that will have high carryover to said sport, goals, and your overall needs.

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What is the Principle of Specificity

In strength training, the specificity principle will present itself as exercises and training methods that are prescribed and used accordingly to their relevance to one’s overall training goal and strength sports. Basically, it’s the calculated prescription of training practices that are relevant to one’s sport and end goal.

Some example in strength sports would look like,

  • Powerlifters train primarily the big three (squat, bench press, and deadlift) and train variations/accessories that will improve these lifts.
  • Weightlifters train the clean & jerk and snatch, and choose variations/accessories to improve their skill in a portion of the lift.
  • CrossFit athletes will train movements often prescribed in workouts with goals focused on strength, work capacity, and power.

Another useful example of identifying the specificity principle in practice is assessing the differences between a beginner and elite powerlifter’s program. There will be stark differences between the two that are catered to each individual. These differences are based on the best practices to maximize one’s specific training goal.

General to Specific Training

The specificity principle, like the overload principle, is essential for training success and should be used accordingly to one’s current training state. For example, beginners will benefit in different ways compared to experienced athletes with the use of the specificity principle.

In strength training, athletes can improve their ability to use the specificity principle by furthering their understanding of movement patterns and by building a foundation of strength, power, and endurance. These factors can all play an important role in assessing the direction in which one’s training should progress as one begins to develop more specific training goals.

This is why beginners who just learned how to bench press are not doing things like board presses. That activity is highly specific in nature and would not have as much carryover as simply performing a normal bench press.

  • Beginners → General Training
  • Experienced Athletes → Specific Training

As an athlete progresses through their career and experience is accumulated, then the use of the specificity principle will increase. In strength sports, experience and specific training practices tend to move in the same linear direction. However, the reasoning behind this is a little more complex than that, and without a full understanding of what’s going in various [strength] training settings, then a coach and athlete could be leaving gains on the table.

Specificity — while easily digestible at face value — becomes increasingly more complex in normal sport settings. Outside of simply training movements that closely replicate the skills being worked on, specificity training can also account for things like,

  • Sport Type (Single or team)
  • Types of Movements Used In Sport (acceleration, deceleration, etc.)
  • Muscle Type
  • Activity Type (aerobic or anaerobic)
  • Sex
  • Mental Readiness
  • Daily Stress Levels
  • Diet & Sleep

All of these factors can impact an athlete’s performance on a day-to-day basis and accounting for them and the individuality of every athlete can help guide training oriented towards a specific adaptation.

In the section below, we’re going to reference examples directly applicable to strength sport settings.

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A Top-Down Approach to Specificity

On the surface, specificity is pretty straightforward — choose exercises that closely resemble and progress one towards their training goal and sport — but what exactly is going on?

In the gym setting, different movements, volumes, intensities, and frequencies are trained in order to progress towards specific training adaptations. Whether the goal is maximal strength, relative strength, speed, hypertrophy, or endurance, then best practices will be used by athletes and coaches to achieve and reach those goals.

Since the first use of specificity in sport, our knowledge and understanding surrounding this topic has grown and is still growing, especially in the gym setting. In a 2009 review assessing the current literature on specificity, study authors suggested that specificity is multifaceted and assessed the concept in three categories including (1),

  1. Energy Systems
  2. Muscle Contractions
  3. Skills

The authors suggested that the summation of these three physiological components can best educate coaches and athletes on how to train to reach desired adaptations. Let’s look at how some of these can be directly applied to strength sport settings.

1. Energy Systems

Energy systems serve as the bridge between how our body uses energy and its performance in sport. If a sport requires a high level of displacement for certain energy systems, then athletes should train to improve those said energy systems.
For example, weightlifting requires multiple explosive bouts of activity.

Typically, the ATP-PC will be the energy system contributing to a majority of these movement’s successes, so training this energy system often will have a highly specific carryover to weightlifting.

There are three major energy systems in the body, which can be seen below. Each energy system below will play some role in every activity we perform, but their emphasis will shift on their demands.

Energy Systems

  • ATP-PC Energy System: Anaerobic energy system.
  • Glycolytic System: Slightly longer in duration than anaerobic energy system.
  • Oxidative System: Aerobic energy system.

If we apply energy system knowledge to the principle of specificity, then we can make suggestions for the best training methods for high carryover to performance.

2. Muscle Contractions

In the 2009 review, researchers also suggested that how a muscle function is important to consider when training for specificity (1). For specificity training, multiple attributes of the muscle should be accounted for to construct best training practices.

  • Contraction Type (concentric, eccentric, isometric)
  • Muscle Fiber Type (fiber percentage that [most heavily] occupies a muscle)
  • Velocity of Contraction
  • Anthropometrics of Individual (limb length, frame, and angles of joints)

With a baseline understanding of these muscle attributes best exercises can then be selected along with sets, reps, and training practices to best suit an adaptation.

Contraction Type

In resistance training, we train multiple forms of muscle contractions on a regular basis. Below is a quick reminder of the different forms of muscle contractions,

  • Concentric — Shortening of the muscle
  • Eccentric — Lengthening of the muscle
  • Isometric — A static hold

These three contraction types are trained to some degree in nearly every movement performed in the gym, however, when specificity is the goal they can be taken a step further. What does this look like in practice?

Powerlifting Example:

  • Goal: An athlete wants to improve their competition bench press, but struggles with the pause at the bottom.
    • Specificity In Practice: Tempo training, use of pauses, or coach performs commands during a training set.

In the above practices, eccentric and isometric muscle contractions are taking a majority of the focus, like these, in theory, will produce the highest carryover to the athlete’s training goal — improve their competition bench press.

Weightlifting Example:

  • Goal: An athlete wants to improve their jerk stability when working towards higher clean & jerk percentages.
    • Specificity In Practice: Block jerks, holds at lockout, or drop jerk lockouts.

In the weightlifting example, the main focus is a strong concentric contraction followed by an isometric contraction. Thus, the specific training practices are working to improve both of these specific contractions.

Muscle Fiber Type

Muscle fiber type can also be a useful factor to consider when training for specific adaptations. From what research has suggested about muscle fibers, every muscle and type of athlete will contain different amounts of muscle fibers (2, 3).

There are essentially three main types of muscle fibers and these include,

  1. Type I — Slow Twitch Fibers
  2.  Type IIA — Fast Twitch Fibers
  3. Type IIX — Ultra-Fast Twitch Fibers

*Author’s Note: Hybrid muscle fibers exist as well and these fibers will possess a mixture of traits from the three above fibers listed above!

Each of these fiber types will function differently, so training muscles accordingly to their suggested predominance can be useful to facilitate training adaptations. This is why you see athletes like weightlifters often training with methods to improve the efficiency of their fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Dr. Andy Galpin, the author of Unplugged and professor at CSU Fullerton, explained that one way to understand muscles and their potential to possess a certain type of fiber is to think — Structure equals function.

This essentially means that muscles will possess the majority of fiber types based on their purpose (postural, force producing, etc.). For example, the erector spinae possesses high levels of Type-I muscle fibers, and this is often suggested to be the case because they’re a postural muscle (3).

The quads, on the other hand, will possess a mixture of muscle fibers and more Type IIA fibers at that, as their purpose is to produce varying levels of power to propel the body in different directions.

With respect to muscle fibers and the specificity principle, there is merit in considering the overall training goal and the muscles being addressed. By acknowledging what a muscle does on a daily and physiological basis, then training can be best structured to suit a muscle’s best-hypothesized training response.

Basically, if there’s a baseline understanding of the fiber types which a muscle most likely possesses, then sets, reps, and intensities can be structured accordingly. Some examples in practice can be seen below,

  • Postural Muscles (Often Higher In Type-I Fibers) Benefit from higher rep sets with light to moderate loads to increase work capacity and muscle fiber density.
  • Muscles That Possess a Mixture of Fibers Benefit with a variety of sets, reps, and loads to improve strength, power, and work capacity.

Research is still sparse when providing exact guidelines for training certain types of muscle fibers for a specific goal. However, by applying a baseline understanding of a muscle’s structural purpose and the training being used, then one could increase their training’s efficacy.

Velocity of Contraction

The velocity of a muscle’s contraction entails how fast the concentric and eccentric portions will be during times of competition. A great example of this is how quickly a weightlifter must move in the Olympic lifts. Thus, in order to specifically target and improve the fast rates of contractions that weightlifters use in competition, then training should reflect similar velocities.

Another example is how velocity-based training is becoming increasingly more popular in powerlifting. By using speed as a metric, athletes and coaches can then shift intensities, reps, and sets to facilitate the desired speed for a dictated movement

For example, if a powerlifter is training a heavy squat double at 93%, and they want the speed to be similar for each rep to indicate mastery of this intensity, then they could use the velocity of muscle contractions to purposely train.

Anthropometrics

The idea of training specifically for anthropometrics entails accounting for one’s body architecture. In this respect, it’s a great idea to consider how limbs, joints, and the body move on a normal basis and in sport. If these are accounted for, then thoughtful training can be used to optimally strengthen the body based on everyone’s individualities.

3. Skills

Skills include the movements that directly — or closely — reflect those used in competition. For a powerlifter, the practice of skills would include training the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Outside of the gym, skills could also be defined as the summation of attributes that one requires to be successful in their specific sport (ex: tumbling for a gymnast, stick handling for a hockey player, and so forth). Then within these practices, skills can be broken down even further into categories like coordination, power, balance, strength, and endurance. The complexity of sport makes practicing skills incredibly important for success.

In strength sports and the gym, skills are often defined as the movements practiced in competition. From this point of view, specificity would assess how closely an exercise resembles the competition movement.

For example, training a squat similar to how it’s performed in competition would rank as the most specific for a powerlifter, while performing something like a box squat would be less specific. Both movements will indefinitely have carryover to improving one’s squat and are specific, but one more closely reflects the direct competition squat.

There are multiple ways coaches and athletes can address a movement’s specificity to one’s overall training and competition goal outside of categorizing specificity by the exercise itself. Below are a few additional ways coaches and athletes can categorize a movement’s specificity,

  • Range of Motion
  • Tempos and Pauses
  • Equipment Used
  • Accommodating Resistance Used
  • Commands
  • Sets, Reps, and Intensities

Something to remember with specificity is that not all training is created equal, and failure to acknowledge this can be counterproductive to one’s training of specific skills.

If a powerlifter or weightlifter wants to improve their competition lifts (skills), then they should aim to perform those skills and their variants.

SAID Principle

As important it is to understand all of the underlying physiological adaptations that take place with specificity training, it’s also a good idea to highlight the theories behind this training ideology and its application. Introducing the SAID Principle.

  • S — Specific
  • A — Adaptations
  • I — Imposed
  • D — Demands

The SAID Principle states that how we train and the stresses we place on the body will influence specific adaptations. Essentially, it’s a principle that takes all of the physiological aspects above and applies them in a practical, functional way.

Thus, if a weightlifter wants to improve their competition snatch (1-RM), then they should train using methods that closely replicate the competition snatch. In practice, this will look like training sessions with heavy singles, doubles, and highly-specific technique work. Note, this isn’t to say doing higher rep won’t work, or other power training methods won’t increase one’s competition snatch, but direct carryover will be different.

A perfect example of the SAID Principle in application is to follow the progression of a powerlifter’s program in the lead-up to a meet. The training blocks that are further out from the competition date will often include higher rep work and accessories tailored to the competition lifts.

Then as the athlete gets closer to their competition date, blocks start to become much more finite in exercise selection with lower reps and higher intensities used on the main lifts. Every block entails specificity training, however, the scope shifts from wide to narrow to facilitate the highest potential adaptation one can achieve.

In the gym, arguably the most important aspect of the SAID Principle is understanding the intent in which a training methodology is being used. Exercise selection and workout structure should all reflect an athlete’s overall goals in a fashion that best suits their current training state, history,

Putting It All Together and Theory to Application

The above three concepts of energy systems, muscle contractions, and skills are not intended to overcomplicate the training process. In reality, what’s most important is identifying the why behind programming movements for a specific training adaptation, then testing that why, retesting it, and progressing by the best means possible — utilizing the SAID Principle.

If one can understand the above three physiological aspects of specificity training, then training can be broken down by movements, reps, sets, and methodologies to best achieve a specific goal. In this respect, the three concepts will all shift in a hierarchy-like fashion based on things like one’s strength sport, training strengths and weaknesses, and so forth.

It’s important to note that while these three components can help suggest the best means available to train for specificity — the research is far from complete on this topic. From the 2009 review discussing specificity authors write,

“The main aims of physiological assessment are to identify determinants of performance, profile athletes, establish the efficacy of training prescription, and provide support for translating observations into training prescription, and provide support for translating observations into training prescriptions. (1)”

Essentially, we know a great deal about specificity, but there are still no set-in-stone suggestions for its application to every athlete. This is why there are so many interpretations for optimal training in every sport, as every coach uses their best judgments to create efficacious training programs for their athlete’s strength and weaknesses.

So with everything, we know about training, why isn’t there a consistent way of applying specificity. To answer this question, researchers stated in the 2009 review,

“While laboratory testing may enhance reliability and sensitivity associated with the control of environmental conditions, pre-exercise behavior, time of day, diet, and other factors that can affect physiological response, it can be very difficult to recreate the exact movement patterns and limb velocities when using lab-based ergometers compared with sport performance (1)”

In layman’s terms, it’s incredibly difficult to replicate field and lab-based tests, as in the field settings will always be slightly different per the individual and setting.

  • What we know about specificity: Specificity is important to become great at anything and we have multiple ways to train, program, and work towards a specific adaptation (physiologically, physically, and mentally).
  • What we know about specificity: Specificity is important to become great at anything and we have multiple ways to train, program, and work towards a specific adaptation (physiologically, physically, and mentally).
  • What we don’t know about specificity: What training methods will always work once a certain level is reached in any given sport, skill, or activity. What we don’t know about specificity: What training methods will always work once a certain level is reached in any given sport, skill, or activity.

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Jake Boly

Jake Boly

Jake Boly, CSCS, M.S. is a weathered veteran of the fitness industry. Prior to Pheasyque Lab, he was the Fitness Editor at BarBend.com for four years. To date, Jake has written over 1,700 articles about fitness and health and has trained hundreds of athletes all while continuing to push the boundaries of fitness and health content creation.

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