In Praise of Not Specialising (and Lara Croft)

Warming up for a Strength Circuit

Specificity

One of the first things you are taught as a coach is the principle of specificity. This is usually summed up as “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand” (the SAID principle), meaning that the body adapts to the specific demands placed upon it.

The researcher Chris Beardsley published a nice series of articles recently about this that are worth reading, if you find this interesting. In one of them, he lists how strength can be specific to:

  • the type of load being used
  • the direction the force is being applied against the load
  • how quickly the force is being applied
  • how many reps are being done
  • the range of motion used
  • the muscle group being tested
  • the type of contraction the muscle is doing (concentric or eccentric)
  • the stability of the surface being tested on

This is because of adaptations to bones, connective tissue and musculature as well as to the way the brain interacts with the muscles. You might hear this all summarised in the phrase “strength is a skill”. In order to get better at doing something, you’ve got to practice it.

Applying this to training, this means that exercises, rest times, load etc. should be selected to meet our specific needs. If we want to lift heavier things, we should lift heavier things.

Specialisation

Because this is such a foundational principle of training, I’m fascinated by people who seem to be very good at a number of different things. My fitness hero is Lara Croft. Despite a difficult childhood (surviving a plane crash in the Himalayas and losing both parents – her mother vanishing after touching an ancient sword and her father murdered by the former ruler of Atlantis), she has managed to master gymnastics, diving, swimming, running and martial arts, to name but a few of her many skills.

Some spoilsports may argue that referencing a fictional character undermines the idea that it’s possible to be good at a bunch of things, so let’s instead consider the decathlon – the multi-skilled Olympic “combined event” of sprinting, hurdling, running longer distances, throwing things in three different ways and jumping far, high and really high with a pole. A clumsy way of looking at the power of specificity might be to compare the world records held in the various events of the decathlon with the world records for those individual events. The best decathlete of all time is Ashton Eaton. Below is a table comparing his record with the records of specialists in the various disciplines:

  100m Long Jump Shot Put High Jump 400m 110m Hurdles Discus Throw Pole Vault Javelin Throw 1500m
Ashton Eaton 10.23s 7.88m 14.52m 2.01m 45s 13.69s 43.34m 5.2m 63.63m 4m 17.52s
World Record 9.58s 8.95m 23.12m 2.45m 43.03s 12.8s 74.08m 6.16m 98.48m 3m 26s
Percentage Difference 6% 14% 59% 22% 4.4% 6.5% 71% 18% 55% 20%

We can see above that specificity certainly does make a difference. However, this is looking at a tiny, tiny percentage of the population – elite athletes. These people have devoted their lives to being the best at their chosen skill and are supported by the cutting edge of sports science. What should we, the dribbling non-elite, take from the above? Maybe nothing. (Good thing I just wasted half an hour putting that table together.)

Programming

There has been quite a bit of research recently that has shifted away from forms of training that emphasise specificity.

For example, a traditional training programme would be divided into chunks each focusing on a specific aspect of strength. It might look something like this:

  1. spend a few weeks building bigger muscles (hypertrophy / work capacity)
  2. spend a few weeks getting those muscles stronger (strength / intensification)
  3. have a little bit of time to recover (deload)
  4. test the heaviest weights you can lift (realisation)
  5. repeat

This approach is linear, often taking you from doing lots of reps with lighter weight to less reps with heavier weight, and periodised, doing each chunk for a set amount of time, so it’s often called Linear Periodisation. This sort of idea perhaps originates in Hans Selye‘s work on stress in the late ’50s and was formalised by Tudor Bompa in the ’60s, so it’s been around for a while.

But over the last year or so, there has been interest in a different form of periodisation that looks like this:

  1. do a training session focusing on building bigger muscles (hypertrophy)
  2. next session, try to get more powerful and explosive (power)
  3. next, focus on getting stronger (strength)
  4. repeat

Since this form of periodisation is changing on a daily basis, it’s often referred to as Daily Undulating Periodisation (DUP). A researcher called Dr. Mike Zourdos has been working on this. His 2016 paper called ‘Modified Daily Undulating Periodization Model Produces Greater Performance than a Traditional Configuration in Powerlifters’ did exactly what it said on the tin, which got coaches very excited.

Again though, powerlifters are a pretty specific group of people. For most of us, at a non-elite level, any form of periodisation is going to make a positive difference to our strength, so long as we keep challenging ourselves. The point I want to make by mentioning DUP is that it shows we can vary our training and still get stronger.

Another example of science supporting variety might be the fact that cardio does not in fact kill your gainz, and, conversely, that strength training is not in itself detrimental to performance of cardiovascular exercise.

Applying this to Ourselves

What I intended to show with this post is that, although specificity is absolutely fundamental to the development of strength at a biomechanical and neurological level, this might not be the most important factor when deciding on the ways we want to get stronger and fitter. For most of us, we’re going to get more from consistently and pretty regularly doing some sort of exercise that we enjoy than trying and failing to adhere to a rigid linear programme. We can take heart from the recent sports science research that shows a varied approach can be beneficial and we can see the epitome of this in the awe-inspiring athleticism of Ashton Eaton and other decathletes.

Thinking about specificity more broadly, most of us probably don’t want to specialise in just being really great at exercise. We probably have loads of other great things we want to do, and we need to divide our time between all of that too. I mean, Lara Croft also knows archaeology, geology, navigation and field medicine, flies aeroplanes, tracks animals and speaks dozens of obscure and extinct languages… Making friends, seeing family, learning, playing, making art, doing activism, going to work, being outside, doing hobbies, practicing mindfulness… All of these things are skills, and a good programme should accommodate them too.

In our Strength Circuits, your programme incorporates ideas from DUP (sometimes going heavier with fewer reps and sometimes lighter with more reps) alongside ideas from linear periodisation (always trying to increase the load when you revisit a certain rep range). For example, if you do an exercise for 3 sets of 10 using 20kg, next time you do 3 sets of 10 maybe try 22.5kg or 25kg. It also acknowledges the other skills you practice outside of the gym by giving you loads as percentages of effort (100% is maximal effort), allowing you to pick the load based on how you feel – perhaps you stayed up late chatting with a good friend you hadn’t seen in a while, or you were up in the night looking after someone, or you just didn’t sleep well because you were worrying about something. In this case, your 75% effort might be using a lighter weight than if you’d got a full night’s sleep, and of course that’s fine. Even if you miss a session because you feel terrible or you’re away doing something exciting, or because that day you feel like dancing or swimming or running instead, the programme can accommodate that. The more you come the stronger you’ll get, but even coming irregularly will be enough to improve your strength, and is considerably better for your health than not coming at all.