I was recently having a chat with my friend Thomas Lilley (aka the man everyone thinks is Frustrated Strengthcoach, in the same way that everybody thought Harvey Dent was Batman) and this came up – using absolute specificity to powerlifting as a rationale for making training decisions is not always the best way to approach things.
My thoughts are basically this (you can skip the article if you want) – Firstly, there are benefits and drawbacks to hyperspecificity, as there are to being completely non specific. Nobody actually trains with absolute specificity all of the time for powerlifting, and so having a rationale for when and to what degree you intend to be specific is better than always reaching for the most specific training means.
Secondly, in the case of other sports there is a clear paradigm of using training to prepare the various components of performance in the most elegant manner, rather than just imitating the game.
Thirdly, by being aware of the above, we can structure training using the tools most specific to the immediate needs of the athlete, with the end goal being improved performance on competition day.
If I were to make a rule of thumb, it would be something like this; fitness for the immediate purpose being equal, the more specific exercise is usually a better choice, however, where the more specific exercise is less fit for purpose, deviating from specificity can make your training design more elegant. To say the same in reverse, deviations from specificity ought to be justified, but where they are there’s nothing wrong with them.
Above and beyond that is that variation of the training stimulus itself is to a degree beneficial. That’s another article, but consider firstly that periodised training seems to outperform nonperiodised training. Some have argued that the benefits of periodisation are indistinguishable from the benefits of variation (which might run against the grain of my logic here, somewhat), so at the least you have some reason to think that you shouldn’t spend all of your time just emulating competition.
Of course, there are ALSO the plentiful anecdotes of people who train with outrageous levels of specificity 24/7/365 and do just great. Hopefully I make myself clear in this article that that is also a viable way to train, without being absolutely necessary.
It’s sometimes a useful exercise when making training-related decisions to follow a train of thought to its logical conclusion. By making things as absurdly imbalanced as possible the benefits and drawbacks of a school of thought are laid bare, even if the scenario that you are envisaging is ridiculous. Imagining, say, doing all of your training in one session per week, and then imagining doing all of your training in as distributed of a fashion as possible can help to highlight the benefits and drawbacks of consolidating training to fewer days and increasing frequency, respectively. Once you’re cognisant of what you’d need to consider in each approach, you can then take steps to plan it well.
So, considering that powerlifting is a sport in which we do 3 attempts, increasing up to maximal loads, on the squat, bench press and deadlift, in sequence, what would the pros and cons be of training exactly how you compete every time that you walk into the gym?
The pros would be exposure to maximal and near-maximal loads under competition conditions and everything that comes with it. The downsides would be that, probably, you’d burn out or get hurt in the short term, you’d never do enough volume of submaximal work to address technique errors or maximise hypertrophy, training would take ages, and you’d trade off of the benefits of variations that are targeted to address your specific weaknesses, etc.
Likewise, an approach entirely devoid of specific powerlifting training might allow you to address muscular weakpoints, prevent burnout and so on, but fail to prepare your muscles, connective tissue, nervous system or psychology to handle near maximal loads under competition conditions, and so on.
The point I’m highlighting in that exercise is this – nobody ACTUALLY trains with absolute specificity all of the time, and both hyperspecific and non-specific programming approaches involve tradeoffs. Part of the art of coaching and programming is to make a reasoned decision about when, how and why to implement variation, and at what point to emphasise specificity.
One of the conceptual cornerstones of training is the SAID principle, which stands for “Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands”, and simply means that your body adapts to the stimuli provided to it. If you undergo an overloading bench press session, your body undergoes a series of adaptive responses to make you more resilient to the stress that you experienced, which manifests itself in everybody’s case but mine as an increased ability to perform the bench press. At the cardiovascular, metabolic, nervous system, muscular and connective tissue level these adaptations would differ from those experienced by somebody who ran 30km at moderate pace, as the nature of the stresses imposed are entirely dissimilar.
More subtly, in instances where there IS overlap, albeit small, you will see some crossover between adaptations. For instance, cyclists and rowers may experience similar adaptations to the heart, such as increased stroke volume, to send oxygen to their working muscles. They may both have improvements in abilities to buffer against metabolites produced by high intensity exercise, and have similar changes in fibre-type expression (tbh this stuff is a bit outside of my scope of expertise, I’m just illustrating). This is because both sports demand sustained high rates of energy expenditure. However, the cyclists are unlikely to have much muscular adaptation to the arms or upper back, as the rower would, because the demands on upper body musculature are not imposed by their activity, and so on.
Why is this important?
In other sports, like rugby for instance, coaches and S+C personnel distinguish between sports-specific training and preparatory work. A rugby team might have a number of field sessions per week involving skills and game-like scenarios, whilst also lifting weights and doing energy-systems training.
Obviously the sport of rugby doesn’t involve doing trap bar deadlifts or riding an assault bike, but it is generally recognised that the components of successful performance on the rugby field (in this instance, lower body strength and “fitness”) can be best trained through means that are more suited to the task than simply playing the game would be.
Powerlifting differs from rugby in a few ways. The scope of physical demands that a powerlifter experiences is far narrower – we basically need to be able to squat, bench and deadlift heavy, whereas a rugby player needs to be able to produce high forces in unpredictable contexts, run fast, change direction, sustain impacts, make tactical decisions, and do so for 80 minutes under increasing fatigue.
Because of this there is limited benefit to doing much at all outside of lifting weights and recovering for powerlifting. Powerlifting is also performed in a more or less closed environment (give or take responding to calls etc) on standardised equipment. Because the scope of demands on powerlifters is relatively narrow, we can and usually do still perform a lot of our general training in that same environment and with similar equipment (ie, in the gym) and so I suspect in many peoples’ heads the line between “sport training” and “stuff that prepares me to perform my sport” gets a bit blurred in a way that it doesn’t for people looking at footy training.
The point is this – coaches in sports other than lifting weights recognise that there are various attributes and skills that need to be developed to prepare an athlete to perform optimally, and they do training to develop each of them.
Powerlifters have fewer attributes to develop and as a result need exposure to fewer training means. However, there is still benefit to viewing training as an exercise (lmao) in developing a series of attributes that make a good powerlifter, and whilst it’s not that hard to make training closely resemble competition, it’s probably smarter to instead shape your training demands to best develop the qualities that you need to in order to improve on the platform down the line.
Another difference between powerlifting and footy, is that powerlifting is typically a single-peak sport. We prepare for one competition every however many weeks/months, and have preparatory periods in between. Unlike other sports such as rugby, we don’t need to maintain maximum sports performance every single week of a season. That means that we have more scope to deviate from absolute specificity at certain times. You can spend time building the foundations for sports performance without constantly expressing it.
So we’ve established that there are tradeoffs to being super duper specific and super duper non specific, and we’ve established that in other sports contexts we view training as a means of preparing the various attributes necessary for an athlete to perform.
So how does this relate to structuring powerlifting training?
Mike Tuscherer once wrote that we use specificity as a heuristic for transfer, which I thought was well-expressed. We presume that things that most resemble the demands of competition are likely to most improve our performance in competition (remember the SAID principle).
However, heuristics are simplifications (or substitutions) of a question. The question that we decide when choosing training stimuli isn’t really “what is most specific”, but what is going to get me most betterer at lifting at competition, and sometimes they aren’t the same thing.
Powerlifting performance requires a few basic attributes – muscle size (all things being equal, bigger muscles produce more force), other adaptations at the muscular and connective tissue level to improve strength (this episode of Weakly Weights with Greg Nuckols covers a few), technical competency in the powerlifts, and nervous system adaptations to maximise force development. That and psychological preparedness to perform in competition.
To grossly simplify that, you need big muscles and an ability to use them.
Very often people use a phasic structure in training, with time specifically devoted to developing each of these attributes. That itself is a deviation from specificity, as if the stated goal of a phase is “get bigger muscles”, rather than “improve my 1RM”, you’ve shifted the goalposts a little.
Hypertrophy training doesn’t tend to be very specific to powerlifting anyway. Whilst you absolutely CAN make impressive increases in muscle size training in the heaviest of weight ranges, the stimulus to fatigue ratio of doing so is pretty unfavourable, and most people elect to lift moderate weights for moderate repetitions when doing so.
If you like this content and want to learn more from me, check out Fitness Fundamentals – a website providing the most up to date, applicable fitness information, run by my colleague Luke Tulloch and with content written by me.
So if you’re willing to make accommodations in your loading schemes in order to satisfy the goal of hypertrophy training, why not do so in other training parameters? For instance, choosing movements that maximise range of motion that a muscle is worked through whilst reducing joint stress (through using lighter loads etc), reducing axial loading to accommodate doing more work without postural fatigue inhibiting your training, and ordering your workouts in such a way that priority muscle groups are hit first can all help facilitate training effectively for hypertrophy.
That might mean that, instead of solely squatting for quad growth, you also included some belt squats and leg extensions, or that in a session in which you were emphasising bench press whilst doing some additional leg hypertrophy work, you put your pressing work prior to your leg training, even though in competition you squat first.
Now, of course, you COULD simply keep as much similar between your hypertrophy phases and your competition form as possible. Squats and bench presses are excellent movements for hypertrophy, they have the benefit of providing some technical practice and stressing the specific fibres of the muscles that are most stressed in their execution (where other exercises may not), and absolutely satisfy the range of motion and overloadability requirements of movement selection. However, as I mentioned way back at the start, other movements may allow you to more elegantly target a specific muscular/movement weakness that appears in the main lift whilst also minimising the drawbacks of training for hypertrophy with said movements. The MOST sensible training for hypertrophy for powerlifting seems to involve some use of the main lifts or close variations of them and additional hypertrophy work designed principally to address the needs of hypertrophy training.
Without interrogating the idea to the same degree, the same is true in strength blocks and selecting movements for technical development. See this article here for a discussion on the roles of variations in your training. Whilst doing the main lifts for technique makes absolute sense, choosing variations that emphasise a technical component of the main lift, highlight a technical error (such as how safety bar squats punish you for letting your hips rise early squatting) or provide targeted stress to a portion of the ROM can more elegantly address the technical issue that you see.
Again, the MOST sensible strength and technique training for powerlifting combines exposure to the competition lifts and targeted variation to address individual weakpoints and technical errors.
During peaking phases the needs of training are even more specific to performance. With competition approaching, proficiency with the competitive movements is of the utmost importance. In order to maximise the neuromuscular adaptations that help you lift the most weight, you need some exposure to near-maximal loads, and it becomes increasingly important to familiarise yourself with competition performance considerations such as being used to deadlifting after squatting/benching and performing the lifts with commands. In addition, the large amounts of fatigue generated per unit of work done at these higher intensities means that there is less room for additional/non-specific work in training – having too much extra work runs counter to the twin imperatives of bringing fatigue down over time so as to facilitate best performance on the day whilst providing exposure to very difficult/heavy training.
However, there are a couple of instances in peaking in which some “non-specific” training might be warranted. Firstly, in order to prevent detraining of hypertrophy and general strength qualities it is probably best to do more than the absolute minimum volume for most of a peak. The degree to which this matters really depends – a couple of hard/heavy sets of the comp lifts in and of themselves are probably an adequate maintenance stimulus, and the generally short timeframe of greatly reduced volumes people undergo means that detraining isn’t a huge concern, but particularly for large/strong individuals for whom hard sessions have to be spaced further apart, SOME maintenance work that satisfies the physiological demands to prevent detraining, whilst not accruing much extra fatigue (in this case, often lightish single-joint work) can be worthwhile.
The other instance comes back to what Mike Tuscherer said – certain movements have transfer to the main lifts without being hyperspecific. Performance of the main lifts requires strength in a number of muscle groups and in a variety of movement domains, and it makes some sense conceptually that some of those skill components both need and tolerate more stimulus than others.
For instance, some of my athletes have had success with having a lighter squat day using a front squat or high bar squat during a peak, which provide some additional quad/upper back stimulus using lighter absolute loads than a competition squat. Conceptually, this could be because of the targeted stimulus provided to the muscles that need/can handle more work without the physiological or psychological stress of handling heavier loads as you would in the competition movement. It could also be because the slightly different movement demands highlight an important technical component of performing the main lift. It could also be that these variations provide a less specific targeted stimulus, but don’t cause flareups of niggling injuries such as elbow pain that often emerge during a peak, and so by using them the athlete is kept healthier so that their performance in the main/heavier work is better.
Finally, it’s worth noting that even though the main loading days for each lift in the peaking phase increasingly resemble competition conditions, with most people including lifts performed to competition standards at near maximal loads, most people also include more undulation of load during peaks. In order to be sufficiently fresh for the “hard” days, the easy days often have to get easier, and inherent in reduced loading and increased speed of lifting is a reduction in specificity. However, given context these “non-specific” days serve a purpose (facilitating the necessary execution of specific work and preventing detraining) and so their surface level lack of specificity doesn’t at all reduce their value to a program.
To sum up, even though in peaking we do need an emphasis on specificity, as the immediate performance demands are best serviced by training the competition lifts, there may be occasions in which less specific work is still of benefit.
The specificity heuristic is not an unhelpful one. Whilst there is an inherent reduction in specificity of load and velocity of movement in phases using lower intensities, it is absolutely possible to satisfy the needs of hypertrophy, strength and peaking blocks whilst regressing to the otherwise most specific training structures possible.
However, neither is such an approach necessary or certainly advantageous. Instead of looking through your training design by trying to emulate, in absolute terms, competition, it’s more advisable to analyse the needs of your athlete and determine which strengths you will develop and which deficiencies you will address. From there, you can pick movements based off of their suitability/specificity to their purpose in your program designed, as opposed to their semblance of competition demands.
Over the course of training phases and in preparation for competition the balance between general/unspecific and specific training will shift towards specificity, but that doesn’t mean that non-specific work cannot still serve a useful purpose in the later stages of prep.
The totality of training must be specific – from a global view there should be a developmental plan that results in improved performance, but where it is justified, being able to deviate from specificity in a reasoned fashion can actually make your training MORE elegant, and serve that higher purpose better than simply emulating competition in training.
- We experience specific adaptations to the training stimulus that we are subjected to.
- Sports performance is subject to multiple adaptations/attributes, and sometimes deviations from emulating the sport allow us to better develop said attributes.
- Powerlifters don’t HAVE to be at peak performance every week of the year, and being able to deviate from competition-like training can allow you to work on the base qualities that make you a better lifter.
- Different training phases might favour more or less competition-specific training, and your choices for training design within each phase should be subject to the needs of the athlete and the suitability of that training stimulus to promoting the desired adaptation.
Finally, because it’s very interesting, it’s worth reading some more of Kiely’s writing. This piece, which I’ve just begun, raises more questions about whether we can assume an entirely predictable relationship between mechanical loading and subsequent adaptation.