Principles of Training 3: Specificity.

Of all the training principles, this one can be considered the most obvious but often the most overlooked. Specificity is a very simple concept that basically states that in order to improve at something, we have to actually do it... over and over again!


If we want to get stronger, then our programming should be geared towards lifting at higher intensities closer to our 1 repetition max. If we want to build muscle then we need to be training at repetition ranges that place the correct stress on the muscles and generate the correct metabolic response on the ‘training continuum’ in order to generate the correct adaptations. The use of the word ‘continuum’ is important to note here, as there will be some cross over between adaptations; depending on where we position ourselves on this line between high intensity weight training and low intensity, high volume weight training and if we increase this even further, we then also start to enter in cardiovascular realms of training. Therefore, on this continuum it is possible to work in regions that have certain cross over between different adaptations, but in these cross over regions, that will place different demands on the body’s tissues and energy systems, we need to consider if sitting in these in-between regions are specific in reaching your goals.


For example, a classic ‘strength’ program starting strength works on the premise of 3 sets of 5 repetitions of the major movements including squat, bench and deadlift. However, if we were to train solely in this range, this is not specifically a strength program as it is not specifically targeting any training in what we might consider our ‘strength zone’, which is considered to be in the 1-3 repetition range. It is of course true that we will get stronger in the 5 repetition range over time if programming is done properly, but if we consider that absolute strength is determined as our 1RM, there are factors that will mean that although we may get stronger at five reps and there will be some carry over to maximum strength, that if our goal is to get as strong as possible, then some period of our training needs to be using energy systems and loads specific to optimising absolute strength. One of the advantages of training in the 5 repetition range is that for most people they will gain some strength but also develop muscle tissue as we will be entering the realms of a training stimulus that will cause muscle hypertrophy, but again, this may not be optimal if this is the overriding goal. 


In this situation, we need to consider what our goals are and of course the use of periodisation. It may be that in order to develop absolute strength that we need to grow some muscle; this may seem a contradiction in what has been said previously, but it is an inescapable fact that strength is related to muscle cross-sectional area. In practical terms, what this means is that if we want to get stronger in absolute terms, we need to program our body’s movement’s efficiency, mostly through central nervous system adaptations to develop maximal strength at very high training loads, but once this has been optimised and progress stagnates, we may need to consider training in muscle hypertrophy zones for a period of time in order to allow muscle growth, and then, once this has been developed, to return to higher intensity work now better equipped to progress absolute strength.


This is inherently where programming for specific sports that require different demands becomes challenging, as even in the example of just developing strength given above it is not as simple as it first sounds when we look at the bigger picture. A good coach/trainer can thoroughly analyse the demands of a sport and even the specific roles within that sport and tailor training to balance the different demands to develop optimal performance. The use of training periodisation can be done in longer phases, focussing on developing improvement in one particular performance outcome at a time, or it can be done concomitantly (at the same time), mixing training volumes and stimulus on a weekly or even daily basis.


To throw a final, slightly confusing spanner in the works, an important consideration for beginners in many sports is that sports specific training (I’m talking here about working at the intensities and under the demands expected in competitive sport) may need to come secondary to building a solid platform in developing many facets of fitness, such as strength, endurance, correct movement programming and mobility, before focussing on sports specific training and performance. Although this could arguably still be seen as specific, without a platform to build from, progression to performance at an appropriate level would not be possible.


Whatever your goal, a majority of your training time should be spent doing whatever it is that is most specific to achieving those goals and this includes an understanding of the benefits of supplementary or accessory training which may not at face value seem specific, but on deeper analysis may have profound benefits in developing a solid platform to build from, overcoming identified weaknesses and enabling long term, safe and consistent progression.


Thanks for reading,

Dr P.