The Principle Of Specificity

I am sure you have all heard of the general terms: train big to get big, and train strong to get strong. Well, this in a nutshell is the principle of specificity. It simply says that you should program your training drills to meet the demands of a sport that you are training for. For instance, if you want to get better at tennis, then you must select and train those movements that best match those required in tennis. This of course makes perfect sense!

After all, being good at tennis is about arm speed, strength and coordination. It makes no sense to program your training around squats if your aim is to improve your arm performance. A tennis player will therefore need to select specific movements that train their arm muscles optimally and utilize the same movement patterns as those demanded in the actual game. As a weightlifter, this also applies to you. Since your goal is to get bigger and stronger, it’s vital that you program your weight training in a way that best accomplishes this. Specificity is so important for your training, that if you fail to meet the demands of it, you are likely to fall down before you even begin! It’s always good before you begin your weightlifting journey, to ask yourself, is my training program really specific to my goals? Doing that, will immediately put you on the correct path to success.

Being Specific Means Choosing The Best Exercises

A lot of new weightlifters will probably look at the principle of specificity and think right; I need to organize my volume, intensity, sets, reps and exercise frequency. Well you are right, in part. These variables will play an important role in helping you to program your training for size and strength. But, there is one important training variable you have overlooked, that is exercise selection. In my experience, most weightlifters overlook this critical aspect when it comes to making your training specific. In fact, I will be honest; I think exercise selection IS the most important variable in achieving optimal specificity. Without it, the effectiveness of all your other training factors ceases to exist from the get-go. Usually, when weightlifters find their progress stalling, they consider everything EXCEPT the exercises they have chosen. This typically means changing training schemes, but with yet the same exercises used as before!

“Most weightlifters overlook this critical aspect when it comes to making your training specific”.

If you are looking to make optimal gains in size and strength, then compound exercises should be your number one go-to. In order to best meet the demands of specificity, then the majority of your weight lifting should prioritize compounds. They are simply just the best to use for building up elite levels of strength and size! When it comes to compounds, you are unlikely to develop weak links in the chain. In weightlifting, weak links will always pull your progress back! As compound movements recruit and work multiple muscle groups, you are more likely to build up an even base of full body strength, and, target ALL your muscles for optimal growth. If you think about it, when you carry out a movement, several muscles groups are working together to ensure the movement is smooth, coordinated and executed with optimal force. If there are lagging muscle groups in this chain of recruitment, force production will not be optimal and the entire movement will suffer. With a routine based around too many isolation exercises and not enough compounds, you are more likely to run into this exact problem. All this can be detrimental to your size and strength gains. Compounds generally will give you better performance transfer between other compound exercises with similar movement patterns. This means, with a routine based around primarily compounds, it’s almost impossible to stall anywhere and everything will simply act to reinforce each other. The outcome being that you continue to get stronger on all your lifts and, no muscle group gets left behind. Unfortunately, achieving this to the same extent with mainly isolation exercises is just not going to happen.

Being Too Specific Can Be A Problem

If you want to make optimal size and strength gains, then your routine needs to be designed specifically to accommodate this. The number one key to achieving this is to program your training to make heavy use of compounds movements. Well, that is the easy part done. By utilizing primarily compound movements you have met the demand for training specificity. One important consideration that might have slipped your mind is, what happens if your routine is TOO specific? This is one of the frustrating things about the principle of specificity. Achieving your training goals means it’s best to arrange your training in a particular manner to optimally achieve them. But, if you stick to the same thing, your body gets used to it and the positive results start to slow down. Yes, here I am talking about the law of accommodation. A lot of weightlifters succeed in meeting the principle of specificity by basing their routines around compound exercises. But, they usually stick with the SAME exercises for long periods of time. Although their goal of achieving training specificity is reached, the positive effects of this specificity will gradually dissipate with time. Simply because you are doing the same thing over and over again! The negative effects of accommodation begin to override the positive effects of training specificity.

“The number one key to achieving this is to program your training to make heavy use of compounds movements”.

Is there a way of sneakily bypassing the negative effects of accommodation without also losing the positive influence of training specificity? Absolutely! It’s called the same, but different approach. The sure-fire way of doing this is to use slight variations of the major compound exercises that you do. Here, the smallest of changes really will make a huge difference to your training. When it comes to performing a compound exercise, performing the exact same movement pattern for long periods of time can cause burnout, fatigue and, potential pattern overuse injuries. These problems collectively can significantly reduce the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of these compounds and subsequently your training. Even though the compound movement itself is highly specific to your size and strength goals, its positive output declines over time as the body becomes accustomed to it. If you try to persist with the same movement, the chances are you will quickly find your progression stalling, or worse, regress.

Contrast Fatigue Specificity: A Smarter Way To Weightlifting Success

Changing the exercise variation is based on the idea of contrast fatigue specificity. Basically, the idea is that the fatigue you experience from a specific type of work you do, will affect the capacity of work you can do the next session. Moreover, the fatigue you experience now, will more strongly affect your next workout, than that of say 5 days ago. The idea of contrast means that you then need to perform something a bit different you’re next training session to counteract this fatigue. For instance, if you performed a particular exercise one session, the fatigue produced, will be specific to that exercise. It makes sense then to perform a similar exercise that offers the same benefits. The only difference is you won’t have the associated fatigue because the actual work you are performing is now that bit different. As a result of reducing this fatigue, you will still be able to reap the benefits of specificity, but without compromising your size and strength gains through possible fatigue-like setbacks.

“Changing the exercise variation is based on the idea of contrast fatigue specificity”.

Take the deadlift for instance. I am sure you are aware of the compound exercise, the conventional deadlift. In fact, most weightlifters will begin with this deadlift variation. The problem is, most will never change if for other variations. Even though the conventional deadlift is extremely specific to increasing overall size and strength, doing it over and over again, can gradually reduce these positive effects. The good news is there are many variations of this exercise that you can do without loosing the positive benefits of specificity itself. Take a look at the images below. These all represent different variations of the conventional deadlift. Even though they are all slightly different, with slight variations on movement patterns and muscles recruited and worked, you are still gaining all the size and strength benefits that a conventional deadlift will give you. Take a typical 3-day workout plan. If you workout 3 times per week for instance, then one workout session you could do a sumo deadlift, the next stiff-legged and finally, the last session a trap-bar deadlift. The advantage here is that the fatigue produced through doing the sumo deadlift, will not carry through to the trap-bar deadlift. Assuming that you are still changing your other training variables often (e.g. volume and intensity), then you can continue pulling from the floor more often, continue refining your deadlift technique and, make strength and size gains on a more frequent basis. Changing up the exercise variation means you can still maintain the benefits of specificity, while being in an optimal position to overcome fatigue, demotivation and potential injuries from doing the same thing continuously.

Sumo Deadlift.png     Stiff-Legged Deadlift.png

Trap Bar Deadlift.png

Don’t Follow The Crowd: Stand Out

Most people will probably tell you, it’s a hassle changing exercises all the time and its just not needed. In fact, most will probably say, it just adds further complication to your training. I couldn’t disagree more! This of course is a great shame, because exercise variation in my opinion, is the easiest thing you could do to boost your weightlifting results. Most people when they stall and no longer make progress; will tend to change every training variable in existence, try new routines and maybe, plan in extended rest periods. Whatever they do, you will most often see the exact same exercises being utilized. Perhaps the exercise order might change slightly, or the number of exercises might increase or decrease. But overall, the same variations will be maintained. As a result, you will just end up hammering your body with the exact same type of work to be performed. Rather than developing size and strength, you will probably just end up extra fatigued, demotivated and injury-prone. Let’s avoid that!

“Exercise variation in my opinion, is the easiest thing you could do to boost your weightlifting results”.

If you perform the same exercises, every session, week in-week out, your body will get accustomed to the exact same movement patterns and the fatigue produced from the same exercises, will only function to hinder your progress. In the end, gaining size and strength just becomes for you one heck of a mountain climb. You might get a few stares in the gym doing these ‘weird’, never seen before exercise variations. I know I do! But guess what, you will be the one making leaps and bounds in your size and strength gains!

If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below. Have you heard of the principle of specificity? Do you think increased exercise variation could be a nice addition to your training? Let me know!