Coaching Athletes – Training Specificity

When training for a particular goal, you have to take particular steps to get there. If you want to learn a language conversationally, simply reading books in said language will not be enough, you must find someone to practice speaking with. Training is very much the same way – you don’t get jacked by running 5k’s, and you don’t increase your cardio-respiratory endurance by squatting a one rep max. I want to help make training a bit more intuitive so that you can look at your training and know how to think through what to do for any given goal. Below are a few points to keep in mind that will help you make those decisions in your training.

The body adapts to the demands imposed on it

                As simple as it sounds. If you want to get better at deadlifting – deadlift. If you want to get bigger, the research seems to indicate you should focus on doing volume, ideally sets of 5-30 reps within at least 4 reps of failure each set. Similarly for strength, you must also make sure your sets are adequately challenging by also being within 4 reps of failure (isn’t it interesting how that seems to be some magical number? It’ll be exciting to see more research on why that threshold is adequate for both hypertrophy and strength).

Hypertrophy prioritizes volume at adequate intensity

                For getting bigger, the research seems to suggest we want to focus on getting adequate volume in terms of challenging sets, e.g. sets within 4 reps of failure. Because proximity to failure seems to be a necessary condition for hypertrophy, the intensity must be high enough to make the set challenging. A quick caveat – going to failure is often a FAR bigger trade off than going even one rep shy of failure. Failure will give you a bigger stimulus, but the recovery cost goes up dramatically. If you’re going to train to failure, I would recommend you do it immediately before a deload week, otherwise it is generally better to stay 1-4 reps shy of failure to allow for more work to be done over an entire block.

Strength prioritizes intensity at adequate volume

                For getting stronger, it’s a matter of technical proficiency and muscle mass. The more muscle you have, the higher the ceiling for possible strength. But the strength itself is achieved by training specific movements you want to get stronger at. Strength relies on neuromuscular efficiency/coordination – how well you can use the muscle. Once you have sufficient size, you get stronger by training specific movements and adequate volume and intensity, such as above. Similar to above, save absolute max attempts for very specific times in training. Peaking and meet days should pretty much be the only time you’re going for true one rep max attempts. They don’t add much to training, and like any failure set, the cost is monumental.

There IS crossover between the two

                The modalities for both strength and size have enough overlap to where there is crossover. When doing high volume strength training, it is going to be your diet that determines what happens regarding to body composition. As you get stronger and your work capacity goes up, it is possible to gain size when training for strength given that it fits the criteria previously stated. Likewise, in your attempts to get bigger, you will likely get stronger for reps over time. That being said, the training modalities are different enough that they warrant specific focus.  

As a beginner, you can have your cake and eat it too

                If you’re just starting to get into lifting (less than 2 years experience), the overlap is so substantial that you do not need to worry too much about the specificity of strength, but just need to make sure you’re training hard enough and you will both get bigger and stronger. If you’re going to opt one way or another, my advice would to be focus on getting a solid muscle base first. In my experience, muscle is by far the most difficult to put on and the most demanding when it comes to lifestyle choices.

The more advanced you get, the more you will have to narrow your focus to particular goals

                As time goes on, it will be harder to elicit specific adaptations. You will eventually need to tailor your training specifically to getting bigger or getting stronger. If you’re a powerlifter, then once you cap out on the size you want to achieve with a solid base of muscle, you can focus on strength perpetually. Not that  you don’t have high volume cycles, just that your training will always be in the context of increasing strength.

Is it worth trying to do both at once?

                In some cases, probably! The trade-off with trying to accomplish both size and strength simultaneously is that you only have so much work you can do in a session, in a week, or in a month. So however you split up your efforts, you’re getting results that mirror that. You will not get as big or as strong as fast as if you focused on one of those specifically. However, having fun is a big part of longevity. If you enjoy that style of training, then go for it! “Powerbuilding”, as it is commonly referred to, is becoming more popular as time goes on, and seems to be quite enjoyable for those who train in that style. In fact, it is probably a great way to start off one’s lifting journey. You’ll get a solid base of muscle, learn the three major compound movements, and get a great taste for both styles of training, allowing you to see which one you prefer.

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