How to Use the Principle of Specificity for Exercise

Whether you’re looking to improve athletic performance, increase skill level, or boost overall fitness, 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.

While specificity is only one training principle, it is a critical component of any comprehensive athletic program or fitness routine.

Here, we take a closer look at the principle of specificity, how it’s applied, its pros and cons, and how it compares to cross-training.

Simply put, 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’re 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 you train during a specific exercise are the ones that begin to adapt and respond. This also means that other muscle groups that are not recruited during that training do not see the same adaptation and training response,” explains Gondek.

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 the principle of 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).

Summary

When your training mimics the movements or skills required in a sporting event or fitness activity, you’re applying the principle of specificity.

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.

When you’re developing a program based on specificity, there are a few things to emphasize, including:

  • muscles and joints you need to train
  • speed of movement
  • energy systems you need to train
  • movements 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 also include exercises that make you stronger and able to compete at high speeds, such as plyometric exercises and Olympic-style lifts.

Running

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.

Therefore, Gondek says when designing a 5k training plan, she incorporates quick bursts of speed and power geared toward shorter distances, tempo runs just shy of their goal running pace, and a few time trial runs that train the muscles and cardiovascular system to run at your goal race peace.

Equally important, she says, is strengthening the muscle groups used with running: hips, lower legs, core, and to a smaller extent, the arms.

Overhead throwing

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 less than ideal, she focuses the first part of their training sessions addressing that with functional range conditioning, flexibility exercises such as dynamic stretching, and self-joint mobilizations to improve joint 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.

“The exercises incorporate both explosive and powerful movement, as well as sub-maximal endurance exercises in the positions used in throwing, coupled with throwing practice,” she explains.

In the gym

Another way to think about the principle of specificity is in the gym. For example, if one of your goals is to strengthen the chest muscles, you need to perform exercises that target this area, such as bench press, chest flies, and push-ups.

This can also apply to cardiovascular training. If you’re training for a half-marathon, you should incorporate several running workouts, cardio routines, and weight training into your overall 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.

While this type of training will improve cardiovascular functioning, it is not specific to running and may not contribute to your overall goals.

Summary

Examples of the principle of specificity include training for a 5k by incorporating sprints and shorter training runs. A throwing athlete should add movement-specific strength training exercises that target the throwing muscles in the upper body.

If you’re new to specificity, you might be wondering if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The good news is: yes, there are more pros than cons, but it is important to bring awareness to both.

The benefits include skill mastery, improved conditioning, muscular strength and endurance specific to your chosen activity, and better preparation for an event.

According to Lyles, specificity can also help enhance performance and minimize injuries for an untrained or under-trained individual. 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, this person would definitely benefit from specific training, and it would help them improve both physically, but also from a skill standpoint,” he explains.

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.

“I believe that health and performance are on the same teeter-totter, and to truly optimize performance, you push the limits in one direction, and as it starts to shift one way, you focus more on the other,” he says.

Because nothing is ever free from drawbacks, the principle of specificity can have some negative outcomes if not applied correctly.

Incorporating multiple sports training principles like progressive overload, periodization, variation, and rest is the best way to ensure overall fitness and performance (3).

If you only focus on specificity, you may end up unbalanced or find that your performance and ability decreases over time.

Summary

The benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. On the pros side, the principle of specificity can help improve performance, increase athletic skills, and decrease injuries. That said, applying other training principles to your program is critical to overall athleticism and fitness levels.

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).

Applying the principle of specificity to your exercise routine depends on the sport or activity you’re training for. If you want to get better at a specific athletic task or activity, 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 Gondek trains novice, recreational, or elite athletes, she addresses and improves their foundational movement first, followed by more sport-specific movement and exercise.

“When our bodies can access the full range of motion and flexibility needed to achieve certain movement patterns, we can then begin to build strength and specific movement patterns that are needed in our sport or activity,” she explains.

By focusing on training movement first, followed by sport-specific muscle groups needed for sport or a type of exercise, Gondek says you can maximize performance, as well as prevent injuries from overuse or using the wrong muscle groups.

Once that is achieved, you can train the specific muscle groups and movement patterns needed for your sport or activity.

Summary

You can apply the principle of specificity to any training program including those for novice, recreational, and elite athletes.

Cross-training and specificity of training are both key elements of any good training program. While they share some similar components, they are not the same thing.

“Specificity of training means that we train the movements, skills, muscle groups, and the cardiovascular system for a specific sport or activity,” says Gondek.

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, says Lyles, is it’s using another sport or activity to prepare for your main sport.

A good example of this is a soccer player who wants to develop their aerobic system (conditioning). They can use swimming as a way to cross-train.

Lyles says, generally speaking, the best way to think about cross-training is, if there is a specific quality that you want to develop in your sport, you can use another sport where that quality is heavily emphasized to develop it.

Lyles also points out that cross-training is typically done in a fashion that de-loads your most commonly overloaded joints.

For instance, a basketball player who typically puts a lot of stress on their knees will use boxing as a way to develop their cardiovascular conditioning while limiting the stress on their knees.

Summary

Specificity refers to performing training movements specific to athletic skills or activities. Cross-training is using another sport or activity to prepare for your main sport. Cross-training is not sport-specific, but it can contribute to overall cardiovascular and muscular strength.

Applying the principle of specificity to your athletic training or general workouts can 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 design a program specific to your needs and make sure you’re getting off on the right foot.

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