Specificity is a core principle in sport science. It’s the degree of association between training and performance outcomes.1 If you’re a powerlifter this means that the training you do should be focused at getting you better at squatting, benching, and deadlifting. But this is where the disconnect occurs with coaches; between the principle and its application.
Specificity exists on a spectrum—100% specificity as a powerlifter means your training would consist exclusively of competing in actual meets. However, no one does this and for obvious reasons.
So, a less specific but more appropriate application of the principle is to do the competition lifts or a close variation more frequently at submaximal loads with a progressive structure that guides the program.
This is the distinction between specificity and transference. Specific training generally has the highest transference. Individual circumstances may influence the application of specificity resulting in a less specific approach yielding better performance metrics.
Specificity Doesn’t Exist In a Vacuum
The main point here is that specificity does not exist in a vacuum, and the interaction between specificity and other variables like fatigue management, injury, variation, and overload need to be considered when designing a program. Let’s go one step further and look at scenarios where less specific training protocols would actually yield a higher transference to sports performance.
One such example is injury. I had tendonitis in both knees which caused a lot of pain while squatting. Unsurprisingly, this impeded my performance and my results suffered. The protocol I chose to fix this was high volume eccentric leg extensions to strengthen the tendons.2 This worked exceptionally well and removed the pain as well as any apprehension signals so I could squat unimpeded. My performance improved immediately as did my result at the end of my cycle.
Leg extension did not increase my force output, they simply removed an obstruction that allowed me to accumulate more overloading sessions of higher quality which made me stronger. Less specific, but it allowed for a higher transference to sports performance.
Assuming an athlete needs to gain 20lb to fill out his ideal weight class his training would necessarily be less specific.
It may include longer hypertrophy blocks and even reflect a slight preference to hypertrophy during the strength phases. If you took a snapshot of this athlete’s program, it would appear to be less specific. In fact, had he done less hypertrophy it’s possible he may have had a slightly better strength outcome at the end of a single training cycle.
However, when you extend this timeline out several years, the athlete develops much more strength as a direct result of increased muscle cross-sectional area. His new muscle has also extended his strength potential beyond what he could have reached at his previous weight.3
Exercise variation can decrease staleness of a program and boost the athlete’s desire to train. Variation is also a critical aspect of fatigue management and prevention of overuse injuries.4 One form of variation is exercise alteration—changing grip width, squat stance, doing floor press instead of competition bench press, etc.
Yield Your Best Long Term Results
Now, I want to be clear, I’m not diminishing the principle of specificity. Nor am I saying that because there are instances where less specific training yields better results then the principle of specificity is wrong.
In the examples above (which are real case studies) higher specificity would have produced a lesser transference to performance outcomes. This is an application issue, not an issue with the principle itself. Your ability as an athlete to move up and down the spectrum of specificity based on what will yield the best long term results is a critical skill that must be developed over time.
Avoid excessive rigidity in your understanding of these fundamental principles. This will help you apply them more effectively in your own training and ultimately produce better results.
1. William B. McCafferty & Steven M. Horvath (1977) “Specificity of Exercise and Specificity of Training: A Subcellular Review.” Research Quarterly. American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 48:2, 358-371, DOI: 10.1080/10671315.1977.10615433.
2. Öhberg L, Lorentzon R, Alfredson H, “Eccentric training in patients with chronic Achilles tendinosis: normalised tendon structure and decreased thickness at follow up.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 2004;38:8-11.
3. Higbie, Elizabeth J., Kirk J. Cureton, Gordon L. Warren, and Barry M. Prior. “Effects of Concentric and Eccentric Training on Muscle Strength, Cross-sectional Area, and Neural Activation.” Journal of Applied Physiology 81, no. 5 (1996): 2173-181. doi:10.1152/jappl.19184.108.40.2063.
4. Renström, Per, and Robert J. Johnson. “Overuse Injuries in Sports A Review.” Sports Medicine 2, no. 5 (1985): 316-33. doi:10.2165/00007256-198502050-00002.?