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Specificity - a training principle to live by

Mar 22, 2017


  • Specificity in our training tells us we can expect specific adaptations to imposed demands (SAID)

  • The most important question you can ask yourself is: why am I doing this exercise

  • You should have a rock solid reason for programming a specific exercise in a specific way for a specific goal

  • If you are training for performance or with a goal in mind your training needs to reflect that goal

Are you planning effective workouts? With so much conflicting advice floating around out there on the interweb, it can be hard to determine what you should and shouldn’t be doing at the gym. If you have a goal in mind (and you should), whether it be fat loss, increased strength, faster running times, monster biceps –WHATEVER, you should always ask yourself: how does my training get me closer to my goal?


Any time you sit down to plan a workout (and you should—plan your workout that is) you have quite a few decisions to make.

1.     The type of exercise(s)

2.     The intensity of exercise

3.     The volume of exercise and finally,

4.     The order of your exercises

Specificity in our training tells us we can expect specific adaptations to imposed demands (SAID). In other words, you can expect the way you train to have a direct impact on your performance. Not to bastardize Newton’s laws, but it’s kind of like the 3rd one (the only one I ever remember): for every action there is a reaction. You can’t expect to dunk a basketball or bust out a standing backflip if the only exercise you do in the gym is bicep curls. Likewise, if you want a pair of bi’s that intimidate Arnie, you can’t be doing the stairmaster day after day while you watch Ellen and whine about why you have underarm flab.

The most important question you can ask yourself is: why am I doing this exercise? If you do not have a rock solid reason for programming a specific exercise in a specific way for a specific goal, drop that exercise—it’s not helping you. Good exercises have good reasons for performing them. For example: I am doing deadlifts to strengthen my glutes and hamstrings to build a strong and supportive posterior chain. Even better: Having a strong posterior chain will increase my running speed and form by improving my body mechanics. Bad example: I am doing deadlifts because they look cool. Worse example: I don’t know why I am doing deadlifts.

Most people who start an exercise program never see it through. You wanna know why? Because most people fail to stick with it long enough to see any real improvement. Gains are addicting. When you lift more than you did last week, run faster or further than you did the month before, or start to notice your clothes are fitting a little looser, you can’t help but get hooked.  The problem is, if you have a faulty plan, stick-to-it-edness is not enough because you may never see the gains you were expecting! The fact is, exercise is tough, and if you aren’t seeing any results for your effort you are much less likely to want to keep at it—and I don’t blame you.

The body responds to a training stimulus in a very predictable way. There is not a lot of mystery when it comes to planning workouts. You want stronger legs? Strength train your legs. You want faster run splits? Do speed work. You want to do get your first pull-up? Do pull-up progressions. I see a lot of people waste a lot of time at the gym doing non-essential and sometimes even counter-productive workouts. If you can’t answer the why behind your workouts, instead ask yourself the what…what’s the point? It doesn’t have to be a complicated matter. I have gone to the gym out of boredom before. What was the purpose of my training that day? To cure boredom. Point is, I had a purpose and thought about it before randomly grabbing equipment and putting myself at risk for injury.

As you climb the ladder from recreational exerciser to the ranks of pro athlete the rationale behind every aspect of your training program is of paramount importance. This is because the difference between a second, or millimeter of performance can mean the difference between winning an Olympic medal and 10th place. The more elite the athlete, the more there is at stake, and the more nuanced the training becomes. For most of us at a recreational level and below, our training programs can afford to be a lot less specific. Notice I said less specific and not non-specific. If your goal is to improve your performance in any way, your workouts should have purpose and meaning.

You’re not going to like this but you not only need to justify your exercise selection but each of the choices from our list above. Too often I see workouts that are thrown together on the spot. Best-case scenario, you see a modest improvement in performance, worst-case scenario you injure yourself because your workouts were planned with less attention to detail than you would use to assemble a sandwich.

On the flip side we have those who take the specificity training principle a little too far. These are the folks in the gym trying to mimic the exact swing of a golf club or baseball bat using a dangerous combination of cable machines and broom handles. Your training doesn’t need to be an identical representation of your sport. Instead, think of how to replicate the demand of your sport at the gym. Think about the muscle groups you use for your sport. Do they need to be strong? Enduring? Supple? Then think about the muscle groups that support the main movers in your sport as well as the ones you don’t use at all. Take for example a right-handed racquet sport athlete, should she only train the right side of her body? Probably not. But the training she needs for her racquet arm might be different than what her left arm needs. Each sport has its own unique demands and more than that, each person will have their own unique needs. Injury history, health status, training age, and performance goals are just a few of the things I consider when designing programs for my clients.

Bottom line: if you are training for performance or with a specific goal in mind your training needs to reflect that goal. If you aren’t sure how to do it on your own, hire an experienced trainer or coach to help you get there. Your time is your most precious resource; spend it wisely following a training plan that effectively gets you from where you are now to where you want to be.

If you like what I’m layin’ down, leave a comment, share this article, or do me a real favour and put your training to good use!


Coach P


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