The Specificity Principle in Training

The principle of specificity states that training should closely match the activity that you wish to improve.

This makes sense at first, as you would never expect to run a mile well by only lifting heavy weights. Application of the principle goes beyond that though, often supporting unsafe and stupid practices. Olympic lifting to develop power or adding a load to a swing or throw have become more popular in part from this idea.

Instead, make training general. Use the best and most safe exercises to develop all the major muscle groups. Then apply this strength by practicing your sport.


There are no degrees of specificity… either you have it, or you do not. A movement is either utterly specific, or it is not specific at all.

– Arthur Jones

  • Every action is unique.

The principle of specificity affects all muscle actions. Contraction type and speed, movement patterns, ranges of motion, type of fatigue, bilateral or unilateral, and so on all vary to form different combinations. Every action then is unique.

The nervous system accounts for many of these differences. Your body uses what it has in many ways. There are general abilities though, such as strength or conditioning that affect many actions.

Improving these general abilities will allow improvement in many other activities. Improving the weight you squat can lead to more potential for sprinting. You must sprint as well though, as it relies upon a pre-stretch, faster and different movement patterns, and so forth.

  • Some trainees add strength training to the skills of their sport.

You see golfers perform swings using a cable machine. Soccer players attach weights to their legs to load the kicking motion. Football players perform power cleans to come off the line faster. The best sports-specific training though is always the sport itself.

These change the actions in ways that make them no longer the same. Different muscles used and a new system of coordination develop. The new motion seems alike enough that the nervous system gets confused, applying the new mechanics for the real motion.

The athlete would have done better to address all the muscle groups without regard to his or her sport.

  • Specificity justifies moving heavy weights too fast.

Some experts think this essential to getting faster. Although developing speed does require fast actions, moving fast with weights is not specific and not safe. You need to strike a balance between fast and slow when lifting heavy.

They ignore that training with heavy weights at any speed best builds up the same fast-twitch muscle fibers responsible for speed too. The qualities of speed, such as storing and releasing elastic energy and using many fibers at once, differ from strength training. These develop best through doing the skill fast itself.

Careers have ended when athletes tried to improve speed in the weight room. Instead, safely improve strength. Develop speed by working on the skills of the sport.

  • Skills interfere with other similar skills.

Open skills apply to uncertain settings. Closed skills apply to stable settings. Closed skills should associate with strength training and open skills should associate with sport. This works best for safety and results.

Positive transfer occurs when prior learning aids a skill. Negative transfer occurs when prior learning harms a skill. Neutral transfer occurs with no connection between past and new skills.

Mimicking movements with weights can lead to negative transfer and lacks an open skill environment. The more similar the motion, the more likely it will interfere. Training should have a neutral effect on skills, as positive transfer happens best when the actual skill is applied.

Ignore the Specificity Principle

Mixing training and sport actually fails to adhere to the specificity principle. The best way to train for an activity will always be that activity itself. Ignoring this can harm your skills and get you hurt.

That does not mean you should limit yourself to that activity alone. Sprinting improves more so with heavy squats added since they work the fast-twitch muscle fibers used in both most effectively. You still must focus on sprinting to do your best.

Apply the specificity principle in training by separating your training from your sport.

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