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Principles of Training – Specificity

Different methods of training provide our bodies with a diverse range of stimuli, which in turn cause a wide variety of adaptations. This is why we need to apply the principle of specificity, which ensures that the training we are doing will provide our bodies with the correct stimuli to cause the desired adaptation and bring about the desired change to our performance or aesthetic measures of our physique.

 

In order to apply specificity, we need to work backwards. By this, I mean we first establish what element of our performance or aesthetic we want to change. In other words, this is your goal, such as lose body fat, increase muscle mass, run a faster 5k or increase your deadlift 1RM. Next, we take this change to performance or aesthetic and identify what adaptation will cause this.

 

To give some practical examples, let’s take some common goals and walk through the process of devising a training programme to optimise results. Firstly, it’s important to note that nutrition is paramount in any training goal you may have. However, as this article is only about applying specificity to our training programmes, we won’t touch upon that in this article.

 

If we look at programmes to increase muscle mass (hypertrophy) or optimise fat loss they are actually identical, it’s the nutrition which will differ. This is because in both of these programmes we want to provide as much stimulus to the muscle so that they have the best environment for growth when in a calorie surplus and the best environment to be retained in a deficit, thereby optimising fat loss.

 

When making a training programme ideal for optimising hypertrophy we need to look at which aspects of training that cause hypertrophy. These include: training close to/muscular failure on a regular basis, ensuring enough volume is completed on each muscle group throughout the week and ideally training each muscle group on 2 separate days per week. When it comes to training close to/at failure, it’s worth noting that this must be achieved by not only training hard but also selecting exercises with a high external stability so that it’s fatigue on the target muscle that is the limiting factor and not something else such as a loss of balance. Without this, we will have to cease the set prior to the muscle being close to failure and thereby not achieving our goal of that set.

 

Volume has been shown to have a linear relationship with hypertrophy i.e. when looking at it purely through the lens of specificity, the more volume, the better results. However, we need to apply the other principles of training in order to identify the optimal volume for each individual at a given time in their training cycle.

 

Next, let’s take a look at applying specificity to a popular performance based goal such as running a faster 5k. Now this is very context specific as there’s so many factors that go into improving 5km performance. Therefore, which element of training someone focuses on will differ between individuals, this will be talked about in much greater detail during the next blog on individualisation.

 

From a general perspective though, we need to identify that about 88-90% aerobic. Therefore, countless HIT sessions are not going to be very beneficial for 5km performance. Instead, we need to train aerobically for the vast majority of sessions. These are going to be made up of long easy runs, typically at an intensity around 60-65% of maximum heart rate. At this intensity, you should be able to hold a conversation quite easily, if you need to walk to achieve this then that is fine. Other types of training will be tempo runs and intervals where you are at the threshold between aerobic and anaerobic performance. This will help your body adapt to getting rid of lactic acid and be able to stay in aerobic respiration at faster paces. Lastly, a small proportion of the sessions will be anaerobic, working on speed endurance, as this accounts for a small part of 5km performance.

 

Overall, specificity is arguably the most important principle of training because if you get it wrong, your training can be extremely unproductive. The last thing you want to do is put 100% effort into a training programme only to fall massively short of your goals all because your sessions were bringing about ineffective adaptations in relation to your goals. Therefore, it is essential you learn how to apply the principle of specificity prior to writing any training programme.

Principles of Training – Progressive Overload

The principles of training are factors that should be applied to any training programme to ensure optimal adaptations. These principles include: Progressive Overload, Reversibility, Specificity, Individualisation and Periodization. To delve deeper into each of these, I will be writing an in-depth article on each, with this one discussing Progressive Overload.

 

When people start going to the gym, many start by feeling lost. Some will then look for guidance on what exercises to do, perhaps by going online, or to a friend to write them a few sessions to complete. For a number of weeks this plan may produce very good results with the trainee becoming stronger and possibly adding more muscle and/or reducing fat if following the correct nutritional protocol. However, if the programme doesn’t change over time then the progress it provides the trainee with will plateau.

 

This is where progressive overload needs to be applied. Progressive overload can be defined as the gradual increase in stress placed on the musculoskeletal system and nervous system over a period of time.

 

So how can a programme be appropriately changed in order to continue to bring about desired adaptations? There’s 4 variables we want to look at changing in order to continue progressing. These are: Volume, Intensity, Frequency and Interval Duration. Which variable you look to increase will differ depending on someone’s goals, which will be discussed below.

 

Firstly, volume= (sets x reps). Therefore, to increase volume, the sets or reps you perform for a given exercise will need to increase. Increases in volume have been shown to be a significant factor for increased hypertrophy. Therefore, anyone who has hypertrophy as their goal may find their time is most productively spent when choosing volume as the variable to progress in their plan. The amount of volume to increase will differ between individuals but as a rule of them, small increases such as 1 set per exercise every 2-4 weeks will provide an adequate increase in stimulus. However, everyone’s time is limited and even if you do have all day free, no one wants to be in the gym for hours. Therefore, that is when it is time to look at other variables such as intensity.

 

Intensity can be defined as the percentage value of maximal functional capacity. In the terms of weight training, this would be how close to your 1 rep max you are. With cardiovascular training, this would be how close you are to maximal exertion over a given distance, e.g. 30 seconds per km slower than 5k race pace. Increasing intensity is a great way to progress your training without adding any time to the sessions, which will be productive for anyone stuck for time in their day. However, as with every principle, people’s goals matter. For instance, if someone’s goal is to run a faster marathon, then increasing intensity of most of their runs will not provide beneficial adaptations.

 

Thirdly, you can increase the frequency of how often you train. This is as simple as training from 3 times per week to 4 times per week. By doing this, you are also increasing volume. It is worth considering though, that by increasing number of sessions, it may be productive to change your training split. For example, if your 3 sessions originally consisted of 3 whole body sessions, if you increase to 4 sessions it may be better for you to have two lower body days and two upper body days, in order to give certain muscle groups adequate time to recover before being trained again.

 

Next, we can change interval/ rest duration. The easiest way to make a session more difficult whether it’s resistance training or cardiovascular training, is to reduce the duration of rest periods between sets of lifting. However, once again, this is context dependant. For instance, to progress a training programme where increasing maximal strength is the goal, reducing rest will not be beneficial. This is because in order to increase max. strength, lifting weights close to 1RM makes up a lot of the session. This is not achievable if rest periods are short, therefore it would be more productive to keep interval duration the same and increase intensity.

 

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that only changing one variable at a time is probably wise, as increasing multiple variables at once increases the risk of overtraining. Furthermore, keeping the exercises the same can be useful as they act as the control variable. If they change to often then how can you be sure you are actually progressing certain variables when different exercises provide different stressors to our bodies.

Rep Ranges and Goals

Rep Ranges and Goals

1-5 reps for strength

6-7 Strength/Hypertrophy

8-12 for hypertrophy

13-15 Hypertrophy/Endurance

15+ Endurance

 

Research has actually shown that hypertrophy has been shown to be the same at any rep range as long as the muscle is taken close to failure and the load is anything above 30% 1RM

 

This study supports that claim: Fink, J., Kikuchi, N., Yoshida, S., Terada, K., & Nakazato, K. (2016). Impact of high versus low fixed loads and non-linear training loads on muscle hypertrophy, strength and force development. Springerplus5(1), 1-8.

 

Experienced endurance runners have actually been shown to increase performance more when spending their S+C sessions completing high load, low rep work compared to low load high reps as the increase in strength helps increase running economy in the latter stages of races

 

Study to support this claim: Ebben, W. P., Kindler, A. G., Chirdon, K. A., Jenkins, N. C., Polichnowski, A. J., & Ng, A. V. (2004). The effect of high-load vs. high-repetition training on endurance performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research18(3), 513-517.

 

Should you track your nutritional intake?

Firstly, I would like to say if you’re serious about driving fat loss or muscle hypertrophy then absolutely yes you will have more chance of success in the initial phases at least if you are tracking your consumption. If you have long term success tracking calories and macronutrients, then you will know how effective it is in dialling in on your goals. However, from personal experience of managing my own and clients, nutrition, tracking calories and micronutrients day by day there can be some flaws to this method to help one stay on track with your nutrition.

 

The first, and main, reason I am not a supporter of tracking in the long term is that it requires a lot of time which many people often cannot fit into a busy schedule. For example, many people at work 9-5, have children to look after around that, as well as trying to make time for exercise and a healthy social life. If you are already stuck for time, the last thing you need is to be compelled to open up an app and make a diary entry every single time you eat.

 

Secondly, along with time, there are certain times where it’s simply inconvenient. If you are enjoying a few drinks at the weekend with your friends, not many people want to open MyFitnessPal every time someone gets another round in. Not only that, you’re probably going to forget to do so after the 6th!

 

Thirdly, it’s unnecessarily complex. Many apps will have you tracking calories, carbohydrates, protein and fats and lead you to believe that you need to hit each to the exact figure recommended. In reality, for anyone with body composition goals (building muscle and/or lose fat), carbohydrates and fats consumed do not significantly influence one’s results. As long as you hit your daily calorie target within 100kcal and have at least 2.2g protein per kg of bodyweight, then grams of carbohydrates and fats consumed simply does not matter (for body composition, for overall health it can but that’s a topic for a different blog).

 

These reasons are often the cause of many people giving up on tracking their nutrition. This in turn gives them a sense of failure and exhaustion towards making healthy nutritional choices, sending many back to previous bad habits

 

 

 

Aside from the impractical element of tracking, there’s the inaccuracy that often comes with it. Unless you are weighing every single food and drink that enters your body to the gram then you are not going to be 100% accurate. This is a big issue with more calorie dense foods. For instance, ‘A splash of olive oil’ is a subjective term. To some, this could mean 15ml and for some it could be 50ml. The difference in calories for this 123kcal vs 410kcal. This difference of almost 300kcal is enough to tip someone from a small calorie deficit back to their maintenance, without realising. Learning the skills of how to track and be accurate with is something that requires an element of coaching in itself and we have recently begun to provide out clients with guides on how to track using my fitness pal which is probably the most user-friendly app.

 

Lastly, another reason I do not like the tracking method is that it does not take into account micronutrients. These essential vitamins and minerals make a huge difference to overall health, helping you stay clear of chronic diseases. However, on tracking apps, 500kcal from a small pizza is the same as 500kcal from a chicken breast and vegetables.

 

So how do you ensure you’re making the correct nutritional choices for your goals?

 

Personally, I find that the most effective method for this is to plan ahead. Organising your nutrition on a Sunday for example, or whenever you get time, formulate yourself a meal plan for the week ahead. Plan out what you are going to eat and when, use tracking devices and labels to help you calculate protein and calories, forget about carbohydrates and fats if a change in body composition is your goal as a beginner if you are new to tracking keep it as simple as you can. Also, plan each day to have at least 5 different portions of fruit and vegetables to ensure you are consuming all the micronutrients you need.

 

If you keep note of how many calories and protein meals you often consume contains, then a few weeks in, you will have a menu of all of your meals with the portion sizes for each meal and you can continue adding meals to your plan for the week, as protein and calories will already by noted, saving you a lot of time in the long run. If you want to smash your goals this method of creating your menu based on your protein and calorie requirements will in the initial phases be a little bit of work and planning however after a good 4 weeks of doing so you will have all the tools required for you to keep your nutrition consistent which in the world of weight loss or building a physique is the most important driver in which will determine lasting success.

 

As for going out socialising, 100% accuracy cannot be achieved. However, knowing how many calories are in 1 glass of your chosen drink, and knowing roughly how much you drink will be much better than failing to track at all. If you know that you will be going out over the weekend you can then reduce calories in the week to make up for it. (Check out our blog on calorie banking for more on this).

 

Similar to training, planning ahead often yields much more effective results than being reactive day to day.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

Nowadays, many people have heard about SMART goals. An acronym telling us that our goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound. Although I completely agree with this, there is more that needs to be considered when setting a goal.  This is not only to increase the likelihood of achieving it, but also to increase the enjoyment during the process of doing so.

 

Categorising Goals:

Goals can be split into 2 categories: process goals and outcome goals. To define each in my own words, an outcome goal is the desired end result and process goals are targets you will need to meet during the process of achieving the outcome goal. In my opinion, both are critical for success.

 

When someone embarks on a journey to achieve better health and fitness, they will often set themselves an outcome goal. For example, ‘I want to lose 10lbs in 3 months’ or ‘I want to run 5k in under 25 minutes in 6 months’. However, they rarely set processes for their goals along the way which will help them get there.

 

Which is better?

I believe neither outcome or process goals are better than the other. Setting process goals is expected to increase one’s motivation for a task. (Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 1997).  On the other hand, setting process goals, such as ‘set time aside for 3 runs per week’ without an overall outcome goal which you really want to achieve, may also leave you unmotivated. Therefore, setting both, effectively, is crucial.

 

Setting goals effectively:

Knowing how to do this, effectively, however, can be easier said than done. Referring back to the first paragraph, this is where SMART becomes very effective. This should be applied to all of your goals, both outcome and process, to increase the chance of success.

 

The issue with this for many people though is that they may not have the required amount of knowledge on a topic to fulfil the ‘realistic’ part of SMART. For instance, I know nothing about cars. Therefore, if someone approached me and said set a realistic goal for yourself for how long it would take for you to fix this cars engine, I wouldn’t know where to start. Therefore, I would have two options, either devote a lot of time to learning about car engines, or hire a professional to do this for me. I believe this is the same approach people should take to their own bodies. Don’t second guess when it comes to your training and nutrition, either devote the time to learn how to eat and train effectively or hire a professional to guide you the right way.

 

Reference List:

  • Zimmerman, B. J., & Kitsantas, A. (1997). Developmental phases in self-regulation: Shifting from process goals to outcome goals. Journal of educational psychology89(1), 29.