Specificity – A Refresher

You don’t have to work in developmental sports for very long before you’re asked for a ‘sport specific’ training program. The request is often from a well-intentioned parent, athlete or coach who probably doesn’t even understand what the term ‘specific’ means.

My guess is their understanding of ‘specificity’ is that the ‘training exerciseslook very similar to the ‘competition movements’.

Unfortunately this isn’t even close.

According to Dr Mel Siff, in his book Supertraining, there are at least ten aspects of specificity:

1)   Type of Muscle Contraction.  Think isometric vs eccentric vs concentric.

2)   Movement Pattern. For example training a bicep curl in the standing position only increases strength in the lying position slightly.

3)   Range & Region of Movement. E.g. cyclists’ rectus femoris appear stronger in a shortened position while a runner’s rec. fem. typically may appear stronger in a relatively lengthened position.

4)   Velocity of Movement. As a rule of thumb: Intentionally train slow to be slow, intentionally train fast to be fast (there is more to it but not for now).

5)   Force of Contraction. This ties in with the load: insufficient load, insufficient gain in strength. Simple.

6)   Muscle Fibre Recruitment. Remember, we have Fast Twitch, Slow Twitch and a range in between.

7)   Metabolic. This is specific to the intensity and duration of the activity.

8)   Biochemical Adaptation. Think about enzyme activity, mitochondria, etc.

9)   Flexibility. We know that even in a relatively homogenous group like swimmers that breaststrokers generally have greater hip flexibility while butterfly swimmers have greater flexibility at the shoulders.

10)  Fatigue. Physical, mental, emotional, short-term, long-term, muscular, skeletal… All different types of fatigue.

There some coaches that state the only true specific activity is the sport itself.

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For these coaches the discussion is binary in nature: it’s either specific, satisfying ALL the above-mentioned criteria, or it’s non-specific.

Personally, I prefer to think of specificity as a continuum: activities are more or less specific.

On the one extreme, is the sport itself – satisfying all of the above criteria (and probably more). On the other extreme are activities that satisfy none of the criteria.

For a simple example, imagine being asked to train a 15-year old tennis player. Currently her training involves a 30 minute, continuous swim – training that most would agree is non-specific.

To make her training more specific we could change it to a:

  • 30-minute road run… (movement pattern)
  • Break it down to intervals of 5 seconds sprint, 20 seconds walk… (metabolic, biochemical, velocity of movement, force of contraction)
  • Add changes of direction… (type of contraction, muscle fibre recruitment)
  • On clay… (range & region of movement, flexibility)
  • Make it a competitive game… (mental fatigue)

Each of the above steps would make the training activity slide along the continuum edging closer and closer to being ‘specific’.

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And why do we want training to be specific (sometimes)?

Think of it this way: the more an athlete improves in a specific exercise the more they should improve their sports performance.

The next installment of the Specificity articles will address who needs specificity in their programs and who needs non-specificity (a tough concept for novices coaches and parents to accept).

Grant Jenkins is a Strength & Conditioning Coach who enjoys getting the basics right. Follow him on Twitter @Grant_Jenkins

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