Creating a Great Workout Program: The Specificity Principle

Over the next few weeks, I am going to arm you with the information required to put together your own effective and easy-to-follow workout program. First up is the specificity principle.

To paraphrase, specificity is the principle of training that states that what you do in the gym should be relevant and appropriate to your desired outcome. Training must go from general (at the beginning) to specific (as the program progresses).

For example, a typical NHL player will begin the off-season correcting any injuries or general movement issues from the previous season of wear and tear. By the end of the summer, that player will be skating again and working primarily on speed and power improvements that are very specific to skating and playing hockey.

Specificity also implies that to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill. To be a good cyclist, you must cycle. The point to take away is that a runner should train by running and a swimmer should train by swimming. But if you are just training to get stronger or in better shape, how can you use specificity to aid your progress?

Rotational power – specific to baseball (and many other sports)

As Aristotle said, excellence isn’t an act but a habit. You are what you repeatedly do. Don’t expect to get faster if you are only bench pressing, and conversely, don’t expect your bench press to get better if you are only doing hill sprints. And don’t expect changes overnight, either.

Most people ignore the specificity principle when putting together their own workout programs (or even worse, when aimlessly going to the gym a few times a week). Don’t get me wrong, doing something active is better than nothing, but if you are in the fitness game for the long haul, you need to set some specific goals to stay engaged, track progress, and enjoy the journey more than the destination itself.

Because there is never going to be a day when you are fully and completely satisfied with your fitness level and decide to “quit” exercising. There is no end date.

Charles Poloquin, known in fitness circles as the godfather of program design, offers his specificity principle definition:

Specificity refers to developing a particular athletic quality in the manner in which it occurs in a particular sport.

Obviously the better you get at a sport, the more specific your training has to be. The weekend warrior or the average person just wanting to get “in shape” doesn’t need to have workouts that are as specific as an NHL player for a professional power lifter.

Gary Roberts has carved out a niche as an elite hockey trainer, but he also trains regular people and applies many of the same principles (all people stand to benefit from training like athletes, just with less intensity and lower volume). Eric Cressey is known as one of the best trainers in the baseball industry. What they do with their athletes will be different. Hockey players and baseball players have some overlapping demands (rotational power, for one), but their sports also require very different strengths and movement patterns on a regular basis.

Numerous studies have been done to back up the specificity principle, as well.

For training to be effective, it should be similar to the demands of the sport. Usually, the more specific the training, the better the transfer to sports performance. All though that last statement may be true, many strength and conditioning professionals including myself believe non-specific training should also take place in a training program not only to achieve a higher level of ability but for also injury prevention. Keep in mind, training first started to prevent injury and later professionals discovered that training can also improve performance.

Let’s look at a few examples (and also expand on the above paragraph a bit). 

Banded bench press – a great way to build power

If you want a big and strong chest/upper body, there aren’t many better exercises than the bench press (or weighted pushups). But hockey players and baseball players don’t need to bench press on a regular basis. In fact, for many baseball players, there are underlying shoulder issues (mostly related to overuse) that make the bench press a potentially dangerous exercise.

And while having specific exercises helps in terms of improving sport performance, there are general or global demands that all human beings – regardless of their fitness pursuits – need to have. General strength and power, good posture and core stability, and mobility and stability at all of the major joints are all requirements to a healthy and functional body, especially in an athletic environment. Almost any person on earth stands to benefit from squatting (with different variations, loads, and intensities, of course) and/or deadlifting.

Another example – to get a stronger wrist shot, many people think they need to be doing wrist curls. Specific? Sure. But effective? Not really.

All human beings squat and deadlift every single day (they just don’t know it). Picking up a box? That is a deadlift (usually with bad form). Getting up or sitting down? Hello box squat. Starting your lawn mower? That is a single arm row, using both back and core muscles to generate rotational power. Carrying groceries in from the car? That is a farmer’s walk, which places a huge demand on the core and upper back.

Really heavy groceries

The trade-off of the specificity principle.

However, there is always a trade-off with the specificity principle. If you are focusing on a particular sport or movement, you are going to neglect other areas of fitness. For example, if you only train in the endurance repetition range (higher reps, lighter weights), you won’t make significant strength or hypertrophic gains. And if you are training to squat or deadlift as much as you can, you won’t improve on your 10k time as much as if you were doing intervals, speed work, and higher repetition training with weights.

CrossFit? 

And where does CrossFit “fit” in to the specificity equation? The ‘Cross’ part of the name implies cross-training, which is almost the exact opposite of specificity. But how come those professional CrossFitters all look like Greek warriors with their incredible physiques? For one, they all have their nutrition dialed in. And for two, they are all doing athletic movements – cleans, snatches, squats, muscle ups, these are all full body exercises that require strength, power, coordination, and endurance. And with a timed component, you are going to torch body fat along the way.

There are things I love about CrossFit – the community aspect, learning the Olympic lifts, and working out your entire body each time (instead of isolating a muscle or two). And there are some fantastic CrossFit gyms that use proper progressions and regressions to ensure people minimize their risk of injury. But there are also many CrossFit gyms that through specificity out the window and simply try and kick your butt every time you walk in. It will be fun and you will see great results for a while, but at a certain point in time your body is going to break (if it doesn’t bend first).

Simply put, you have to focus on something during your workouts if you want to see long term gains. If you are new to the gym, you will see improvements doing almost anything, as your body isn’t used to having to work very hard. But once you make some progress, it becomes harder to break through each plateau. And this is where the specificity principle and goal-setting both come in to play.

CrossFit isn’t a great way to train for pro athletes. It allows you to get better at many things without making amazing gains in one particular area. CrossFit will improve your metabolic conditioning, your strength, your power, and your endurance. But pro athletes have more specific demands than that. Hockey players don’t need to train endurance as much as middle-distance runners or soccer players, for example. They “work” for 45 seconds during a shift and then rest for a few minutes. Being able to do a 500 meter row after performing 25 cleans doesn’t translate over to hockey as much as doing 5-10 cleans with perfect form and a heavier load would.

Here is Rangers forward Chris Kreider working on his strength with a lower rep range:

One more thing I like about CrossFit – working both strength and conditioning in the same gym session. Focus on the strength work first, as you will be lifting heavier weights and will benefit more from a fresher body. After you are done with your strength work (for example, front squats for 3-5 reps), move on to a full body conditioning circuit. This is a great way to get stronger, build muscle, and also stay lean.

Some thoughts from Dean Somerset:

Workout consistently with a goal in mind. Stick with a program for at LEAST a few weeks to see noticeable progress. Switch it up when you want to work on something else, or when your gains start to stall (you’ll see this with a workout journal where you can record your lifts, weights, etc, and see if you’re making progress or not). Any program you do will get you results, IF it focuses on specific adaptation to imposed demands, and NOT if it focuses on non-existent terms like “muscle confusion.”

How to get specific?

Hopefully you haven’t been lulled to sleep just yet. How, exactly, do you make your training specific? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Find a good gym in your area, and go in for a fitness assessment. If possible, do some reading on the coach or trainer first to see their credentials or background. An assessment (like the Functional Movement Screen, or many coaches have developed their own) will show you your weak points and what you need to improve on to avoid injury.

2. Pick a goal or two. If you want to become a better runner, focus on exercises that will help with that. If you want to get ripped for the beach, focus on hard, full-body conditioning workouts (and clean up your diet… stat).

When laying out a program, think about the goal first, and then pick exercises and training intensities that will help to achieve that goal in the shortest and most efficient manner possible. So what would be better at developing skating speed? Skating for speed, of course. But if you don’t have access to a sheet of ice for practice, exercises like lateral jumps, vertical jumps, Airdyne sprints, and other accelerative drills would help a lot more than a slow meandering walking lunge.

Here’s everything you ever need to know about sets, reps, rest time, time under tension, and more:

3. Track your progress. Weekly or biweekly pictures are a great way to do this. The camera doesn’t lie (the scale, contrary to popular belief, often does). Write down your workouts – what exercises you did, what weights you used, and how you felt during and after. This is another way to tangibly see your progress.

Why I don’t like the scale – your weight has little to do with health and body composition (assuming you aren’t obese). You could weigh 160 pounds and be severely out of shape, and after a year of training and eating well, you could add 15 pounds of muscle and be a much healthier 175 or 180 pounds.

4. KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. The more complex your training program, the less likely you are to follow it. You don’t need to do 10 to 12 exercises every time you go in the gym. And you don’t need to time your rest periods down to the second (unless you are an elite athlete). Learn the important lifts from a trainer or coach (or a friend), and get really good at them. If you have extra time, you can add in the accessory work – bicep curls, and so on. But that stuff isn’t essential.

Let’s say you have someone who can only work out 3 days per week, and someone else who can work out 6 days per week. You can understandably do more with someone in 6 days than you can in 3, so you have more room to work on secondary components that may not be directly related to their main goal but are important nonetheless. That 3-day a week person is going to have to spend the vast majority of their time working only on the specifics pertaining to their goal, because they don’t have a lot of spare time to work on anything else.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks, as we will look at the other principles of an effective training program. In the meantime, some more reading material: