Understanding Specificity, Training to reach your Goals
Exercising can mean so many things, it entails things from walking to running to yoga. There are endless amounts of ways to train. In order to cut through the confusion, you need to have your fitness goal in mind. This will determine what type of training you need perform.
Once you have identified your goal, you must have an idea of what activities support that goal. Specificity is a sliding scale from directly specific, generally specific, supportive and unrelated.
We all know that our time is limited, our time should be treated like a currency. Because of this you would want to spend more time on activities which help you achieve your goal. However, there is an argument against ONLY performing specific training as you will be missing out on all the benefits of the other types of training which also support your goal.
The idea is to perform a wide variety of training to gain each of their respective benefits without overdoing it. This lays the foundation to move into the more specific phases in the season.
I have previously said that if you wanted to start exercising you should just do it. I now want to delve a little deeper into what type of training to perform.
So, you want to start exercising? Whether it’s to lose weight, put on some muscle or even just for general fitness. What you have to understand is that the word “exercise” can mean so many different things.
Examples of exercise can include:
- Weight Training
- Circuit Training
Each of these can then be sub divided again into another subset. There are 100s of different types of Yoga. In weight training you have strength training, power training and CrossFit etc. You get the idea.
Where exactly do you start?
Start with a Fitness Goal
This sounds very simplistic and even cliché. Seriously though, you have to understand that the end goal must be defined before you can start exercising.
If you have the end goal in mind, it makes every decision easier because all you have to do is evaluate the decision based on your goal. This is true outside of the fitness world as well.
If your goal is to become a Powerlifter, do you think you should get into weight training? I would be inclined to say yes. Do you also think you should do circuit training 7 times a week? Maybe not. Should you start doing more Yoga? Probably not.
This is NOT saying that circuit training or yoga are “bad”, they may simply not help you achieve your goal. If your goal is to become good at yoga, then doing more yoga is an absolute must.
We live in a world where there is so much information and fluff. Having a goal in mind will cut through the confusion and ensure that you are on the right path.
Note: We have briefly touched on goal setting, and although your number one priority should be to become the best version of yourself, a secondary goal would be your actual fitness goal.
This brings me to my next point:
Working Out vs Training
It is very common for people who want to get into exercising to just sign up to a gym. They then come to the gym in their free time, complete their work out and go home. Their work out might be something different each time. Some days they might do cardio, some days chest/biceps and some other days they might join one of the boxing classes.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that they have finally decided to start exercising, but how long do you think they’ll last?
As soon as their work life starts to pick up their gym sessions will probably drop off. This is because they only go to the gym in their spare time. What do you think will happen when their “spare time” disappears? As soon as they miss one day, they might not show up for the week.
What is missing?
If this sounds like you, it is because you are “working out” when you should be training
Working out implies that you enter the gym and just do whatever you feel like. There is no goal in mind.
Training on the other hand is exercising with purpose. You train with a goal in mind.
This simple switch in the language used makes a huge difference psychologically in my opinion. Notice the language of people who train versus working out:
- I am training for a marathon.
- I am training for a powerlifting competition.
- I am training for my sport.
- I work out. For what?!
It has been well documented that working towards a goal will get you there faster than aimlessly ‘working’. Being efficient is useless if you are heading in the wrong direction. It will just get you there faster. You’ll never know whether you are heading towards your goal if all you ever do is put your head down and work without seeing the direction you are heading in.
Having a goal keeps you motivated and accountable.
Training with a goal means you will have a schedule. It might be training 3 days a week. You are more likely to train the 3 days because it gives you a social structure to adhere to. Without a structure, it’s very easy to “drop off” when you are working out.
Types of Training
Now let’s talk about the different types of training that you might want to participate in depending on your goals. I will also briefly touch on how it affects strength training as this is the training that I am most familiar with:
- Flexibility Training
- Endurance Training
- Metabolic/Depletion Training
- Power Training
- Hypertrophy Training
- Strength Training
Flexibility training is performing a range of motion about a joint and its surrounding muscles. This does not always refer to doing splits and yoga type stretches. Simply performing a barbell movement through its full range of motion can be considered flexibility training.
We can split them into 3 broad categories:
- Performing the movement through a full range of motion
- Performing the movement through greater range of motion (deficit deadlifts)
- Standard stretching
It is important to gain enough flexibility to perform the movement safely. Any more than that generally takes away tightness from the muscle and its ability to contract.
Endurance refers to training of the aerobic system (literally meaning “with oxygen”). It increases your ability to carry oxygen to the muscles. This is generally what most people refer to as “cardio”. Of course, there are a lot of ways to train endurance and not every single one involves cardio. It is simply the most common one that most people can relate to.
With regards to strength training, cardiovascular training can improve recovery between sets. This means that a person with better endurance would be able to recover faster and perform more work than an unfit person.
Generally performed with lighter loads, high repetitions and short rests both in between sets and also in between exercises. This is often what people see as circuit training or higher rep weight training (15-20 reps per set). This training is intended to increase calories burned and deplete glycogen stores which can sometimes be a desired state for fat loss purposes.
Power is defined as force production over time. It refers to how fast one can produce maximum force. This type of training is often characterised by very short bursts of movements performed at very high speeds.
Due to the high speed of power training, the lift is often finished before you reach maximum force production. This is why, in the context of strength training – “Speed Work” does not correlate very highly with strength gains. However, it should be noted that successful powerlifters incorporate power days into their programming for recovery purposes and technique practice.
Outside of powerlifting, most sports will derive huge value from power training.
Hypertrophy refers to enlargement of an organ tissue from the increase in size of its cells. It is training with the intention of inducing muscle growth. This is generally performed at lower intensities with higher rep ranges and higher volume.
In the context of strength training it is extremely important as it is one of the two most important factors for producing strength. Note that this type of training generally requires higher volume than traditional strength training.
Strength training as its name suggests is training that enables the ability to better express strength. This is often in the form of moving heavier weights over time. Traditional strength training involves higher intensities and lower volume.
Strength training is obviously the most specific to gaining strength itself.
Disadvantage of all forms of Training
You can probably see from the above that all forms of training relate to and benefit each other (some more than others). However, if your goal is to get stronger, the biggest disadvantage of any training outside of strength training is the fact that it takes away recovery for actual strength training. (That’s a lot of strength in a sentence!)
- Flexibility is required to perform the lifts correctly and safely, however, hyper flexibility can cause injuries
- Cardio may be beneficial to strength training, however, excessive cardio takes time away from strength training and reduces recovery
- Even though hypertrophy has the biggest impact on strength, training hypertrophy exclusively also impacts strength negatively by reducing recovery and time available to train strength
To understand the reason for these disadvantages we have to first discuss the concept of…
Training is the action of teaching yourself a particular skill or type of behaviour. This skill could be producing maximal strength when lifting weights, it could be the ability to run over long distances.
Specificity is generally not black and white and can be interpreted in a spectrum such as the one below:
Time – our most valued currency
The reason why we talk about specificity is because we have limited resources.
For example, there are only 24 hours in a day. No matter how diligent and hardworking you are, you CANNOT train for more than 24 hours a day (You wouldn’t want anyway but I’m just using this for illustrative purposes). There are only 7 days in a week and roughly 52.14 weeks in a year. Our time is limited.
Not only that but training itself requires recovery. The mechanism of training involves you exposing your body to a stress and then giving it time to recover from that stress. The goal is to let your body rebuild into a stronger system than it was prior to being exposed to the stress.
See the example below:
Notice how post recovery, the new base level fitness is higher than its previous point prior to the training session.
What are the implications? You need time to recover from training! We already established that time is limited. This means that your training is also limited.
If your goal is to become an elite powerlifter you might be able to train 6 times a week (just an example). This includes training and recovery time required. If you also want to become a marathon runner it means you’ll have to train for a marathon. If you train for a marathon 3 times a week, guess what that means? It will cut into your powerlifting training. You will have to reduce your powerlifting training or reduce your marathon training.
Imagine your training time/recovery time like spending money. If you have $100 to spend, there is only so much you can buy. You can buy one big sign that says ‘POWERLIFTING’ that costs $100. Alternatively you can also buy 2 signs, one that says ‘POWERLIFTING’ and one that says ‘BODYBUILDING’. Of course the signs will have to be $50 each and are also smaller in size than the $100 sign. You could even buy 10 smaller signs all saying different things at $10 each. You get the idea.
Let’s get Specific
You might be wondering: If my time is limited and specific training has the strongest connection to my goal. Why would I bother with anything else? Why don’t I train specific exclusively?
The three main reasons are:
- Missing out on important benefits of other types of training
- Body adaptations, diminishing returns and burn out
- Injury prevention
Everyone loves benefits
We spoke about the various benefits of different type of training above and how they support strength gains. These benefits are important and cannot be overlooked. Hypertrophy is one of the two key factors that influence strength output. So guess what? Without hypertrophy training your strength will eventually stall no matter how much you train.
The other point is becoming a well rounded athlete. If you are only doing one type of training you will never be able to identify and work on your weaknesses.
Diminishing Returns: “Too much of anything is bad” – even if it’s specific
Imagine your goal is to become a full-time writer. The most specific task you can do write. So why don’t you just stop everything and just write whenever you find the chance?
As specific as it is, there are some other benefits that you will gain from activities which are generally or supportive to your outcome.
An example is taking a break and going for a walk. It’s not specific because it doesn’t make you write, but it is supportive of your outcome in that it helps clear your head so that you are able to write more when you return to writing.
Another one would be taking a writing course, not super specific either but it is generally specific in that it helps you become a better writer.
On the other hand, if all you did was walk in your spare time, it wouldn’t leave you any time left to write! If all you did was attend writing courses you wouldn’t actually get any actual writing done!
If you put your nose on the grindstone and wrote non-stop you would probably burn out. Even if you were super human you would at least become less productive as time goes on.
After a long night of rest, the first hour you write will be awesome because you are well rested. The next hour you start to slow down ever so slightly. This pattern continues as your productivity per hour drops for every hour that you continue working.
Specific training exclusively can lead to overuse injuries. An example would be low-bar squatting. I myself prefer to squat low-bar now because it helps me handle the most weight.
In powerlifting the person who wins is the one who has the higher total. If you squat higher numbers with low-bar compared to high-bar would you choose to use low-bar in the competition?
Would you train low-bar all year round?
Low-bar squat put a lot of stress on my elbows and lower back. Couple that with the fact that I am a conventional deadlifter which hammers my lower back also!
This is why I would have to train using high-bar squat in the off season. It still has a very high carry over to the low-bar but does not put the same amount of strain on my lower back.
From General to Specific
We have learned that specificity is the key to achieving your goal. However, you also need to perform not so specific training. The idea is to gain the benefits of supportive and generally specific training while not over doing it.
In powerlifting, the most specific type of training is practising high intensity lifts for squat, bench and deadlift. However, when you are far out from the season you will spend time training hypertrophy to make use of its effect on muscle size which will increase your strength later on when you get into your strength block. You may do a little cardio to increase endurance to set you up for the strength training block.
The training will then become more and more specific the closer you get to the competition day. This general principle is followed by most major sports.
Let’s have a look at an example of training phases for a powerlifter:
As you can see from the timeline, the further you are out from competition, the more general your training is. This builds a strong base which catapults you into the next phase as it becomes more and more specific.
Reversal: Benefits of Strength Training
If your goal is to build strength, there are some obvious benefits to be gained from doing other training such as hypertrophy and endurance etc. The reverse is also true most other fitness goals!
If your goal is to become fit, gaining strength will benefit you. Even if your goal is to build endurance, strength training will be supportive of that goal.
Unless you are particularly weird and want to lose muscles, strength training generally supports 99% of the fitness goals you may have.
I am not saying that strength training is the holy grail that cures cancer. I would simply encourage everyone to include some element of strength specific work in their training.
Just don’t overdo it
you may become addicted! it may take recovery away from your main goal!