In a previous article I discussed the importance of the principle of Progressive Overload and how crucial it is to your success in the weight room.
While I still maintain that it is the most important principle for gym goers to understand, there is yet another principle that I believe deserves as much recognition: the principle of Specificity.
What is the principle of Specificity?
The principle of Specificity states that exercising a particular body part or skill will develop that particular body part or skill.
In all seriousness, it really is that straightforward. Unfortunately, much like the principle of Progressive Overload, most guys overlook the principle of Specificity in favour of the next latest and greatest workout routine or dietary supplement. If only they understood the basics, they would save themselves a lot of time and money.
But how exactly does the principle of Specificity work?
Quite simply, if you want to get better at a particular exercise or skill, or improve a certain body part, you are going to have to specifically train that exercise, skill or body part.
Want a bigger bench press?
Then spend time bench pressing.
Want to improve your 100m sprint?
Then spend time running 100m sprints.
In other words, it would make very little sense to train the deadlift in the hopes that it will somehow improve your bench press, or go for 10K runs thinking that it will make you a faster 100m sprinter. It just doesn’t work like that.
That’s because the human body likes to adapt very specifically to a task. This effect is not just limited to the weight room, however. Think about any individual who is recognized as being word class in their field. Whether it is a word class chess player, pianist, or scrabble player, they all share one thing in common: they spend an inordinate amount of time practicing the very skill they want to improve.
Still not convinced?
Think about any competitive Powerlifter or Olympic lifter. How do they train? Does an Olympic lifter spend his time in the gym doing bicep curls and triceps kickbacks? Of course not! They are busy working on the only two lifts that matter in their sport: the snatch and the clean and jerk.
What about Powerlifters, how do they train? Do they spend an endless amount of time doing abdominal crunches and calf raises? Hell no! They are busy busting their ass on the only three lifts that matter to them: the bench, the squat, and the deadlift.
Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering, “Powerlifters and Olympic lifters don’t only work on their competition lifts, what about assistance exercises? What about cross training?”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with assistance exercises as long as they assist in building up your main lifts. I’m not saying that Olympic lifters and Powerlifters only train the competition lifts to the exclusion of everything else. They definitely incorporate assistance movements when necessary, but they do it with a specific purpose. Even still, at the end of the day, the lion’s share of the time they spend in the gym is spent working on their competition movements. That’s the principle of Specificity at work.
What about cross training?
Cross training certainly has its benefits, especially when it comes to preventing overuse injuries and boredom, but I would hasten to say that it will do much to improve very specific skills and tasks.
In case you have been living under a rock for the past several years, Crossfit has now become all the rage. For those of you who don’t know, this type of training incorporates a variety of different training modalities packaged into one convenient system. More specifically, it includes a variety of different powerlifts, Olympic lifts, and bodyweight movements done in a high rep, circuit like fashion. While this type of training is fine in helping people gain broad and general fitness, it is not a program that will help them achieve elite status in any one particular modality.
In fact, there’s a reason why Crossfit athletes have their own Crossfit Games. Despite the inclusion of the different powerlifts and Olympic lifts in their training system, Crossfit athletes won’t be competing at the national or world level in either of these sports any time soon. That’s because they don’t spend enough time specifically training for these sports. In other words, a Crossfit athlete is a sort of jack of all trades but a master of none. This is not a knock on Crossfit or Crossfit athletes, it is just reality. It’s perfectly fine to be a jack of all trades. That’s exactly what a world class decathlete is.
If you want to get good at something you need to be doing that specific thing and doing it often. That is what the principle of Specificity is all about. It sounds rather simple, but most guys never really give this principle much thought and how it relates to their training. In fact, I’ve lost track of the number of guys who tell me they want to improve their bench press while spending most of their time doing cable flys, or guys who want to deadlift 3x bodyweight but also want to run an elite marathon time.
Unfortunately, you can’t be exceptional at everything at the same time. It just doesn’t work like that. So set specific goals (or a set of related goals) and work diligently towards achieving them. But just remember, whatever you choose do make sure you do that thing and do it often!