Are You Training What You Think You Are? Why Specificity is Important.

What exercise specificity is and why it's an important principle of strength training.

One of the most important concepts in strength training is the principle of specificity.

Put simply, it means that you get better at what you train.

For example, If you want to build strength, then you'll need to lift weights heavy enough to allow you make gains in strength.

Have you been lifting for a while and not making some of the gains that you expect? If you've tried adjusting your training volume and have been using progressive overload, you might go back a step.

It is entirely possible that you're not training what you think.

Let me tell you a little story from one of my old college football coaches to illustrate.

In collegiate football, they measure everything that they can including;

  • Flexibility
  • Scale weight
  • Body fat percentages
  • Vertical jump
  • Broad jump
  • Sprinting times (of various distances, commonly 10 and 40 yards in football)
  • Hang cleans (or other full body explosive strength tests)
  • Squatting maxes
  • Bench press maximums
  • How many times you can bench press 225 lbs
  • Lateral agility (commonly the 5-10-5 test)
  • Maneuverability (commonly using the "L-drill")

There are millions of dollars on the line every year so, you better believe that standards are high.

As the story goes, Coach Bryan Mann, an Associate Strength and Conditioning coach at the time, came to tell Coach Pat Ivey that the hang cleans were not improving vertical jumps as expected.

After a heated exchange, they eventually came to realize that in fact, Coach Mann was right.

Studying old texts on velocity-based strength training lead Coach Mann to surmise that hang cleans needed to be trained at a faster speed in order to produce gains in explosive strength. The new goal was to have athletes performing the hang clean at 1.53 m/s2, measured using an accelerometer.

Once the team was training explosive strength, vertical jumps started increasing again.

They were now training the thing that they wanted to improve.

The same lesson can apply to your strength training goals.

To Train for Strength (Low-Speed Strength)

Are you looking to perform your first pull-up or lift a human? That's strength.

  • Strength training involves longer rests, higher levels of effort and lower relative repetitions
  • 2-6 sets per exercise
  • ≤ 6 repetitions per set
  • 2-5 minutes of rest
  • ≥80-85% of 1 rep max

To Train for Endurance

Are you looking to improve your marathon time? Muscular endurance will be important to you.

  • Muscular endurance training involves shorter rests and repeated efforts
  • 2-3 sets per exercise
  • ≤30 seconds of rest
  • 12-25+ repetitions per set
  • ≤67% of 1 rep max

To Train for Muscle Growth (Hypertrophy)

Are you looking to grow your thighs, glutes, or biceps? You're looking for hypertrophy.

  • Muscular Hypertrophy training can involve high, moderate and low load training taken near failure.
  • 3-6 sets per exercise
  • 30-90 seconds of restor 2-3 minutes of rest
  • 6-12 or 8-20+ repetitions per set
  • 67-85% of 1 rep max

To Train for Power (High-Speed Strength)

Would you like to jump higher or throw farther? Training powerfly will do that.

  • Power training can involves moving various weights at high speeds.
  • 3-5 sets per exercise
  • 2-5 minutes of rest between sets
  • 1-5 repetitions per set
  • 30-90% of 1 rep max

You might disagree-different authors and texts provide different definitions and recommendations for training.

If you decide that you want to take a deeper look at your training, there are two things left to do:

  1. Establish baselines for yourself.
  2. Periodically test your performances relative to your baselines.

Decide What You Want to Measure

You get to define the goals that you want to work towards.

Let's say that you want to improve your mile time.

Once you’re clear on your goal(s), the next step is to figure out where you’re starting from. Spend some time observing what you’re doing now-before you start making changes, take a week to observe your eating, sleeping and training.

In our example, the first thing that you’re going to do is time yourself running a mile and take some notes:

  • What did you eat leading up to your run?
  • How did you sleep the night(s) before?
  • What was the weather like?
  • How much energy did you have before and during the run?
  • How long did it take for your heart rate to return to normal?

Track the minimum that you need to make a good decision. You can decide you want to measure or change based on your observations.

My two cents: track your mile time, resting heart rate and one-minute recovery time (what your heart rate is one minute after you've finished running).

You’re going to conduct experiments, trying out lifestyle and training changes, little bits at a time.

You’re going to focus on the actions you can take each day to build a sustainable lifestyle. You're going to change a couple variables in your training.

Think about the foods and actions that you want to add to your life. Think about the things that you won't change in your training.

As you move along, you’ll want to collect some feedback on how your experiments are going.

In training, we often spend time "testing our maxes after 4-16 weeks. When you test depends on the goal.

Just remember you don’t need to measure everything, only enough information to change your decision-making process.

Did your mile time change?

Is your heart getting in better shape?

Maybe it's how you're running.


  1. Sheppard, Jeremy M, and N Travis Triplett. “Program Design for Resistance Training.” Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 4th ed., Human Kinetics, pp. 439–468.

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