In Defense of Specificity

Ready for anything at any time is the call of the generalist trainer or those who have somehow gotten into their heads that the best way to progress forward in fitness or in training is to be shit to mediocre at a range of physical attributes.  This was the manifesto of the newest brand of strength sport “CrossFit” when it came onto the scene in the early 2000s it has since gone from being a figure of ridicule on internet forums to being the single biggest strength sport via popularity.

Crossfit has brought a lot of people into strength sports who otherwise wouldn’t have touched a barbell I know through my own experience the number of female lifters and talented female lifters at that who come through my training ventures due to an introduction with CrossFit has increased dramatically in the past 10 years.  We can all agree that CrossFit has had a huge impact on the fringes of the fitness world for good or for bad you can choose your own side on that one.

However, what CrossFit hasn’t done is change the rules of human physiology or impact on our understanding of training science.  You see cross-training and circuits have been around for a whole lot longer than any CrossFit box.

The ideas behind cross training suggesting that athletes should maybe lift weights to try and help develop muscles they don’t use in their sport or that they should utilise methods such as running or bodyweight training to increase overall fitness has been around for centuries.  The idea of circuit training was brought

The idea of circuit training was brought to the fore in the 1950s by R.E. Morgan and G.T. Adamson of the University of Leeds.  The concept behind circuits is to improve muscular strength, endurance and aerobic fitness by including them all together in one workout.

Where this leaves us is what does this mean for performance, after all the concept of general health and fitness pretty much just means getting up and getting active.  Doing something rather than nothing or just improving your general well-being.  This isn’t something that causes me great interest and not a problem that requires a lot of thought.  All of the ideas and methods described so far will achieve this goal and do so in a time efficient and effective manner.

“It should always be remembered that all forms of circuit training are largely suited to the average non-athlete or competitive athlete during the early preparatory phase of training. The constant progression in a circuit from one exercise to another without completing all sets with one exercise to prescribed maximum number of repetitions before moving to the next exercise does not permit one to adequately develop the different types of sport specific strength. Even with interval circuit training on machines, it is not possible to train with the medium heavy, near maximal or explosive loading which is necessary to develop qualities such as muscle hypertrophy, speed-strength, strength-speed, static strength, flexibility-strength, explosive strength, and acceleration strength. The length of the interval between successive sets of the same exercise depends on the number of stations in the circuit, so the larger the circuit, the less its ability to significantly develop any of the major sport-specific strength-related qualities.”
Mel Siff (2000 Supertraining)

What we need to realise is that if we are training for performance, be that sports performance, CrossFit performance, powerlifting, weightlifting etc.  Whatever the task we are training for we need to have that task in the forefront of our minds at all times when we are designing a programme or training method to better prepare us for the demands of our specific task.

Training Specificity is king

No matter how much those who want to believe in the Generalist’s dogma or have the approach where they are ready for any task at any time, the bottom line in training is if you want to exceed at something than the most important training principle you can ever pay attention to is specificity.

Specificity is the principle of training that states that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect.

In sports training or training in general training specificity can mean either

  • Sport specific training – where we are directly practising the sport or aspects of the sport that we want to get better at and improve our competitiveness at.
  • Sports specific physical training – where we are developing the muscles, energy systems and movements involved in our sport specifically so we can better compete in the sport at higher tempos or be more competitive, quicker, more powerful or last for longer.

Specificity doesn’t mean that the training has to mimic the sport we can perform a great rugby specific weights programme without once touching a ball or hitting a sled.  The important thing is to understand the aspects of the sport that we need to train and then taking them out in components and using the best training tools available to use to develop these specific physical capabilities.

The best CrossFit boxes and athletes figured this one out a while ago.  You see there isn’t much point in doing some random assortment of barbell, bodyweight and conditioning tasks with no underlying periodization or plan.  You will get to a level of proficiency in these tasks and then stop progressing.

Eventually, if you want to compete at the highest levels you need to develop some Sports Specific Physical Training for CrossFit this means

  • Weightlifting/Barbell training separately and before your conditioning training.
  • Gymnastics/bodyweight movement training separately or before your conditioning training
  • Conditioning training specifically aimed at the aerobic system, longer duration simple modality workouts such as swimming, biking or running.
  • Overloaded work capacity related workouts – WODs done overloaded or under more extraneous conditions.

If you watch the training of the top boxes or athletes you will already see this.  Because as soon as it becomes competitive or there is money on the line people will move away from philosophical grandstanding and move towards the methods that get results.

These same observations are true of all training and sports if you find yourself in a professional sporting environment and get a chance to move around you will see that the training looks very similar from place to place.  There is a reason for this, competition breeds pragmatism and when you’re being pragmatic you should have no time for fluff or sentiment.

Understand your sport and work your training programme around it

Don’t go into developing your programme or a programme for your athletes with predisposed ideas of what training should be like and then mould the sport or the training of those athletes around your own views.  The only place this leads to is a terrible designed programme that at best won’t hinder your athlete’s goals.

The reason you go to university as a strength and conditioning coach isn’t to learn a bunch of scientific facts.  You are going to develop an understanding of physiology, biomechanics and critical thinking that should allow you to pick apart a sport or activity into it’s component parts and then determine the best methods or tools available to you to overload and progress the training so you can better prepare your lifters or athletes for the demands of competition.

You might start a new fitness phenom with the idea that by training random things in random amounts your creating a paradigm shift in physical training.  Only a decade down the line to have the best athletes in your sport proving your predisposition incorrect by winning your prize money using a compartmentalised sports specific training programme.

Stranger things have happened….

“To me, the sign of a really excellent routine is one which places great demands on the athlete, yet produces progressive long-term improvement without soreness, injury or the athlete ever feeling thoroughly depleted. Any fool can create a program that is so demanding that it would virtually kill the toughest marine or hardiest of elite athletes, but not any fool can create a tough program that produces progress without unnecessary pain.”
Dr. Mel C. Siff

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