Specificity is a term used to describe programming for the task at hand. It can be used in different industries and different applications therein, but as applied to athletic programming, or for the general public, workout programming, it refers to programming for the physical goal.
This physical goal is generally an expression of ability, such as running faster, lifting more, jumping higher, or performing better in conditioning work. Specificity for sports focuses on these expressions of ability as those abilities apply to the sport in question. For example, a running back in football needs speed and power, whereas a marathon runner needs endurance and cardio conditioning.
Confusion about specificity
Where specificity can get confusing is when someone does not understand what skills or abilities transfer into a sport or apply to a particular goal. For example, if a basketball player wants to improve physical abilities as these apply to playing basketball, he or she needs to work on short bouts of speed, cardio endurance, power output, and movement in various planes. Some of this will be provided by actual play and skill-based work, but should be supplemented through a strength and conditioning program for optimal improvement.
This player may choose to utilize isolation work, half marathon running, and Olympic lifting. These areas will help improve power output, endurance, speed, and movement, but not in the way that best applies to basketball. For example, the isolation work can improve strength, distance running can improve endurance, and Olympic lifting can improve power, while all three will help with movement. Again, this would not happen in the way that best applies to basketball.
However, I would have this person focus on sprint work, some distance running, full body plyometric work, and basic strength building exercises that are compound movements.
The compound movements, such as overhead pressing, squatting, and deadlifting will build significant strength in a short time, without the learning curve or more dynamic nature required of Olympic lifting. This will be safer and more efficient. Sprint work will build the speed needed to run the court, while the distance work will help build cardio endurance. I would limit the distance running, since games have a strong focus on this area, and adding too much in the strength and conditioning program would be needless, not to mention possibly too draining.
Upper and lower body plyometric work, such as jump training and throw training, will improve explosive ability throughout the body. This will be further augmented by the compound strength work, as an increase in total strength will provide more power potential for explosive work.
The players choices of utilize isolation work, half-marathon running, and Olympic lifting are not bad in a general sense. Each has merit but may be better served for the off season, when a player can work on general physical preparedness without as much concern for the specifics of his or her sport.
For a plan to optimal, that is to actively address the concept of specificity, it must be truly specific to the task at hand and not generalized.
Specificity outside of sports
Specificity outside of sports, or perhaps we could say specificity for the average person, still follows the same idea as specificity for sports. The focus tends to be more generalized and not as much is at stake as for athletes, but that is not to say it is less important.
If a person wants to lose weight, the program followed should focus on that, not gaining weight. If a person wants to become a better runner, then following a powerlifting program is not going to be ideal. A running program designed for the specific run goal, such as a faster sprint or improved distance running is needed.
Going further, if a person wants to get better at running a half-marathon, a person should follow a program specifically designed for that. A person should not follow a 10k plan or a marathon training program. While both are specific to running and will improve running ability, a 10k plan and marathon program are not half-marathon programs and are therefore not training someone to become better at a half-marathon.
The same idea applies to any other goal. If a person wants to get better at the bench, squat, and deadlift, completing an Olympic lifting program is not ideal. While Olympic lifting does increase strength and other physical abilities, it does not directly improve the bench, squat, and deadlift. The opposite is true as well, in that someone who wants to get better at Olympic lifting does not need the bench, squat, and deadlift.
Specificity is the simplest of programming concepts. The program created must be specific to the goals of the person.
Specificity for multiple goals
A compounding factor for difficulty in workout programming is planning for multiple goals that are varied. What I mean by that is goals that have significant difference, versus goals that are similar in nature.
For example, building strength for the squat, bench, and deadlift are the same, in that building strength is the overarching goal, even though multiple lifts are present. Increasing strength for all three movements is an easy to program concurrent goal set, which can be considered one goal.
Building strength in the squat and increasing 400-meter sprint speed are significantly different goals. One calls for maximizing strength, which requires programming the main lift, close variants, and assistance exercises in a periodized plan that includes progressive overload of weight, changing of stressors over time to encourage continued adaptation, and management of fatigue, among other factors, such consideration of form.
Running requires programming of one movement, different distances, and paces that target different components of cardio fitness in a periodized plan that accounts for progressive overload of speed, management of paces other than sprints for efficiency in training, and management of fatigue, among other considerations, such as form.
Some similarities exist both in the requirements of the task, such as a form of max effort as the type of physical output, and the programming still follows the same basic guidelines of periodization, progressive overload, and other factors, such as specificity. Yet, the movement are completely different, the body systems work in different ways to produce each type of work, and the specific tasks programmed for each plan are different.
Programming for multiple goals
One of the biggest issues for programming for multiple goals that are different in nature but are to be worked toward concurrently is what to prioritize. This depends on the importance of the goals. For an athlete, the primary goal should be that which is most relevant to his or her sport. For example, building strength for the running athlete is a worthwhile venture, but should not surpass the importance of improving the specific run for which that person trains. The training plan should be built around the main goal with any secondary goals planned as a supplement to training.
As a supplement to training, the volume of the secondary goals should never exceed the volume of the primary, should never surpass the intensity of the primary, and should never limit the focus of the primary. For that last point, consider that a secondary should never fatigue a person so much it interferes with the primary, should never leave a person so sore that it interferes with the primary, and should never take so much time as to interfere with the primary.
A couple of simple approaches include programing all primary work before secondary in the week or to make secondary work optional. The logic behind the former is a person will put most of their energy into the primary and only put so much effort in the secondary goals as able that does not cause interference with a subsequent primary session. The logic of the latter is a person can fit secondary work in as able based on time, energy, and other factors, so long as completing the optional work does not interfere with the primary.
However, I am getting off the topic of specificity and more into the nuances of program design.
Specificity and individual differences
In my opinion, specificity and individual differences go hand in hand. Individual differences refers to the situational factors that apply to any person. These factors, or differences, may include current fitness level, exercises experience, schedule, and other areas, such as interest.
These areas matter since a plan specific to the goal may be ideal for reaching a goal, but if a person is unable to implement it, the plan is worthless. Individual differences determines the specifics of the plan on a personal level, much like specificity determines specifics of a plan on a goal-based level.
When creating a training program, a person cannot consider specificity without considering individual differences or individual differences without considering specificity. The two are inherently linked and when a trainer programs for a client or you program for yourself, you have to consider both as the same time, and arguably as one in the same.
I noted that factors, or differences, may include current fitness level, and exercise experience, and schedule. Let us take a closer look at those.
Current fitness level
Current fitness level determines what a person can do. This is determined by a set of metrics, such as one rep max, mile completion time, body wide mobility, muscular endurance, and skill. There is not one set of metrics to determine current fitness level, but instead a variety of possible metric sets based on the training style, goal, and coach preferences.
The current fitness level of the person determines what program he or she will be able to complete. Since this is determined at a personal level and differs from one person to the next, it is an individual difference. People perform at different levels and this ability or lack thereof partially determines the type of a program a person can handle.
Even if a harder program may lead to better results, if a person physically cannot complete it, then it has no value. Individual differences such as current fitness level help determine what plan a coach creates, or what plan a trainee should choose if selecting or building his or her own program.
Engaging in a powerlifting or Olympic lifting program using heavier weight and high workout frequency can build significant amounts of strength and muscle. For this reason, it might make sense to push someone with these goals into a program that calls for hard sessions 5+ times per week, possibly even with twice per day workouts. However, if a person has never completed the bench, squat, deadlift, snatch, clean, or jerk, he or she does not have the necessary skill, and likely not the necessary fitness level, to engage in such a plan.
Exercise experience determines they kind of program a person can complete in that the more or less a person has experience with, the more or less she can do in the program. This experience or lack thereof also partially determines progressions. For example, someone experienced in lifting with a solid form base can almost immediately begin a progressive program that increases weight over time. If a person lacks this exercise experience, the initial weeks or months will be spent focusing on form to build a skill and strength base that will be the foundation from which a progressive program is built.
Exercise experience is an individual difference for which a plan must be specifically planned. In this way the concepts of specificity and individual differences both apply and must be accounted for concurrently in the programming process.
A person’s schedule is a strong determinant of the plan he or she follows. Even if someone’s ability allows that person to complete longer workouts or workout with greater frequency, if the schedule does not accommodate, the approach to more volume should not be used.
The logic is that even if the higher frequency and longer workout duration would equal greater results, we are setting a person up for failure if we program something that does not work for his or her schedule. That said, using a scheduled difficulty as a cop out is not what I am referring to.
For example, some people use an excuse that he or she needs to spend an hour plus in front of the TV every day or go out partying every weekend as a reason for not working out more frequently or for longer duration. These are a cop outs from lazy people.
A legitimate scheduling conflict arises from work, family, or other similar responsibilities and for a client to be successful, the program needs to account for schedule. Since schedules are different from person to person, this is an individual difference, but must be account for when considering the specific of the program and should be considered alongside specificity.
That is specificity with the side dose of individual differences. Specificity is the simplest of programming concepts. The program created must be specific to the goals of the person. If the program focuses on a target other than the goal, it is not specific to the end results. If the plan focuses on the goal but secondary to other less relevant goals, it is not specific to the end results. The plan created must target the end goal with accuracy. At the same time, individual differences should be considered when planning for specificity, and arguably should be considered as one in the same for programming purposes.
Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, Utah State University, and the ISSA College of Exercise Science.
Nathan has 20 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.