The Principle of Specificity

by Stephanie Sharpe

The principle of specificity in sports conditioning is the philosophy that an athlete’s training regime must move from “highly general” training, as in various cardiovascular or weight lifting activities, to “highly specific” training by which, for example, a swimmer must train in the pool and a cyclist must train on the bike.


The highly general training is obviously necessary as a base level of fitness is required to sustain performance of a specific sport. But in moving toward directly training for a sport, say baseball, actions specific to proficiency in swinging for instance, must be trained through motion specific activities, including swinging a bat.


According to Clark, Sutton, and Lucett (2014), the principle of specificity states that an individual’s body will adapt specifically to any type of demand that is placed on it and training programs should be designed to reflect the desired outcome.


However, the vast majority of training adaptations only occur in the muscle fibers that have been activated during an exercise (Hawley, 2008). This means that little if any adaptive changes are taking place in muscle fibers that were not activated.  As a result, an overemphasis on the principle of specificity can result in overall performance deficiencies.


The body is composed of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch fibers are larger (microscopically speaking), quick to produce maximal tension, and fatigue quickly. Slow-twitch fibers are smaller, slow to produce maximal tension, and more resistant to fatigue (Clark, Sutton, & Lucett, 2014). Since these fibers are different, they need to be trained differently.

Fast v Slow Twitch.jpg

The variation principle suggests the use of cycles to vary intensity and volume to help athletes (and the more serious gym-goer) achieve peak levels of fitness and maximum muscle adaptation. Exercises should be regularly changed to ensure that overstress does not happen to any part of the body. This will also keep interest up for those in training.


Variations in a workout routine lead to a balanced development and provide a strong base upon which more specific exercises can be built. A study by Burgomaster et al. (2008), found that a low-volume, high-intensity sprint training routine produced similar muscle adaptations as high-volume, low-intensity endurance training. This shows that different training formats can produce the same type of outcome.


Even if a gym-goer’s goal is weight loss, he or she will positively benefit from lifting weights after months (or years) of sticking strictly to cardio when considering that the principle of specificity is in essence being applied by a person performing the same workout over and over. An increase in lean muscle helps to burn more calories on a daily basis which will add to the burn being achieved by cardio.

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