Conceptually Simple, but Deceptively Complex • Strong Body Hub

Note: This article was the MASS Research Review cover story for March 2023. If you want more content like this, subscribe to Strong Body Hub.

Conceptually Simple, but Deceptively Complex • Strong Body Hub 7

The principle of specificity, or “SAID” principle, is a fundamental tenet of exercise science that states that the body will make “Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands” (1). Every trainer and exercise science student becomes familiar with this principle very early in their education, along with other principles like overload and individuality. Before I go further, however, let me state clearly that I’m absolutely not going to frame this article as an “everything you thought you knew about specificity is wrong” takedown. Despite how common this approach is in the social media era and how it can pull people in emotionally, everything you thought you knew about specificity is not wrong (although doctors do hate me for the one weird trick I’ve discovered). Rather, at least initially, I think some people just conceptualize specificity too narrowly, and this can get them, or their athletes, into trouble. Therefore, this article will help you broaden your perspective on specificity, so you can understand its nuance and apply it to getting stronger.

Moving Beyond a Spectrum

In my experience, many people view or present specificity as a spectrum, from less to more specific. Depending on the context, at least in powerlifting, this spectrum could be applied to load or movement specificity. The idea being, that less specific movements or loads, visualized on the left side of the spectrum, have less transfer for every “unit” of training to the movement or load shown on the right side of the spectrum that you are trying to enhance (Figure 1). I first discussed this simplified view of specificity and the problems with it (in MASS at least) in a video back in Volume 4, Issue 3, and I’ll expand on it further here.

0323 Helms Specificity Fig1
Conceptually Simple, but Deceptively Complex • Strong Body Hub 8

While it’s conceptually true that 100% of 1RM is more specific to a max attempt in competition than anything lighter, and that the competition lifts will generally transfer to themselves more than any other movement, if one was to take this concept in a vacuum and apply it universally to programming, it would miss a lot of nuance and lead to problems. For one, the complexity of the movement matters to an extent. Rossi and colleagues (2) compared a group performing only leg presses, to a group performing only squats, to a group performing half of their training as squats and half as leg presses to see the effects on squat and leg press 1RM. Notably, while the only-squats group increased their squat 1RM significantly more than the only leg press group and had the largest improvement in squat 1RM out of the groups, all three groups had very similar increases in leg press 1RM. This illustrates that more complex movements are more “sensitive” to specificity. But even if we constrain this conversation to complex movements, like multi-joint free weight lifts, there’s still missing nuance in a spectrum view. To illustrate it, here’s a simple question: what’s more specific, a single at 80% of 1RM using your competition style, or a max attempt on a close variation? It’s not so clear, as one is more specific to the movement, and the other is more specific to the load. Ultimately, if you choose to view specificity as a spectrum, at the very least you have to consider that both movement and load specificity are constantly in interplay. But even then, a simple spectrum view doesn’t represent the complexity of motor learning, or training.

Before I explain why, let me first say it’s completely understandable if you view specificity this way. I used to, and I applied it to my own programming. I remember attempting to do as much highly specific training as possible. I saw any deviation from highly specific load or movement specificity as a necessary evil that I had to partake in to manage joint pain, under recovery, or burn out. But I thought if I could somehow do more highly specific training without it causing pain, injury, under recovery, or burn out, it would be better. However, the way I was rigidly viewing specificity was not supported by the data. Another fundamental concept you might be less familiar with than specificity, is the motor learning principle of varied practice, which I discussed in my video in Volume 6, Issue 5. It states that you can more effectively learn motor skills when multiple variations of the skill are practiced in a given period, as opposed to just practicing the same skill over and over. There is a great discussion by Chua and colleagues (3) in their multi-experiment paper where they demonstrate how varied practice – by switching up the distances from the target – improves accuracy when throwing a ball or golf putting, at least in part by enhancing attentional focus. Not only do the experiments themselves demonstrate how varied practice enhances motor learning (and perhaps why), but the authors also cite and discuss much of the foundational work since the 1970’s that’s reported how varied practice leverages “contextual interference” to reinforce learning motor skills in various contexts (Mike has a great video on these concepts here). Now you might be wondering, how much of this data is on lifting, and do these concepts apply to lifting? That’s a valid question, as most of the data are not on lifting, but other sporting tasks. Further, in “open” skills like throwing and cutting, you have to react to an opponent, gauge distance, and the environment can change how the skill is performed (i.e., open skills are performed in a dynamic, changing environment). In contrast, “closed” skills like lifting (or swimming, cycling, track and field, etc.) are relatively static in comparison, so it’s not unreasonable to hypothesize that varied practice isn’t as beneficial for lifting. However, there are studies that hint at the benefit of varied practice specifically for lifting. Even moreso, some indicate that movement variability may be even more important than load variability. Specifically, in 2014 Fonseca and colleagues found that lifters who divided their volume across not only the Smith machine squat, but also the deadlift, lunge, and leg press, gained more Smith machine squat strength than lifters who performed all of their volume on just the Smith machine squat, even when the lifters who only squatted varied the load and repetition range they used (4). If that finding makes you a little uncomfortable, or seems illogical, I get it. When I first wrestled with these concepts I thought “how could practicing something less similar to the skill I’m trying to enhance be better than practicing the skill itself?”

Well, first consider that there are limits to the concept of varied practice. I’m sure you can think of things so dissimilar from the skill you’re trying to enhance that they couldn’t be considered variants of it. Certainly, no one is advocating that swimming transfers to your deadlift (although if done between bouts of deadlifting it might provide contextual interference and help retention, but I digress). Remember, we’re in a bubble as powerlifters, with a skewed view of specificity. To an outsider, an approach like Westside seems very similar to a highly specific, competition lift-only approach. So obviously, specificity to some degree is always needed and is a fundamental part of training. But beyond understanding that, I think I can alleviate further discomfort and skepticism by addressing the concept of the dose of specificity

To many, the spectrum view implies that higher loads and more specific movement variations transfer more efficiently per unit of training, and that therefore you should do the highest dose of specific training you can handle. But when you think about it, that’s actually a logical leap. Even if we accept specificity as a spectrum, the spectrum doesn’t tell us what dose of specific training is needed to get the maximal benefit out of it. What if a low dose of specificity, below the total time and energy a lifter had, was all that was needed to get the maximal benefit from highly specific training? Moreso, what if additional specific training beyond that low dose provided dramatically less benefit per “unit” of training, or was even counterproductive? If true, it would be more efficient to spend additional time in the gym doing something else. In the rest of this article, I’ll go over the rationale and data that suggest that may in fact be the case.

The Cost of Specificity

Way back in Volume 2, Dr. Zourdos reviewed a paper where similar gains in strength were observed in a group that kept the same, peak load each set, compared to two other groups that either reduced their loads after the first set by 5% or 10% (5). Not only were strength gains similar, the perception of effort was lower in the group that reduced load by 10%. Thus, it seemed that the key factor influencing increases in strength was exposure to the peak load, not necessarily the total volume with that peak load. More importantly, this study does not stand in isolation. You might be familiar with Schoenfeld et al’s 2017 meta-analysis which reported a diminishing, yet notable dose-response relationship between performing 1-4, 5-9, and 10+ sets per muscle group per week, respectively, with enhanced hypertrophy (6). On average, 64% of the hypertrophy effect size associated with performing 10+ sets was observed with 1-4 sets, and 84% with 5-9. However, that same year Ralston and colleagues published a similar meta-analysis on maximal strength gain using the same sets per week categories (7). Ralston categorized them as sets per exercise not per muscle, and in Figure 2 the relative effects are side by side to compare.

0323 Helms Specificity Fig2
Conceptually Simple, but Deceptively Complex • Strong Body Hub 9

You’ll notice two things when examining the figure. First, Ralston combined the 5-9 and 10+ sets per week categories which had nearly identical mean effect sizes of 0.98 and 1.01, respectively, which I’ve labeled as 5-12 (as that covers the range of study volumes that were represented). Secondly, the difference between 1-4 sets and 5-12 is small, as 81% of the strength gain effect size associated with 5-12 sets was achieved, on average, with just 1-4 sets per week. In fact, technically, while the differences between 1-4 and 5-12 sets were significant, they would be classified as “trivial” as they were mostly below the cut off of 0.2 for the “small” classification. These findings indicate that you don’t need a ton of volume to enhance strength, and indirectly they suggest that if you have more time and energy to train, maybe it would be better spent on something else rather than additional, specific training. The pushback against this interpretation is that five of the nine studies in the Ralston meta-analysis were on untrained individuals, and therefore the findings might not apply to trained lifters. And furthermore, from the perspective of a competitive lifter trying to do everything in their power to get stronger, you could argue that the diminishing returns associated with higher volumes of specific work, even if they are technically “trivial”, are still worth the extra time and energy. I understand this pushback, but ultimately I don’t think the data support it.

In 2021 one of our awesome guest reviewers, Dr. “Pak,” wrote about a study from his PhD in which competitive powerlifters made gains greater than what would be considered meaningful by elite powerlifters and powerlifting coaches by doing a “231” with back-off sets approach for six weeks (8). Specifically, 231 refers to the weekly frequency that these powerlifters worked up to a single at a 9-9.5 RPE on the squat, bench, and deadlift, respectively (i.e., two singles on squat, three on bench, one on deadlift). They then followed the single with 2 × 3 back off sets at 80% of that single. Meaning, these competitive powerlifters made substantial gains doing just 14, 21, and seven total working reps (not sets) on the squat, bench, and deadlift per week, respectively. This successful low volume, yet highly specific approach, in powerlifters, shows that highly specific training is both very effective (at least in the short term), but also that you really don’t need very much of it. Furthermore, there are additional data on competitive lifters that suggest doing more highly specific training can even be counterproductive. Notably, Gonzalez-Badillo and colleagues took 29 junior weightlifters and divided them into three volume equated groups which performed different proportions of their total training volume on the squat, snatch, and clean and jerk in the 90-100% of 1RM range and compared their strength gains (9). The low, moderate, and high proportion of high load training groups performed 46, 93, and 184 reps in the 90-100% of 1RM range during 10 weeks of training, respectively. Despite the proportion of specific, heavy training doubling in the low compared to moderate, and moderate compared to high proportion groups, no significant differences in strength gains occurred. If anything, the lower and moderate proportion groups actually performed better, as effect sizes and percentage increases in strength were highest in the moderate proportion group, and the low and moderate proportion groups significantly increased their clean and jerk and their squat, while the high proportion group only increased their squat 1RM from baseline.

Why might this be? Well, let’s consider some of the costs of performing a ton of highly specific training. First, it takes time to perform heavy squats and deadlifts, and to a lesser degree bench presses. Heavy multi-joint lifts require multiple warm up sets to acclimate to and longer rest times between sets to recover from than lighter sets, or machine or single-joint exercises. Indeed, for a strong lifter, performing 5 heavy sets with a competition lift might take more than half an hour. In that same time, you can perform twice as many sets with less complex assistance lifts. If you’ve followed MASS for a while, you know that at least to some degree, over some time frame, if a muscle gets bigger it will likely produce more force and thus, contribute to strength gains (Greg did a great job going in depth on this here). If all your time and energy is spent performing highly specific training, that leaves minimal time or energy for higher rep hypertrophy sets, or accessory work. Also, heavy sets are just less efficient in this regard, as 2-4RM loads produce less hypertrophy on a per set basis than lighter loads in the 8-12RM range (10). While you can gain similar muscle mass using heavy sets with the competition lifts, it’s hard to justify why you would since you may have to perform multiple additional sets to get equivalent hypertrophy to fewer moderate rep sets (11). Furthermore, machine-based exercises produce lower perceived exertion than free weight lower body exercises (12), and bodybuilders (who train lighter, with more single joint and machine-based exercises) have lower injury rates than powerlifters or weightlifters (13). Unless you think there is something qualitatively unique and important enough about the increase in quadriceps muscle size you get from 7 × 3 on squats that transfers better to long term strength than the same increase in muscle size you get from 3 × 10 on leg presses, it’s hard to justify only doing highly specific training, all the time.

All this is not to say that a highly specific approach won’t work, but it might be short lived. Our very own Dr. Zourdos conducted a case series on three competitive lifters who performed daily squat maxes followed by 5 × 3 or 5 × 2 at 85 or 90% of the daily max, respectively, for 37 days straight (video here). All three lifters increased their strength from start to peak roughly in the range of ~6-10%, which is a lot over this short time period. However, it’s notable that the changes in muscle thickness at the three measured quadriceps sites were either small, or at one site for each participant, actually decreased (14). Further, in an earlier pilot study by Dr. Pak (which Dr. Zourdos reviewed) a group of Greek powerlifters, who took the aforementioned 231 approach without back off sets for 11 weeks leading into nationals, made respectable gains initially, but plateaued after 4-7 weeks. However, the comparative group which used a higher volume, traditional periodized approach made more consistent gains and ended up performing better on the platform (15). To conclude, there are costs to highly specific approaches to training, which might not be worth the gains you get out of them. In addition to these costs, if “specific training” in application is a cookie cutter approach that provides the same answer to all lifters in all situations: “just max out or just do more volume on the big three.” Then, it’s actually not specific to the plateaus lifters deal with in the real world. In the final section of this article, I’ll discuss situations where an approach that appears less specific generally, can sometimes be more specific to the issues individual lifters face.

Performance Bottlenecks

In the previous section I leaned heavily on research to make my points, because hey, this is MASS. But, in this section I want to put my coaching hat on and lean heavily on my experiences as a lifter and powerlifting coach. In my experience, getting stronger in the early stages of your powerlifting career is a relatively straightforward process (although it’s not necessarily easy). You are not yet skilled with the competition lifts, you don’t yet have much muscle mass, and you don’t yet have the skills or knowledge that facilitate an environment conducive to recovery, adaptation, and performance like a sport-supportive diet, sleep schedule, or mental outlook on competition. But, any reasonable, progressive training approach, that isn’t too specific or non-specific, coupled with the basic tenets of sports nutrition, sleep hygiene, and the perspective you’ll gain from a couple years under the bar, will take you quite far relative to your potential. At a higher level, however, you start to run into what I would call performance bottlenecks, or “weak points” that limit further improvement.

For example, about ten years ago Bryce Lewis was breaking through to the 700lbs deadlift barrier. I’d been working with him for about two years at this point, and he was a conventional puller. We’d flirted with sumo, but found he wasn’t any stronger with it, so we scrapped it. However, as he got stronger, his deadlift sessions took more and more out of him. Soreness would bleed into squat sessions, and a second deadlift day, even if we kept it light, seemed to be too much. So, we made the switch to sumo purely because he could recover from it faster. This allowed him to train the competition deadlift, which was now sumo, more frequently and he made a new spurt in strength and crossed the 700lbs barrier. This is a useful example in a couple of ways. For one, it shows the cost of specific training can sometimes be its own bottleneck to further progress, requiring an individualized solution. Secondly, in this case, the solution was to change the definition of what was specific (to sumo), which allowed a higher dose of specific training, which broke the plateau (see, more specificity isn’t always bad).

However, the next bottleneck Bryce faced was different. As he continued to get stronger, his grip started to become the limiting factor. Even though he could now deadlift two to three times per week using a sumo style, he got to the point where he could pull more with straps and would occasionally miss deadlifts on grip. Obviously, a terrible decision would be to add another heavy deadlift session to improve his grip strength. Yes, the SAID principle suggests that a heavy deadlift is the most specific way to get the deadlift-specific grip strength you need to do a heavy deadlift. But, an additional session of heavy deadlifts would have had a negative impact on the whole program. Instead, I simply programmed heavy barbell holds for time, having him load up near his deadlift max in the rack, just below his lockout height. Doing a two inch range of motion rack pull proved far less taxing than an additional day of deadlifting. He’d hold these weights for time, steadily increasing the weight, and the grip bottleneck was reliably fixed each time it came up as he continued to get stronger, without negatively impacting other aspects of the program.

For another example, I used to work with a lifter who was very flexible who also quickly developed a sound technical skill with the competition lifts. Also, despite being a 57kg lifter, she could comfortably bench with a nearly max legal width grip. I initially took a pretty basic approach with her, primarily focused on the main lifts, without much accessory work. Since she had a solid arch, she built a respectable bench – just under bodyweight – after lifting for under a year. However, her bench then plateaued, and I also noticed that while she’d built visible muscle mass in her lower body, the same wasn’t true in her pressing musculature. As we’ve discussed numerous times in MASS (here, here, here), it seems the primary benefit of full range of motion training is that it puts tension on the muscle at a long muscle length, which leads to superior hypertrophy (16). But I wasn’t specifically familiar with this body of research at the time, I simply noticed she was doing a lot of benching, but only competition style, in multiple rep ranges, and her upper body was not growing. So, I started swapping out some of her bench sessions for non-arched flat and incline dumbbell pressing, push ups, dips, and close grip bench. She started getting stronger again. Now, it’s possible that like what I think was observed by Fonseca and colleagues (4), she just benefitted from varied practice. But, she didn’t just get stronger, she also grew her delts, triceps, and pecs, which makes me think her bottleneck was a lack of muscle mass due to all her previous pressing being at relatively shorter muscle lengths. Hypothetically, this could also apply to competition deadlifts, but for a different reason than muscle length. Consider a lifter who has underdeveloped hamstrings and glutes, and has a disproportionately weak deadlift, who primarily does competition deadlifts for single repetitions and no accessories. What are they missing (besides a posterior chain)? The eccentric phase. Deadlifts done in a competition style, even if you cluster-set a bunch of singles, are nearly concentric only, as you only have to demonstrate minimal control over the bar on the way down, giving you half the “volume” that an RDL or multi-rep sets of deadlifts with a controlled eccentric might. Over time, such an approach could limit hypertrophy, and thus, strength.

As a final anecdote from my coaching experience, I’ve found that multiple lifters I’ve worked with have benefited from paused deadlifts at mid-shin. But, I don’t apply this haphazardly. Rather, I use this as a teaching tool when a lifter regularly loses position on deadlifts such that the bar drifts away from their shins, resulting in a missed lift. When lifters exert a lot of force immediately to get a bar moving off the ground, they sometimes struggle to maintain control of the bar position and lose it forward. Some lifters aren’t aware that this is what’s causing them to miss, as it all happens so fast. However, forcing them to pause in the range of motion where they sometimes lose shin contact gives them more of an opportunity to notice when the lost contact occurs, and correct it (at least this is what I think is happening). Ultimately, doing a lighter, less specific variation of the deadlift has reliably led to a number of my lifters fixing this specific technical issue, and improving their competition deadlift at what seems like a faster pace than if I’d just had them do more competition deadlifts.

If you view specificity as the spectrum I initially laid out, holding a barbell for time in a cage, or doing an RDL, or a paused deadlift is less specific than a heavy competition deadlift, and incline dumbbell presses or push ups are less specific than bench press. However, if you view each individual case study as a specific problem with a specific solution, grip training is more specific than a deadlift to improve grip strength, full range of motion (at a long muscle length) pressing is more specific than an arched, max-width bench press to increase upper body muscle size, RDLs are more specific for building the posterior chain than concentric only deadlifts, and slowing down at the specific part of a movement where you make a mistake is more likely to help you fix the mistake than blowing by it. These anecdotal and hypothetical examples are just that, but I can (and I’m sure you can too) think of other examples where a “non-specific” programming decision is more specific to the problem at hand.

Conclusion

Specificity is a fundamental principle of exercise science, and that’s never going to change. But that doesn’t mean that any “non-specific” training would be better spent on specific training, nor does it mean that there often aren’t disproportionate costs to specific training that sometimes make it counterproductive. The principle of specificity also isn’t a trump card in the proverbial deck of exercise science principles that inherently supersedes other principles. You don’t get to trump the principle of individuality and put everyone on a “specific” cookie cutter approach, or trump varied practice and assume that it doesn’t apply to human movement when a barbell is involved. There are also times when something generally considered “non-specific” is actually quite specific to an individual lifter’s situation. Just to reiterate, I’m not suggesting that specificity isn’t powerful or doesn’t work. It is, and it does. Research and real world experience demonstrate that even a small dose of specific training can result in large gains in strength in short time periods, even in well-trained lifters. But like all things, there is a limit to how much of it you can benefit from, and unfortunately, as the returns diminish from additional specific training, the fatigue only compounds and injury risk may be higher (although, admittedly injury risk is a complex topic). So, my advice is be very thoughtful in how you apply specificity, and instead of reflexively pulling the lever of more specificity when you have already pulled it, consider what other options are available first.

This article was the cover story for the March 2023 issue of MASS Research Review. If you’d like to read the full March issue (and dive into the MASS archives), you can subscribe to MASS here.

Subscribers get a new edition of MASS each month. Each edition is available on our member website as well as in a beautiful, magazine-style PDF and contains at least 5 full-length articles (like this one), 2 videos, and 8 Research Brief articles.

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