How to Design a Workout Program that Works for You: Principle of Specificity

How to Design a Workout Program that Works for You: Principle of Specificity

Tya Waterman |

With Guest Blogger, Chris Schnare

In part two of our series, How to Design a Workout Program that Works for You, we focused on the law of accommodation, also known as variation or the avoidance of stagnation. Need a refresher? Click here.

Now, in part three, we will discuss the Principle of Specificity, which can be understood using the acronym S.A.I.D. (specific adaptation to imposed demands).

What is the Principle of Specificity?

This means that the different demands that we place on our bodies will cause different changes to occur. For example, when you are doing bicep curls, you are breaking down the muscles in your bicep, which will in turn cause them to grow. In other words, specific requirements are needed in order to see the changes that we want.

Now, this may seem obvious, but let’s look a little closer at a few examples that will help us to understand why this principle can be incredibly important at times.

Physical exercise can come in many forms, such as yoga, general resistance training, competitive bodybuilding, cycling, or Olympic lifting.  With this wide variety of goals and ways that the body can change and adapt, we get to see why the S.A.I.D principle is important in the decision-making process of our program design.

Let’s say you are training for your first marathon. Ideally, you will be on a structured running program that satisfies the first two principles we discussed in part one and two of this series. We know that we must use progressive overload by increasing the distance of our run to keep improving and we know that we need to vary the way we are exercising (i.e. including intervals, hills, long runs, tempo runs, etc.) in order to avoid stalling. And now with the S.A.I.D principle, we are learning that we also must focus on the specific way that we want to adapt our muscles. This means that in order to improve our running, we will need to run.

Yes, swimming and biking can also help to improve your aerobic capacity, but in order to improve your run, you will need to build your work capacity when running, as well as your muscular strength and movement efficiency in the specific muscles used when running.

Low Level of Specificity

On the other hand, there are certain training goals that don’t require as much specificity. For example, strength training for the purpose of muscle hypertrophy, which is an increase in the size of a muscle.

Hypertrophy requires some of the least amount of specificity to see results.  We know that:

  • Muscle can be stimulated to grow at rep ranges between 1 and 30+, if enough tension is created in the set.
  • If a minimum intensity of approximately 30% is used and we take sets to near muscle failure, we will stimulate growth.
  • A certain amount of protein is required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

The point being made by the above examples is that not all training and adaptation outcomes have exact specificity demands that need to be met, at least not to the same degree.  Yes, we need to meet certain demands to build muscle, but the number of ways to structure a program to get to this outcome are many.

High Level of Specificity

Now we understand that there are various degrees of specificity required for the S.A.I.D principle. While some training goals do not require high levels of specificity in order to achieve the results, others do.  So, let’s look at an example on the other end of the spectrum.

Olympic weightlifting is a sport, which at an elite level, requires incredible specificity in training.  Exercises such as the snatch and the clean and jerk require high levels of skill development and technical mastery, which requires specific training. Additionally, Olympic lifters will need to meet a precise training volume and practice exact movement patterns used in the competition lifts.

To drive this point home, think about the fact that most Olympic lifting competitions have training halls set up for the lifters to arrive early and complete their peaking cycles. The precision and timing of the Olympic lifts are so precise that, at the elite level, even a few days of not having a specific stimulus applied can result in reduced performance. 

To wrap up the principle of specificity, it is safe to say that there is a wide variety of approaches that can be used to promote change. However, when working towards specific goals, different levels of specificity in training may be required in order to reach those goals. Being more specific in our decision making when it comes to program design can have a huge impact on our success.