A Bit About Specificity and Transfer Of Training Effect

Posted on 03 May 2010 14:48

By Eric Troy

Specificity has become one of those buzz-words that, as I'm always complaining about, people give 'lip service' to without any real understanding of the concept.

I think the first problem is that trainers do not understand it IS a concept. The "law" of specificity is no more a law than the cream cheese bagel law. Actually, that's a good guideline for weeding out the BS artists in the industry. Whenever someone goes on about "laws" of resistance training you can bet that their depth of understanding doesn't go much further than a list of bullet points.

Laws are exact. There is nothing exact about specificity and transfer of training. If it were exact then it wouldn't be one of the most extensively studied concepts in training ever.

Where most go wrong with specificity is that it is about mechanical specificity not superficial appearance. This means that an exercise is kinematically and kinetically similar to a certain performance or skill scenario. They may not "look" similar; they are just mechanically similar. So, movement patterns, muscle actions, rate of force development, acceleration, velocity, energy transfer…all or many of these are similar. The more similar all these things are the greater the chance that there will be a transfer from the training exercise to the goal skill.

The concept of specificity is drawn from the “SAID” principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) which says that the adaptations to physical demands placed on the body are directly related and specific to that particular demand.

Siff and Verkoshansy called this "dynamic correspondence". The misunderstanding between mechanics and appearance is why we have a hard time convincing many sprinters, for instance, that things like squats or pulls can have a big influence on sprinting. Sprinting appears to a horizontal activity. How can vertical resistance movements help one move faster in a horizontal fashion? Well, all that study I was talking about indicates that vertical forces are the limiting factor in sprint performance. Not horizontal forces.

Chrisine Arron female sprinter - French 100 Meter runner during her first round heat World Athletics Championships 2007 in Osaka

Think sprinting is all horizonatal? Look how far Christine Arron is off the track.
image by Eckhard Pecher via wikimedia

Chrisine Arron female sprinter - French 100 Meter runner during her first round heat World Athletics Championships 2007 in Osaka

Think sprinting is all horizonatal? Look how far Christine Arron is off the track.
image by Eckhard Pecher via wikimedia

As stated above, however, specificity goes further than mechanics. Even in metabolic modes specificity is more the rule than generality. This is why a Tour de' France winner is not necessarily ready for a running marathon and why a long distance swimmer shouldn't be expected to perform at the same level in middle distance. But it is mechanics that the average strength trainee is most concerned with. Other manifestations of specificity are taken for granted such as the fact that we tend to use 12 or less reps rather 15 or more. But this too is specificity.

What does this mean to us guys who just want to get strong? Well not as much as you might think. The idea that a hammer press lacks specificity to a bench press, for instance, is just plain silly. What you have to understand is that studies in specificity tend to deal with training transfer to sport. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but nobody much cares how your Romanian deadlifts transfer to your squats. Nobody sporting a lab coat anyway.

Does the Power Clean transfer to the deadlift? Reams and reams of discussion go on about that one. Guess what? Relatively few people care who are in a position to study this in a scientific way. The question about the power clean regarding specificity is more often how it is similar to the vertical jump. Same with the squat.

When your only goal is maximum strength then strength training is pretty darn "specific" isn't it? Going on and on about whether step-ups "transfer" to back squats is a bit beside the point. It's not the question of whether such things transfer but unrealistic expectations about what represents a good "bang for your buck".

There is a popular thread on many of the bodybuilding forums called 'Why Aren't You Growing?' In it one of the writers, "Iron Addict" makes the following statement regarding lifts that have bad carryover:

"I have seen many times, and one I have done myself. The trainee burns out on benching and decides to do Hammer Strength Benches for a change. He makes the switch and is jazzed. His Hammer press is going up every week and he is stoked. After a time he has added 50 lbs to his Hammer bench and decides to go back and hit the bench, only to find it’s up a whole 10 lbs!!!!!"

Personally, if all I had to do was add 50 lbs to a Hammer press to see a ten-pound increase in my bench press I'd be stoked. The fact is that is a great carryover if your bench training age is advanced. Many trainees cannot expect a ten-pound increase even for the same amount of time spent actually bench pressing! And after all, if we could continually progress on bench press with just straight bar bench pressing then we wouldn't be seeking out alternatives to get us "unstuck." But if you are doing Hammer press, for a change, then to add fifty pounds would constitute little effort for such a large increase in your bench press. If you were a beginner to bench press, well, the question would have never arisen since you would be getting consistent gains just through benching with the straight bar and perhaps with dumbbells.

It may be that complaining about the lack of specificity of a hydraulic machine to its free weight counterpart may be taking specificity too far, depending on the individual. That is, we may not always see a difference between someone trained hydraulically and concentric-only and someone trained with free weights using eccentric-concentric training. Sometimes it is just too darn similar to expect big differences even though many individual aspects are different between the two modes. No, I am not saying you should just go ahead and use machines. I am saying that it is not always predictable, despite what some would have you believe.

The point is that if you expect to always get a given reward, in some expected ratio, between your cross-training exercises and your main target exercise you will likely find that most everything you do has bad carryover.

Although I may not think that the specific example is generally useful, what the Addict was identifying is a cognitive trap that most trainees and trainers alike fall into at one time or another. This trap can be related to the so-called is-ought problem which occurs when we make a leap from factual descriptive statements, statements about what is into statements about what ought to be. Actually, I shouldn't call it a leap because it is usually a slow and barely detectable glide. This idea was first hit upon by David Hume in "A Treatise of Human Nature". This particular statement is one of the most hotly debated sections of the work and people still grapple with it. However, taken at face value we can see how it works in statements about strength training:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Hume was writing about moral ethics but in purely scientific terms we see this error all the time and it is a big problem in studies of specificity since we are "observing" what happens and then wondering if it "ought" to result in a certain performance improvement or transfer.

Look at the example of the hydraulic chest press and its transfer to the straight bar bench press. Imagine the following thought sequence:

The chest press is similar to the bench press in some respects and although it is concentric only we often observe equal improvements between eccentric only and concentric-eccentric training.

Therefore progress on chest press should cause a certain improvement in the bench press.

That "certain" improvement may be imagined as an expected ratio between added load, reps, or sets in the chest press and a resulting improvement in the bench press 1RM. Notice that a "should" statement is the same as an "ought" statement. Nothing in the second sentence can logically follow from the "is" statements of the first sentence. If you want to know why I am always saying that what you should have or could have done doesn't matter, now you know one big reason for it! Many times you can see that what we are really thinking is "wouldn't it be good if" such and such were true. In fact many people bring up the "naturalistic fallacy" regarding is-ought problems. The naturalistic fallacy interposes moral ideas on top of factual ideas. However, in our context what is "good" is not meant to be used in a moral sense. So let's change the statement to "wouldn't it be cool if" such and such were true. Regardless of how we change the statement though, what has happened is our values have interceded in our judgment. The next time you miss a weight that you hit as a PR a month ago, remember these paragraphs.1

Since the effectiveness of most things we do tends to be measured quantitatively the average trainee doing step-ups tends to get discouraged when this doesn't result in a new ten pound PR on his back squat. The first thing you need to know is that there are other benefits to the things we do that can lead to better progress down the road and these things will sometimes be seen as a qualitative improvement. Other aspects of performance may improve rather than the load on the bar but these improvements will have a positive effect on your ability to sustain progressive increases in load on your target exercises. Even so, a step up may be just the thing to see squat increases when the lower body has become a limiting factor.

Oh wait, your guru did a study? Bullshit. The average trainer, coach, or fitness guru is no more qualified to design an effective and legitimate study into specificity (or anything) than I am to recreate a Jackson Pollack. No matter how drunk I get.

This page created 03 May 2010 14:48
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 04:59

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