One of my favorite things in the whole world is scientific inquiry. It’s how my mind is wired and it’s what I do as a career at the moment. As you may have guessed, strength training is another one of my favorite things. And when I stumble upon opportunities to apply science to strength training, I get excited. What has got me excited the most lately is the principle of specificity.
Growing up playing sports I’ve learned the concept of specificity but never heard it defined until listening to the Juggernaut crew speak about it in terms of powerlifting. In one of their books, Scientific Principles of Strength Training they defined this term for powerlifting as: “training that improves the underlying systems of powerlifting performance” . Powerlifting performance is measured by completing the squat, bench press, and deadlift movements for maximal effort. The most specific way we could increase our performance is to train these three lifts to maximal effort. However, this is not an optimal method for training every session. So, we perform many exercises in various manners that have different degrees of similarity to these competition skills. Specificity is the measure of how similar a skill is to the skill tested in competition. In powerlifting, according to Scientific Principles of Strength Training, specificity holds the highest priority for consideration when designing powerlifting training programs . I would argue this is also true for most sports, including strongman.
Based on the concept of specificity for powerlifting, training programs are designed around splitting the athlete’s training time between mastering these three skills simultaneously, but to help develop these three skills, many others are practiced as well. Consider the following example. For the each of the powerlifting skills, an athlete may complete the powerlift, two similar lifts and two exercises that build their weaknesses in the main skill in each training week. Therefore, the athlete practices 15 unique skills per week to increase their competency at 3 skills. Easy enough to understand, right?
When applying specificity to strongman, I am led to the following questions: how can we adhere to the principle of specificity if the athlete might be tested on 30 different skills instead of 3 and how can we have enough time to become good at all 30 simultaneously? These are great questions and I am constantly searching for the answers myself. This is the situation for the strongman athlete and I want to highlight the difference this can make in training program design.
The Dissection of Sport Skills
How I like to think about motions or sport skills is to separate them into two aspects: patterns and efforts. In competition, athletes are required to execute a set of positions (patterns) under a series of forces (efforts). For example, a strongman may be tested on their log press for a maximal effort, repetition effort, or medley effort. In all cases, the log press is just a set of joint positions executed in a specific pattern. However, the athlete may be required to exert maximal force over a small duration (maximal effort), a constant sub-maximal force repeatedly over a longer duration (repetition effort), or a variety of sub-maximal forces sequentially (medley effort) during the log press event. If we consider skill to be the combination of motion pattern and effort, then the athlete can be tested on three different log press skills.
The dissection of skills into motion patterns and effort types is an important distinction that has a huge effect for the design of strength training programs. In modern strongman competitions, there are roughly 30 common implements or events that may be encountered. If you want to be a well-rounded strongman, you would need to divide your allotted training time in 30 slots, as opposed to 3 slots needed for powerlifting or 2 slots for Olympic weightlifting. But as discussed, each strongman event can be tested in multiple effort types which leads to multiple possible skills being tested for each event. If each event could be tested in multiple variations, and each of those variations requires unique skills to help increase performance, it is hard to imagine someone who could spread their energy out enough to see significant performance gains in all tested skills simultaneously.
A Numerical Comparison
For the sake of science and elaborating the challenge specificity poses for Strongman training program design, let us go through a numerical comparison. Consider a strongman athlete who wants to become more proficient in the deadlift, log press, farmer’s walk, and atlas stone load. In strongman competition, each of these events can be tested using three different types of effort, resulting in a possibility of being tested in 12 unique skills. If the fact that each of the events may have variation in the competition implements, the number of practiced skills would grow more to have a training program that was as specific as possible. We will ignore this fact in the analysis but keep in mind how it adds to the problem.
In the powerlifting example above, the athlete practices 15 unique skills to become more proficient at 3 tested skills. If the same ratio (5:1) is applied to the tested strongman skills, the strongman athlete needs to practice 60 unique skills per training week. Expanding this to consider training 30 strongman events, with on average 2 tested effort types, the athlete would need to spend time practicing 300 unique skills per training week. In this example, the training time the powerlifter would spend each week just on squatting would need to be split up into 100 chunks to meet the demands of specificity for the strongman. Same goes for the training time the powerlifter would allot to bench pressing and deadlifting. Obviously, this is an extreme representation of the problem but highlights the worst-case scenario for the issue.
There are ways to address this conflict between specificity and time constraints, some of which I am developing and experimenting with now. However, there is little research on optimal solutions for adherence to specificity within strongman training. It is rare to see a well-rounded strongman who dominates every event in a competition. This likely why most strongman athletes begin their career having good events and bad events. Only if the athlete competes for long enough will they be able to improve upon all of their weak events or skills. In general, there are some principles we can apply to mitigate this problem:
- Select exercises that have a high specificity to multiple skills. For example, the front squat helps to build the squat, deadlift, pressing, carrying, and loading skills. We can use carry-over between motion patterns and effort types to increase the specificity.
- Allocate training resources to those skills that are most likely to be tested. A car deadlift for repetition effort has much higher probability of being tested than your car deadlift for maximum effort. As well, your log press is more likely to be tested than your stone press. We could even allot training time based on the relative occurrence rate of each skill within a given region of competition.
- Consider longer durations of training cycles. For example, increase the traditional powerlifting microcycle length of 7 days to 10 or 14 days in order to allow for training more skills simultaneously. When considering other principles of training, we cannot infinitely increase microcycle length as this would have negative impacts on the overall progress. However, further study needs to be conducted on different microcycle lengths under strongman training conditions to provide those boundaries.
- Focus on your weakest skills. This concept has been a basis of strength training for decades. Training your weakest positions or force-producing tissues will help you become a more well-rounded athlete. A better balance of skills is important for strongman competitors, where the tested skills are not always known or may change the day of the competition.
The goal here was to highlight difficulties one faces when designing strength training programs for strongman athletes while trying to adhere to the principle of specificity. The requirements for specificity used for powerlifting or olympic weightlifting program designs differ greatly from those requirements for strongman program design. The argument that I have made is that, perhaps, traditional methods for training program design might not be ideal for the strongman athlete. Or, perhaps, the methods can be modified to meet these demands. For now, I can only conclude that there is an opportunity to experiment and increase our knowledge with regards to specificity in strength training. I hope to have some answers for you in the future.
The strongest think outside of the box.
By Tyler Desplenter
Tyler is the founder of Norther Warrior. He competes as an amateur Strongman and Powerlifter in Ontario, Canada. He is working towards his PhD in robotics and control systems including the study of biomechanical modelling of human motion and control of wearable assistive devices.
1. M. Israetel, J. Hoffman and C. W. Smith. The Scientific Principles of Strength Training. CA, USA: Juggernaut Training Systems.