A Case Against Specificity

DSC01112 Pendulums swing to and fro. That’s what pendulums do. I see another pendulum swinging lately and this one has to do with exercise specificity. Not long ago, the pendulum was as far away from specificity as it gets. Lots of lifters and popular writers talked about what assistance exercises drove their lifts the most. In powerlifting, you had guys who never actually trained the contest lifts, yet did all manner of other lifts with varying degrees of non-specificity. I’ll admit that at one time I bought into this, but I’m happy to say I was impressionable at the time and have since grown out of it. Contrast that with what we see growing in popularity over the last couple of years. There has been a resurgent popularity in the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands). By in large I would say this is a very good thing, but like all things it can be taken too far. Some lifters are even ahead of this current trend and train only in hyper-specific ways (for example, ONLY perform their contest lifts and perform them using extreme loads at all times). The pendulum is swinging in this direction more, so I expect this to grow even more in popularity before it stops. By and large, I would say this is a positive thing. The trend toward greater specificity is a very positive thing for popular programming in strength sports. By neglecting the contest lifts, the Assistance-Only group fails to adequately prepare their body for the skills they seek to perfect. But like all pendulum swings, it can be taken too far. The Ultra-Specificity group fails to address key components of development that are not addressed with hyper-specific training. Since specificity is growing in popularity, I won’t spend much time discussing shortcomings of the Non-Specific training style. Lots of other authors are doing that and, once again, I agree with most of what is written; some of it resoundingly so. My caution is just that some are taking it too far. Don’t be one of those categorical, either-or thinkers that jams every round method in its square categorical box. Avail yourself to the nuance of viewing this as a sliding scale. What Specificity Is First, let’s talk about what specificity is. Specificity is how closely a movement and its loading parameters reflect the contest lifts. Dynamic Correspondence is another fancier way of identifying how specific a movement is to the ones important in competition. This is a sliding scale really with General at one extreme and Specific at the other. All the training movements you can do fit along that scale. Rather than go into a sub-article on what constitutes specificity, I’m going to assume you at least have an intuitive feeling on what it is. If the contest lift is the Squat, then a Glute Ham Raise is very non-specific (aka general). Squatting to a 1RM is extremely specific. Pause squats are in between. You’ll find that most lifts and loading parameters are in between. Specificity is also about more than exercise selection. Specificity can of course refer to exercise selection as part of its criteria. But load, reps, and speed of contraction are three other major criteria. There are more criteria that fit under dynamic correspondence, but many can be addressed with the generic term “exercise selection”. AP1_1569 The problems with too much specificity The problem with specificity is that there are certain attributes that highly specific training can’t develop (or at least doesn’t develop very well). It’s for these reasons that we need some variety in training. This is true in just about all cases. Sprinters have found it to be beneficial to develop a significant degree of muscle mass. They also find it makes sense to develop the muscle by lifting weights rather than by sprinting more. So a general means helps them achieve higher sporting results. If we go to the more familiar context of Powerlifting or Weightlifting, again hyper-specific training falls short in the development of muscle mass. It seems obvious that lifting weights in a way specific to Powerlifting or Weightlifting competition – that is, lifting at or near your 1RM – is not the ideal way to develop muscular hypertrophy. And hypertrophy is one of the biological foundations for strength. I’m sure someone will happily point out that muscular hypertrophy is mostly a result of training volume done over a certain threshold of intensity. And I agree. So theoretically, if you trained extremely heavy seven days a week and racked up an unbelievable volume, you could gain more mass than you would by training with lighter weights and higher reps only three days a week. This would be a function of increasing overall volume. But that is not a fair comparison. If you have the time and ability to train seven days a week, then you could theoretically push your training volumes even higher still by using the less-specific lighter weight, higher rep approach, which (again theoretically) should result in more muscle mass via a less specific means. That mass could then be translated to improved sport performance later on through the use of the highly specific training. Besides hypertrophy, there is the question of health and longevity. Of course participation in high level sport is never truly a “healthy” activity since it involves extreme performances, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept short careers. If you look at iron sports athletes (powerlifters, weightlifters, bodybuilders, strongmen), the very best usually have long careers. You can’t train for four to five years and expect to reach the limit of your potential. The Soviet weightlifters expected a gifted athlete (one destined for international competition) to be competitive at the national level after eight years of training. It would take longer still to reach their peak. Other iron sports athletes tend to have even longer careers. The point is that this sort of longevity can’t be achieved if you are sidelined by injury. That’s not to say that highly-specific training will get you hurt. I don’t believe it will. In fact, training contest lifts at a high frequency seems to reduce pain and possibly injury. But if taken to the extreme this effect fades away. Over-use and neglect injuries can result. No single lift trains all of the basic movements of the human body. So by focusing on one exercise or even a select group of exercises, there are almost certainly some things that will be left untrained or inadequately trained. After a while, we theorize that imbalances can result in pain. Even if you reject the idea of developing muscle imbalances, you can’t deny that there are people out there who neglect, say, horizontal pulling (rows) and focus on horizontal pushing (bench press). Sometimes these people develop severe pain or injury in their shoulders. And often this pain goes away after they start doing more rows. This allows them to get back to training the more specific lifts that build their strength. The rows themselves may not have built any bench pressing prowess, but they ENABLED effective training, which over the long term is just as important. And if hypertrophy (a fundamental biological basis for strength) and longevity (allowing yourself time to develop strength) weren’t enough to convince you of a more moderate approach, I hold that some general-specific movements can develop strength where you need it most and do it better than simply greater volumes of specific lifts. To explain this, we’re going to borrow a term from economics – diminishing marginal benefit. What this means is that the second time you do a thing (say squat), it will be less effective than the first time you do it. The third time is less effective than the second time, and so on. With sports, there is a time component – a refractory period if you like – at play here as well. So let’s look at the extreme. If you perform highly specific training, say squat to a maximum, and do so six days a week, what additional benefit does doing so seven days a week add? Though the total benefit of highly specific training everyday might be more than the total benefit of say, once a week, each additional bout provides less and less return on your time and effort. At some point, it will become advantageous to perform special exercises carefully designed and selected for their training effects. In building on our squat example, if you already perform highly specific squatting 6 days a week and still want to add more, I would suggest trying Pause Squats. Since it is the first bout of pause squats, you will have a higher marginal benefit than yet another bout of the contest lift. Of course, this benefit must then be “converted” into sport skill through a process of transference and you will lose something in the transfer. We can’t expect 100% of the strength gained in a Pause Squat to transfer to the contest lift. This is why it is important to carefully select special exercises to maximize transference. Don’t get caught up in the “squatting six to seven days a week” example. Remember this is an extreme example to illustrate a point. Most of the coaches I know will draw the line at 1-3x weekly frequency. If you already practice the contest lift 1-3 times a week, then chances are that well planned special exercises will help more than simply more contest lifts. Of course this will be discipline-dependent with some highly technical events like a Snatch requiring more specific work than a deadlift. Even so, at some point the large marginal benefit of a special exercise will prove to be more than the diminishing marginal benefit of MORE ultra-specific training, even when transference is factored in. It’s just a question of where you draw the line and in my opinion, this is a much more reasonable stance than “all maxes all the time”. AP1_3181-2 More volume? Not so simple. If you are one of those people that accept that ultra-specific training is the optimal method, then the only recourse you are given for progression is increased volume. Think about it. If you are a “max out on the contest lifts only” type of guy, then what do you do when that eventually stops working? You add more volume in the way of more heavy efforts. That will work for a while, but it will reach its practical limits sooner than you think. First, you max out every day with back off sets. Soon, you’re spending three hours in the gym every day. Then you split your work into two daily sessions so that you can continue to increase your volume. But there are only so many hours in a day. You reach a point where more volume is simply not possible. And this happens after a few years instead of a few decades. Then what? You’ve adapted to all the volume of specific training possible given the reality of time. And this of course assumes that you don’t run into practical limitations like a job or other commitments outside of your training. If so, you reach practical limitations sooner and this method stops working sooner. To paraphrase the late Dr Yuri Verkoshansky of Soviet sports science fame, with athletes already committing so much time to the perfecting of their sport, it’s hard to imagine that more volume is the answer. Of course, if you are not maximizing your volume, doing so should be something that you take seriously. But if you already spend all the time you’re willing and able to spend on your training, you must find ways other than more volume to improve your results. Even the vaunted beacon of ultra-specific training, the so called Bulgarian weightlifting method, included some lifts that would fall into the general-specific category (back squats, front squats, and possibly one or two others). And since the dominance of Bulgarian weightlifting, other national teams have certainly learned from Bulgarian methods. But neither the Chinese, nor the Russians, nor the Kazaks have wholesale adopted the Bulgarian method. Applications I’m not writing this article to include a program at the end. This is a concept and it’s much bigger than “do this program to get ur gainz”. It can and should be applied to whatever program you’re doing. And if your training as a long-term whole doesn’t strike a good balance between specific and non-specific, then adapt. And if you don’t have the ability to adapt training in that way, I’d recommend changing your training philosophy. It’s okay, possibly even beneficial, to have bouts of highly-specific training where you reduce or maybe even eliminate non-specific means. But this is not a whole-career solution. There need to be periods of less specific training in your annual plan. Now don’t go the complete opposite direction and eliminate your contest lifts either. The practice of your contest lifts is and always will be the primary driver of your strength gain. But it is a myopic road to never deviate from ultra-specific training. I believe a good case can be made both for the inclusion of special strength exercises like pause squats for powerlifters or pulls and power versions for weightlifters. I also believe a good case can be made for balancing exercises and the training of neglected muscle groups at certain periods of the annual cycle. I recommend including them in your training after you ensure that you receive an adequate volume of the contest lifts. I also recommend that you deviate from ultra-specific loading protocols at times. Performing sub-maximal-but-still-heavy lifts is important. As is training designed to elicit hypertrophy, and in some select cases other special strengths. For these goals, sometimes the employ of the contest lift is a good idea, other times not. But one thing you can be sure of is that it is context-dependent, not some black-or-white, good-or-bad, give-it-to-me-simple-because-complex-hurts-my-brainz categorical nonsense. TLDR? Moderation in all things. To many, this will be obvious, but remember what I’ve said as the pendulum continues to swing. The groundswell of support for ultra-specific training will probably continue to rise and to a large extent I think this is a good thing. I’m simply providing a word of caution not to take it too far. Specificity is not so good that you should forsake all other methods. 
About the Author Mike Tuchscherer is the owner and head coach at RTS. He has been powerlifting since 2001 and since has traveled all over the world for competitions. In 2009, he was the first man from USA powerlifting to win a gold medal at the World Games – the highest possible achievement in powerlifting. He has coached over a dozen competitors at the world championships, a score of national champions, and multiple world record holders.