Specificity in Training: How to Choose the Most Functional Movements

By on December 16, 2020

The principle of specificity refers to the widely accepted notion that the most useful exercises are those that closely match the activities they seek to train. This refers not only to biomechanics, but also energy systems, and all other aspects.

In other words, the best way to get better at chopping wood is to practice chopping wood. The next best way is to use the cable woodchop. Bicep curls? Not so useful.

Twisting Workout

A good sports coach must therefore select their exercises through the lens of specificity. This means they will choose exercises that resemble the sport in question.

Other Types of Exercise

Alternatively, a movement may be chosen that develops the underlying physical attributes that contribute to that movement (such as isolation work for a crucial muscle group). A wood chopper might use supplementary activities to train their grip and obliques, for example.

Finally, general physical preparedness (conditioning) may be used insofar as it helps to balance out the physique, prevent injury, and contribute to an overall more healthy individual.

Training Outdoors

Conditioning time is limited, so every exercise needs a good reason to exist in the program. Coaches will likewise, typically, increase the specificity as they get closer to the competition date. Keep in mind that this form of functional training refers to athletic coaches, military trainers, and others that are training for a specific skill rather than a more general “fitness.”

Conditioning time is limited, so every exercise needs a good reason to exist in the program.

Thus, functional coaches like JC Santana of the Institute of Human Performance, advocate for the use of exercises like truck push in favor of squats for improving running speeds and jumping heights. This is predicated on his observation that the truck push involves more similar joint angles and trains such attributes as ankle stiffness at approximately 90 degrees. In short, this provides what we refer to as superior “transference.” The skills trained more closely match the intended outcome. Squats aren’t bad, they are just sub-optimal by comparison when the goal is specifically to improve running speed.

See also: The Car Push (Sled Push) For Athletic Performance

The Danger of Interference

But not everyone agrees that this is the best strategy. There is an alternative viewpoint: that training with exercises too similar to the skills target could actually be detrimental to an athlete’s performance. The reason for this being that they may lead to interference.

Bench Press

Interference means that a new skill or movement pattern can complicate a pre-existing one. Two similar movement patterns could conceivably confuse the athlete, causing them to harm their own performance.

For example, one commenter on my YouTube channel recounted an experience whereby adding truck pushes to their regime actually harmed their sprinting speed. Their reasoning was that this practice trained them to produce muscular force rather than relying on the stumble reflex when first initiating their run. They noted that the angle of shin changes throughout the different phases of their run and their accompanying gaits and that the truck push may have been less helpful for this reason.

Interference means that a new skill or movement pattern can complicate a pre-existing one.

Indeed, the way you start a truck push is significantly different from the way you start a sprint – even though there are similarities elsewhere.

Then there is the matter of rotating the torso, which is another crucial aspect of a sprint that is not reflected in the car push. Could using the car push train you to maintain a rigid core where that would be detrimental?

Criticisms of Specificity in Training

Critics of functional training, such as Mark Rippetoe, thus argue that the better strategy is to train an athlete’s general strength and then to pile skills training on top of that. Rippetoe and his followers believe that compound barbell lifts are all you need, alongside skills training.

Specificity in Training

This, I believe, is sorely misguided. Neural maps aside, the simple truth is that the traditional barbell lifts alone fail to train the different planes of motion and myriad muscle groups involved in useful movements. Coaches program everyone from basketball players, to swimmers, to gymnasts with the same program of heavy squats because they don’t know better. Rippetoe believes that strength is universal and that being strong in the squat means you are strong full stop. He also believes that traits like higher fast twitch fibers are so largely genetic that all we can do is to train for strength and hope that helps our skill.

There is enough evidence to show this is incorrect. Generally it is agreed, for example, that twitch fiber density is roughly 50% genetically predetermined (reference). Fascinatingly, our level of plasticity itself also actually seems to be genetic to an extent.

See also: Genetic Limits and Differences in Training (and how to surpass them)

Strength Isn’t Global

Moreover, if strength gains were “global” like this, bodybuilders wouldn’t need to train with isolation. In fact, you would only need one exercise! The simple fact is that you can’t get stronger obliques without some form of twisting or at least anti-lateral flexion. Without using the muscle group in question, you can’t expect to cause metabolic stress, muscle damage, etc.

The notion that squats trigger a huge release of testosterone that will result in more muscle building is also misguided.

And the notion that squats trigger a huge release of testosterone that will result in more muscle building is also misguided. The surge in testosterone we see during training is temporary – like the surge experienced when watching an action movie. This does not contribute to hypertrophy then (study).

More Arguments for Specificity

Even the bioenergetic properties of heavy lifting are ineffective for most sports and exercises. Training endurance and work capacity is undoubtedly more useful for the vast majority of competitive sports.

And, as JC points out, this type of training has a tendency to be abused nevertheless: resulting in athletes that are fighting to increase their maximum squat to the detriment of their skills-training. And because the coach wants to be seen to be getting results, they want to see those PRs go up: regardless of whether this leaves the athlete overtrained when they need to actually practice that sport.

Lung training benefits

This is not to say squatting is useless. Squats improve mobility, they build core strength, they develop amazing strength in the posterior chain, and they increase bone density. But they alone are not sufficient to provide the necessary one-legged strength, tendon hysteresis, etc. that is necessary for optimal athletic training.

See also: Hill Sprint Benefits for Athletic Performance (Sprinting, Jumping, Kicking)

Something like skipping, car pushes, hill sprints, or similar on the other hand do provide those necessary attributes and traits.

Interference in Neuroscience

And yet, interference is a known phenomenon among neuroscientists. It is often referred to in the context of memory retrieval, but it is also believed to affect motor learning.

From one paper (reference):

“The interference principle is that plasticity can cause changes in neural function, which may interfere with behaviors or skills. For example, dystonic-like limb postures can develop following repetitive strain injuries with prolonged training in monkeys (Byl et al., 1997Byl, Merzenich, & Jenkins, 1996). In another application of this principle, reducing input to, or restricting the use of the unaffected limb, can enhance training effects in the affected limb after stroke (Kopp et al., 1999).”

Think about learning two new languages at once. Or even switching from the controls of one computer game to another.

One study possibly demonstrates the interference principle in action. Here, professional swimmers were found to have a lower jumping height than members of the general population! (Study)

It’s worth noting here, though, that swimming and jumping are very different activities. That is to say that we may even expect the coordination gained from squatting to interfere with swimming if anything!

Subtle Variation

So: does training with exercises that more closely mimic the desired movement actually confuse the neural maps? Should we stick to skipping for that ankle stiffness but avoid truck pushes if we want to sprint faster?

Or perhaps the sled pull, which is actually more specific in that you now have your normal forward lean and rotation? Is there some kind of strange grey area where a movement is too specific without being specific enough?

Glute bridge

There is good evidence showing that the sled pull does improve running speed, ground contact time, and stride length. This same study also showed that the benefits were greatest when pulling approximately 75% of bodyweight. As this increased, the athlete slowed down and their technique changed: resulting in less performance (study). Again, a subtle difference in training drastically alters outcomes.

Where do we draw the line?

Horses for Courses

One consideration is that different sports may require differing levels of specificity. The sprinter will use far more consistent technique during every competition. They are running in a straight line on flat, consistent surfaces. Thus, they can tightly hone their biomechanics. The same is true for the rower: placed firmly on the spot and required to perform the same piston movement with perfect precision, power, and endurance.

Compare this with a football player; who needs to constantly change speed, change direction, adjust to changes in the ground, and often all while dribbling a ball or making split second changes in tactics. The football player’s training will thus be necessarily much more varied than the runner or rower. They aren’t learning one set of biomechanics but rather infinite, unpredictable permutations.

The football player isn’t learning one set of biomechanics but rather infinite, unpredictable permutations.

As many people have pointed out to me in the comments, MMA and martial arts in general are fascinating because they require SUCH a broad and far-reaching selection of traits, attributes, and skills.

But perhaps the best technique is no technique…

The Best Technique is “No Technique”

But with that said, no two movements are ever truly the same.

Consider that when a rower rows, every single stroke will be affected by their levels of fatigue (in each individual motor unit) altering the recruitment and coordination of muscles. They’ll also be affected by the effort of their teammates, how still the water is, the wind, the weight of the boat, the momentum from the previous stroke… This is why no rowing machine could ever truly match the experience of actually rowing.

Hybrid training

We tend to think of force production as being all about output. But this is far from the truth: input is equally important to refine the movement producing the force. This is our motor-perceptual landscape and it is critical in ALL athletic performance and graceful movement.

Now consider the number of variables involved in something like soccer, or even brushing your teeth.

So, I ask you: how can a somewhat similar exercise interfere with a movement pattern that doesn’t exist? A movement pattern that is, in truth, already an infinite number of somewhat-similar-but-different movement patterns?

The Degrees of Freedom Problem

In fact, how do we even manage to get out of bed in the morning? Especially considering the huge number of forces acting on us, and the insane amount of coordination necessary between different joints and muscles?

This is what Nicolai Bernstein referred to as the “degrees of freedom” problem. He concluded that we store general movement patterns rather than specific techniques. He further states that the more generalized these become, the more robust and broadly applicable they will be.

Managing Energy

Thus, to train an athlete optimally, you should not only train them under ideal conditions but also with countless different variations to help them adapt their skills and use them in a helpful and realistic manner. Run when tired. And run on wet surfaces. On dry surfaces. Change direction quickly. Run in unusual shoes.

Dynamical Systems Theory

Dynamical systems theory helps us to further understand this. This explanation describes the body as being comprised of “self-organizing systems” that arrange themselves around three major constraints: environment, goals, and organism. In other words, every movement must be a direct response to these forces, which once again vary every time. This helps us narrow down the perfect movement for the situation.

Your body knows which version of the movement pattern to utilize because it is guided by your objectives and the shape of the environment.

Your body knows which version of the movement pattern to utilize because it is guided by your objectives and the shape of the environment. Input and output. So as soon you raise your hands up to start pushing the truck, your body recognizes this as a different movement and selects the correct pattern.

Important, though, is to introduce these new variables in training only once the basic movement pattern has been mastered. This provides the stable base to build off from. Once the movement is mastered, then more variables can be introduced in order to test the limits of that new skill. This is one way in which specificity can go wrong: by introducing variations too early or too late in the learning process.

Is fibre type genetic

In other words, we need to learn to walk before we run. And to run before we car push!

Context Interference

But we see the benefit of varying the precise mechanics and context of a movement in other areas too. Context interference is another concept from neuroscience and memory that this time considers whether we learn better through “blocks” of rote repetition of a single skill, or by randomly training different skills out-of-sequence. It turns out that the latter option results in a short-term detriment but long-term benefits.

“The most intriguing aspect of the contextual interference effect is the inverse relationship that is apparent between performance during practice and performance during skill-retention and skill-transfer tests. Low contextual interference practice typically produces better performance during practice, whereas high contextual interference practice leads to better performance during retention and transfer tests.” (reference)

That is to say, that by training in a more chaotic and mixed-up manner, you actually improve skill acquisition and transference in the long term. Even though it might be harder for the individual to learn in the short term.

And just as a triathlete can become extremely adept at running, cycling, AND swimming. Just as you can run on sand without forgetting how to run on tarmac. Just as you can write the letter A and the letter B. And just as you can differentiate between take off and maintenance phases when running even.

Learning and context interference

What you may find though, is that early on in the learning phase, you do experience confusion. And we see this in our day-to-day lives too.

Everyday Examples of Contextual Interference

Yes, learning how to play Doom may initially create confusion when you return to play COD. But if you practice both for long enough, you’ll become equally good at both.

Learning how to play Doom may initially create confusion when you return to play COD.

When I first tried to learn to type on my new mini-laptop, I found it difficult because I had become accustomed to typing on the bigger keyboard. Just like the swimmers might be referring to older neural patterns when jump.

But now that I have put in a good number of hours with both keyboards, I have no problem switching from one to the other.

Interference vs Specificity in Training – A Metaphor

The metaphor often used to explain neuroplasticity is that of a sled going down a snowy mountain. Over time, that sled creates a groove which means that in future, your sled will find its way into that groove and take a more consistent, efficient route to the bottom.

We can extend this metaphor. At this point, trying to ride down that mountain using a different route will become more difficult. You will find your sled following the slope and eventually ending up back in the groove.

But if you can force yourself to practice that new slope enough, you will eventually have two grooves. Once you select either, you’ll stick to that route. You now have two options for how you want to get to the bottom.

Conclusions

None of this is to completely write-off anyone’s personal experience of interference. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. Everyone is different and as you can see, this is not a straightforward discussion. It may affect some people, some sports, more than others.

Functional Training

The point is that your brain is remarkable and can adapt. And that tweaking the variables just enough should help you to land on exercises that are optimal for your goals. WITH constant observation, measurement, and iteration.

The SuperFunctional Way

My approach to training is different of course.

I am not interested in training athletes to be the very best at a very controlled sport. Most people listening/reading this won’t be professional athletes.

My interest is in training myself to be as good at as many things as possible. I’m interested in the strategies used by functional coaches because they’re the masters at making their athletes faster, more endurant, or better at jumping higher. They know which exercises are optimal for those activities.

I want to see what exercises and techniques I can take from those to incorporate into my own training. I want to be fast as well as strong, so if I’m only squatting, I might not be getting the most possible benefits from my training. But seeing as I want that bone density and max strength, I’m going to continue to squat as well as incorporating hill sprints, skipping, and sled push where possible.

Functiona Training With Sandbag

The Best Technique is No Technique

Consider for a moment that in nature there is no such thing as a “technique.” While certain sports might encourage us to attempt to use nearly identical technique wherever possible, when moving through a natural environment every movement will be different. Practicing a specific technique is, in fact, a human thing and not entirely natural.

And we certainly wouldn’t repeat the same movement over and over again for “ten reps.” Maybe it makes perfect sense that performing a random sequence of movements actually leads to better transference. As that’s how we practice movement in reality.

Specificity vs Interference in Training

So, perhaps a question to leave you on: is why should you repeat ten reps of anything? Sure: keeping the focus on one muscle group will increase time under tension and it will thus allow for more muscle damage/metabolic stress etc. But you can still accomplish that with slight variations of the same movement. Instead of push up, push up, push up… what about push up, archer push up, one handed push up, maltese push up, push up… That still keeps the focus on the pecs while being more creative and challenging. Something to consider if you are looking for ways to mix up your training!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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