Specificity Is The Priority

Posted on February 20, 2018 at 12:18 am

Our industry is prone to fads and trends – some gimmicky, some genuinely backed by science. Although open-mindedness is key to success, there is often a tendency to get caught up in the hype of new training tools and overcomplicate the training process.

A coach must ensure that the athlete’s specific training needs come first.

Every rep, set and exercise should be strategically planned and executed, all contributing to one goal: enhanced sport performance. This means that in a strength and conditioning context, specificity must remain king! (1,2).

In this article, we discuss the need for a sport specific strength training approach.

In particular, we will discuss the importance of understanding periodisation, fatigue management and how fancy resistance training methodologies may negatively impact an athlete’s real sport practice and learning.

We will touch on how resistance training can either help or hinder athlete performance and why coaches must prescribe based on the individual athlete and his/her sporting needs.

Servicing sport performance

Resistance training enhances sport performance through a plethora of physiological adaptations. Well-planned training contributes to improvements in performance outcomes such as:

  • Force production
  • Rate of Force Production or “explosiveness”
  • Injury prevention
  • Speed, acceleration and deceleration
  • Movement efficiency
  • Self-efficacy

To ensure that a program ticks all these boxes, specificity must remain the highest priority (1,2).

But what is specificity?

Specificity means that a training program is tailored to the athlete and his/her individual sport. Above all, the program must aim to better prepare the athlete for the movement demands of his/her sport and support technical prowess. (3)

Exercise specificity is therefore classified as the transferability of an exercise to sport performance. This does NOT mean prescribing exercises that directly replicate the athlete’s sporting movements, but rather being highly strategic in exercise selection.

In fact, resistance training is relatively un-specific compared to an athlete’s real sport practise.

Thus, a strength coach needs to be able to justify the usefulness of his/her exercise prescription and explain how the training regime will improve performance.

Periodise. Don’t guess! 

Specificity is determined by the stage of training and will change according to the mesocycle (month of training) and its proximity to competition within a macrocycle (year of training).

The further away from competition, the less specific or more “general” the training and the closer, the more specific (3,4).

For example:

An off-season “structural balance” will incorporate high volumes of isolation and muscle activation drills.  Although not specific to a particular sport, these phases are designed to resolve muscle imbalances identified during pre-screening and promote efficiency of movement. This then enhances performance in subsequent phases of training involving heavy compound lifts and plyometric drills. As competition approaches, the focus shifts to highly specific training (i.e. skills focused) and the athlete harnesses his/her new-found strength gains in a “sport specific” environment.

This brings up the overarching topic of phase potentiation – adaptations from one training cycle build on the previous and supports the next, and so on (4).

The trap some coaches fall into is simply assuming that a training method will improve performance without considering the specific needs of the athlete and his/her sport. This highlights the need for congruency between exercise selection and the actual end goal of a training program (4).

Do not guess that an exercise will improve performance!

Fatigue management

We want to build athletes up, not break them down.

A highly specific training program provides strategies to manage training loads to ensure the athlete maintains his/her performance during skilled practice.

It is important to consider that resistance training can be highly fatiguing and a poorly periodised program can illicit “non-functional” overreaching (i.e. generating too much fatigue at the wrong time).

This means athletes are unable to recover adequately between training sessions and will not adapt to further training doses. An overreached athlete is at greater injury risk, has low training motivation and experiences reduced coordination (5,6).  Further, if excessive fatigue occurs too early in the training cycle (e.g. in the pre-season), by competition time the athlete may not have enough time/resources to climb out of the fatigue ditch dug by the strength and conditioning coach, metaphorically speaking.

However, when programs are properly periodised overreaching can be advantageous. High relative training fatigue followed by an extended break (known as a taper) the week before competition resulting in a “super-compensation” in training adaptations. This leaves the athlete highly prepared for competition and is known as “functional” overreaching (7).

Considering this, we want to avoid unintentional or “non-functional” overreaching in the midst of a training phase as it will negatively impact progress and future performance.

Scheduled breaks and fatigue monitoring are the most effective ways to ensure the athlete is not accumulating excessive fatigue (6,7). Common tools used by practitioners are grip strength measurement tests using a handheld dynamometer, heart rate variability monitoring and/or psychological screening questionnaires (8).

Some signs an athlete is in need of a break are:

  • Low motivation to train
  • Irritability
  • Feeling “run-down” or flu/cold symptoms
  • Niggling injuries and joint soreness
  • Low relative grip strength
  • Feelings of weakness and tiredness
  • Low libido

To avoid dysfunctional overreaching during a training cycle, it is best to implement a scheduled break or “deload week” every 4 weeks. A deload week will consist of considerably less training volume and intensity, thereby allowing the athlete to recuperate before the next block of training (6).

Consider the intricacies of athlete learning

Some coaches overcomplicate the resistance training process.

Using resistance during dynamic movement can hinder athlete learning.

A resistance training programs must seek to enhance movement mechanics and prevent injury during dynamic movement drills and sport practice (3). In some cases, resistance training that closely resembles a sporting movement may negatively affect muscle recruitment patterns and impede the learning process (9,10).

For example, placing a resistance band around a soccer player’s knees during a dynamic movement in an attempt to increase glute activation. In this case, to adapt to the new learning environment and accommodate for the restricted movement, the athlete will be forced to change his/her ingrained motor patterns.  This means that in a real competitive environment (when the band must be removed) the athlete will be equipped with faulty movement patterns and unable to meet the movement demands (9).

Moreover, applying resistance to sport specific movement promotes internal focus (awareness of the body) over external focus (awareness of the environment). Studies have shown that internal focus drastically reduces performance outcomes in athletes during sprint and vertical leap testing (11,12).

So, never put a band around the knees?

No. It simply depends on the context.

For example, using banded hip abduction before sport practice/competition in order to activate the gluteal region.

In this context, the athlete is exposed to a “closed environment” that is conceptually distinguishable from his/her sport practice. Isolation of the muscle group pre-exercise has been shown to increase involvement of the target muscle during dynamic movement (13). This means that the athlete can unconsciously increase activation of the muscle and divert extra attentional focus to executing sport skills and assessing the external environment.


To sum up,  

The weight-room is a valuable tool used to enhance sport performance. However, it can detract from performance if a coach fails to consider the importance of specificity.

To optimise training specificity a strength coach must:

  •  Tailor programs specific to the athlete and sport
  • Periodise with the end goal in mind
  • Monitor training fatigue
  • Apply training tools without impeding skill learning



  1. The Team Physician and Strength and Conditioning of Athletes for Sports: A Consensus Statement. (2015). Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 47(2), pp.440-445.


  1. Izquierdo, M., Häkkinen, K., Gonzalez-Badillo, J., Ibáñez, J. and Gorostiaga, E. (2002). Effects of long-term training specificity on maximal strength and power of the upper and lower extremities in athletes from different sports. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 87(3), pp.264-271.


  1. McGuigan, M., Wright, G. and Fleck, S. (2012). Strength Training for Athletes: Does It Really Help Sports Performance? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 7(1), pp.2-5.


  1. Rathi, B., Kaur, G. and Gaurav, V. (2010). Role of periodisation and training method in sports. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(Suppl_1), pp.i50-i50.


  1. Myrick, K. (2015). Overtraining and Overreaching Syndrome in Athletes. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 11(10), pp.1018-1022.


  1. Kellmann, M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20, pp.95-102.


  1. Fessi, M., Zarrouk, N., Di Salvo, V., Filetti, C., Barker, A. and Moalla, W. (2016). Effects of tapering on physical match activities in professional soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(24), pp.2189-2194.


  1. Thorpe, R., Atkinson, G., Drust, B. and Gregson, W. (2017). Monitoring Fatigue Status in Elite Team-Sport Athletes: Implications for Practice. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 12(2), pp.S2-27-S2-34.


  1. Goettl, B. (1994). Contextual Interference Effects on Acquisition and Transfer of a Complex Motor Task. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 38(18), pp.1220-1224.


  1. Van Rossum, J. (1990). Schmidt’s schema theory: the empirical base of the variability of practice hypothesis. Human Movement Science, 9(3-5), pp.387-435.


  1. Porter, JM, Wu, WFW, Crossley, RM, Knopp, SW, and Campbell, OC. (2015). Adopting an external focus of attention improves sprinting performance in low-skilled sprinters. J Strength Cond Res, 29(4): 947–953.


  1. Keller, M., Lauber, B., Gottschalk, M. and Taube, W. (2015). Enhanced jump performance when providing augmented feedback compared to an external or internal focus of attention. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33:10, 1067-1075.

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