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What being "specific" is and why it matters

"Training should be specific to the individual" is a line you'll hear all the time from sport science buffs, but what does it actually mean?


As I've mentioned in a previous post, specificity is one of the main principles underpinning everything we do in the exercise science field. It is equivalent to the "eat high-quality foods" phrase in nutrition culture, a phrase that is easy to say but difficult to put into practice. It is the difference between an evidence-based, successful exercise program and a throw "shit at the wall to see what sticks" approach.


To make sure we're all on the same page: the body creates specific adaptations to the imposed demands - the SAID principle (read my post on it here).

If you want to run faster you need to run fast, if you want to jump higher you need to jump high.


Pretty simple, right?


Getting globally stronger is going to give you a better overall capacity, but training for your specific sport/condition/activity is going to transfer that capacity into performance, because your body will be able to apply that strength specifically to what is required from your activity.


This seems straight-forward when applied to sports, but this applies to exercises for injury rehabilitation as well. Calf raises alone probably aren't going to get you back to running, and simply squatting isn't going to allow an elderly client to walk faster.


In this article I cover the 4 areas of specificity which should be addressed to ensure your body is adapting how you want it to.


This article should give you an idea of the complexities of exercise selection for individuals, however it shouldn't replace a professional's input. If you hadn't heard of an Exercise Physiologist before, this is why we exist.


(1) The muscle groups that are targeted


This one is very straight forward, if you want your legs to get stronger, you need to train legs. But it can be broken down even further than that. For example, did you know that your quadriceps and hamstrings only play a minor role in walking and most of our propulsion comes from the calf muscles? This remains true during jogging, and it is only once we get to faster speeds that other muscles at the hip and knee play a large part in force production.


Therefore, it is important to find out what muscles are used in the particular sport or movement that you are training for. This is often not as intuitive as you might think as some muscles will work while lengthening (called eccentric) and some muscles will work while remaining the same length (isometric). Unfortunately, there is no ultimate resource for which muscles are used for what movement, so you will have to research these movements online from multiple sources.


To find out what muscles play what role in a movement, scientists will use an electromograph (EMG) which is a little sensor they stick in the muscle that sends out a signal when there is electrical activity in the muscle. Here is an example of an EMG graph throughout the walking cycle:



You can see the triceps surae (another name for your calf muscles) have a large portion of the graph in the blue zone. You can also see that the gluteus maximus (do I need to clarify where this is located?) is only firing during the loading response and mid stance phase of walking. We can use this information to specifically train one phase of walking.



(2) The range of motion through which the movement is performed


This is an often overlooked aspect of making a movement specific. How far you move your body part can affect which muscles are used. But there's also another way to change your range of motion. If your body is in a different position, the force on the muscle will be different too.


Here are some examples of these 2 different ways to change range of motion and how it affects your training:


  1. During a squat, a whole bunch of muscles in the lower body are used to get the weight down and up. If you are an inflexible chump (like I used to be), you may only get 1/4 of the way to the ground, whereas if you were born able to lick your elbow you might be able to squat ATG (ass to grass). In that top 1/4 portion of the squat, you will mainly be using your quadriceps muscles, but as you go below a 90 degree position the gluteus maximus gets more of a workout. Other muscles that weren't doing much, such as the adductors which were completely silent until now, have to join the party. By squatting deep, you actually recruit different muscles compared to a shallow squat.

  2. The triceps muscle is made up of 3 heads (hence the "tri") and is a major mover for elbow extension (straightening the arm). While doing the same exercise, we can play around with our body position to place the 3 heads under different amounts of stress. During a tricep kick back, if the elbow is by your side (punching towards the floor) you will be hitting the long head of the triceps hard, but if the elbow is above your head (punching towards the ceiling) you will be hitting the medial head more. These heads all form part of the same muscle, but are advantaged or disadvantaged at certain angles, so they need to each be strong enough for the movement.

So, if you're training for an overhead throw movement you should be doing your tricep kick backs in that overhead position to ensure you're hitting the necessary head of the triceps. Similarly, if you're going to be holding a 1/4 squat position such as in tennis when you're waiting for a serve, you probably don't need to be squatting ATG. Train in similar range of motions as what you want to improve.


(3) The speed of movement


Power - the ability to create force quickly - is one of the 12 components of fitness and should be utilised in training to be as close to the desired movement as possible. Altering the speed of movement is especially important in lower body rehab, where it is likely that the force will need to be produced quickly. But it is also important in upper body sports like tennis where power has a large impact on the skill.


This is also really important when returning to team sports or running. If your rehab has consisted of slow, strength-focused rehab exercises such as calf raises, your body might not be ready for the rapid impacts that come with intense running. When producing power, the tissues in your body go through a stretch-shortening cycle, which is not dissimilar to pulling on a rubber band and letting it go. Unlike real rubber bands which will wear out with continued stretching, the human body can repair the tissues to be stronger given the correct training.


Fun fact - The achilles tendon (the strong band at the back of your heel) can take more than ~450kg of force!


An example of when I manipulate the speed of a movement to be more specific in my practice is when training elderly populations for falls risk. Falls risk is a huge indicator of health in the elderly due to muscle loss as we age and increased repercussions if we do fall. A base level of strength from exercises such as a split squat (stationary lunge) is a good starting point, but it doesn't have a big impact on falls risk on its own. Instead, getting clients to step into a 1/4 lunge and push back to standing upright has much more carry over into what we're really training for: righting themselves after a stumble. While stationary lunges would help build strength in the legs, they need to be able to catch themselves and quickly create force to keep prevent them from tipping over.


This is simple to apply to sports as well. While building your squat weight will build the muscles in your legs, it is only by sprinting that your body will learn how to apply that force rapidly to improve your sprint times. Build strength first, then learn how to apply it.



(4) The muscle actions involved.


This brings it all back to point (1), is a muscle working concentrically, eccentrically or isometrically? Yes, we can see which muscles are working in an EMG graph but to understand HOW they are working we need to include some biomechanical evaluation. Basically, if a muscle is getting closer to its origin attachment point while the EMG is high, it is working concentrically. If it is staying the same distance, it is working isometrically. If it is getting further it is working eccentrically.


A good example to help you wrap your head around this concept is sit ups. Sit ups train the core... right? But what does the core naturally do throughout the day? It's not often pulling our ribs towards our belly button like in a sit up, but is working isometrically to prevent us from collapsing in a heap of bones and meat.


With this in mind, it shouldn't be surprising that lifting heavy things in a squat or deadlift results in a higher core EMG than sit ups alone (link). That's right, sit ups are not the best way to train your core, lifting heavy is. This is partly because while sit ups are working the same muscle, it is not the same muscle action as how the core is used pretty much anywhere except in the gym.


If your sport requires you to repeatedly pull as hard as you can, you should train those muscles concentrically. If you are rehabbing a muscle that stabilises the hips while walking such as your gluteus medius, you should be doing isometrics. If you are training to prevent injury while running, the hamstring should be trained eccentrically. If your sport requires you to jump, land, then jump again, you should be training your body to create the force concentrically, absorb the landing eccentrically, all while stabilising the body isometrically.



At the end of the day, this all comes back to training what you want to train for. Lift heavy weights and you'll get better at lifting heavy weights, throw a ball and you'll get better at throwing a ball. But by breaking specificity down into specific categories, we can understand what needs to be altered to ensure we are getting the most out of our training.


I've always claimed to be a "Bill Gates" style of lazy. I'm going to get things done, but I want to do them right. It's because of this that I believe heavily in the quote: "Train smarter, not harder" and there is no better way to do that then to apply the SAID principle in your training.



So make it easy for yourself. Be specific with your training by:


  1. Training the right muscles

  2. Training the right range of motion

  3. Training the right speed of movement and

  4. Training the right muscle actions involved.

If you need help figuring out how to train for your specific sport, condition or activity, you can always shoot me a message through the "contact me" page or on Instagram @dantharockman


Stay lazy, stay strong.

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