Applying the principle of specificity can help you get the results you need in a timely manner.
“Specificity brings training from extremely generic, like lifting weights or core work, to very distinct where an athlete or recreational exerciser practices their designated sport or activity,” says Keke Lyles, DPT, advisor, and head of performance at Uplift Labs.
specificity is only one principle, but it is a critical component of any comprehensive athletic program or fitness routine.
We look at the principle of specificity, how it is applied, its pros and cons, and how it compares to cross-training.
The principle of specificity states that how you train should mimic the skills, movements, and actions required to perform and excel in the game, activity, or event you are participating in.
“Our bodies adapt and respond to the type of exercise or training that we do (also known as mode), how often we do that exercise (also known as frequency), the amount of time that we do the exercise (also known as duration), and the intensity of the exercise,” says Kasia Gondek, PT, DPT, CSCS, of Fusion Wellness and Physical Therapy.
The muscles that are trained during a specific exercise are the ones that respond. The adaptation and training response of other muscle groups that are not recruited during that training is different.
Training adaptations will occur specifically within the movements and activities you train, for the metabolic demands you experience, with the exercise intensity and muscle groups used (1).
The body makes gains from exercise according to how the body exercises. Applying specificity correctly allows you to have a program designed around gains and goals that is efficient, focused, and effective.
“If you don’t use specificity, you risk wasting time and energy and you may not reach your goals in a timely manner.”
Applying the principle of specificity to a training program helps you reach your goals and avoid injuries that could happen from incorrect or poor preparation (2).
The principle of specificity is applied when your training mimics movements or skills required in a sporting event.
The principle of specificity is a critical part of a training program for competitive athletes, avid exercisers, recreational athletes, or anyone wanting to improve specific aspects of performance, strength, flexibility, or cardiorespiratory fitness.
There are a few things to emphasize when you are developing a program.
- You need to train your muscles and joints.
- The speed of movement.
- You need to train energy systems.
- You need to train.
For example, if you’re training for a sprinting event, you’ll want to design a conditioning program that is performed at high speeds.
It should include exercises that make you stronger and able to compete at high speeds, such as Olympic-style lifts.
Gondek says when working with clients who want to train for a 5k running race versus a marathon, there are subtly different muscle demands due to the difference in overall speed and duration of the events, even though both require running.
“A 5km race (3.1 miles) typically requires more fast-twitch muscle recruitment over a shorter period of time, whereas a marathon (26.2 miles) requires more slow-twitch muscle fiber recruitment,” she says.
When designing a 5k training plan, she uses short bursts of speed and power geared toward shorter distances, and a few time trial runs that train the muscles and cardiovascular system to run at your goal race pace.
She says that it is equally important to strengthen the muscles used with running.
Another sports-specific example is training for throwing athletes. The first thing Gondek looks for is sufficient range of motion throughout the shoulder, elbow, spine, and hips to achieve optimal throwing patterns.
If the range is not ideal, she focuses the first part of their training sessions on functional range conditioning, flexibility exercises, and self-joint mobilizations to improve range of motion and muscle flexibility.
Once her patients achieve optimal movement throughout the range of motion needed for throwing, Gondek then incorporates targeted exercises to train the following muscle groups: core, rotator cuff, hips, and arms.
She explains that the exercises incorporate both powerful and explosive movement, as well as sub-maximal endurance exercises in the positions used in throwing.
In the gym
The gym is a good place to think about specificity. If you want to strengthen the chest muscles, you need to perform exercises that target this area, such as bench press, chest flys, and push-ups.
This can be applied to cardiovascular training. If you are training for a half-marathon, you should incorporate a lot of running workouts, Cardio routines, and weight training into your program.
That said, if you spend more days doing general cardio training like riding a bike, swimming, or elliptical workouts, you’re not applying the principle of specificity, which would have you focus on running workouts like hills, speed, tempo runs, intervals, and distance runs.
This type of training is not specific to running and may not contribute to your goals.
The principle of specificity can be used to train for a 5k. A throwing athlete should add strength training exercises that target the throwing muscles in the upper body.
If you are new to specificity, you might be wondering if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. There are more pros than cons, but it is important to bring awareness to both.
The benefits include better preparation for an event, improved conditioning, and skill mastery.
Clarifying can help enhance performance and minimize injuries for untrained or under-trained individuals. He compares it to a teeter-totter.
On one side, you have an under-trained individual, and on the other side, you have an elite athlete. If the teeter-totter is weighed down on the under-trained individual, they would benefit from specific training, and it would help them improve both physically and from a skill standpoint.
However, the more that person plays and the more elite player they become, Lyles says that teeter-totter will shift to the other side, and now you become at risk for overtraining or overuse injuries.
He believes that health and performance are on the same teeter-totter and that you push the limits in one direction and focus on the other.
The principle of specificity can have some negative outcomes if not applied correctly.
If you only focus on specificity, you may end up unbalanced or have a decrease in ability over time.
The benefits are more than the drawbacks. The principle of specificity can help improve performance, increase athletic skills, and decrease injuries. It is important to apply other training principles to your program.
Whether your goal is an athletic competition, road race, or to increase your lower body strength, you must incorporate movement-pattern specificity into your training program to adapt to the demands (2).
The principle of specificity depends on the activity you are training for. If you want to improve at an athletic task, you need to use the muscles in a way that mimics the task itself.
For example, in preparation for a race, it’s important to find running routes that resemble the course you will be competing on — especially if the course has several hills, you’ll need to incorporate hill training in your workouts.
When training novice, recreational, or elite athletes, she addresses and improves their movement first, followed by more sport specific movement and exercise.
She says that when our bodies can access the full range of motion and flexibility needed to achieve certain movement patterns, we can begin to build strength and specific movement patterns that are needed in our sport or activity.
By following a training movement plan with specific muscle groups for sport or exercise, you can maximize performance and prevent injuries.
You can train the specific muscle groups and movement patterns needed for your sport or activity once that is achieved.
The principle of specificity can be applied to any training program.
Cross-training and specificity of training are important elements of a good training program. They are not the same thing.
The cardiovascular system, the movements, skills, muscle groups, and the other things we train for a specific sport or activity are all related to specificity of training.
Cross-training, on the other hand, is an activity, movement, or exercise that is not sport or activity-specific.
“This can look like many different things and offers multiple benefits to any training program including injury prevention, prevention of burn-out or boredom, and diversifies your cardiovascular training,” she says.
Another way of looking at cross-training is using another sport or activity to prepare for your main sport.
A soccer player wants to develop their aerobic system. They can swim to cross the train.
If you want to develop a specific quality in your sport, you can use another sport where that quality is heavily emphasized to develop it, according to Lyles.
Cross-training is done in a way that de-loads your most commonly overloading joints.
A basketball player who puts a lot of stress on their knees will use boxing to develop their cardiovascular conditioning while limiting the stress on their knees.
Specificity is the act of performing training movements that are specific to an activity. Cross-training is using another sport to prepare for your main sport. Cross-training can contribute to cardiovascular and muscular strength.
The principle of specificity can be applied to athletic training to help improve performance, increase skill level, and possibly reduce the chance of getting injured.
If you have questions about how to incorporate sports-specific training into your routine, consider working with a certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning specialist, or physical therapist. They can make sure you get off to a good start by designing a program that is specific to your needs.