There is a broad range of goals that get people into a workout routine but a very common one you will find is the desire to get stronger. It could be to get stronger in general or with a specific exercise or lift but most of us know that we could benefit from some sort of strength training. But do we know the best way to go about that strength training? In this blog I want to explain the principle of specificity in exercise as well as leave you with a clear understanding of how to approach your strength training whether you lift weights or do calisthenics.
The Principle of Specificity:
The principle of specificity comes from the observation that the adaptation of the body during exercise is specific to the type of training it is undertaking. In other words, your body is going to react differently to training strength compared to training endurance, power, or hypertrophy. The same way you can't train for a sprint the same way you train for a marathon. The way we can dictate that in our workout is with correct programming of the acute variables. These are the most fundamental components of designing a training program. Acute variables can be anything like the amount of reps and sets we do, how long of a rest period we take, even training frequency and duration. These variables determine the amount of stress placed on the body and, ultimately, what adaptations will occur in the body. The same variables that build strength are not going to be the same variables that build endurance or hypertrophy. To help make a little more sense of this I am going to provide some definitions below.
Strength: The ability of the muscles to produce internal tension to overcome an external force. Or your ability to work against resistance, whether it be by lifting weights or using your own body.(Usually 5-7 reps)
Endurance: The ability to produce and maintain force for longer periods of time, as well as the ability to recover quickly from fatigue.(Usually 12-20 reps)
Hypertrophy: The enlargement of muscles in response to being recruited to develop increased levels of tension, this is how our muscles actually grow in size.(Usually 8-12 reps)
Power: The ability of the muscles to produce the greatest amount of force possible for the shortest possible time.(Usually 1-3 reps)
After reading these definitions individually it can be much easier to understand how each one would require a different set of acute variables.
Acute Variables for Strength Training
Resistance training is the best way to build strength throughout the body, it doesn’t matter if the resistance is a weight, a band, or leverage from your own body. The resistance can change but the variables will always remain the same. The variables that I want to focus on for the purpose of this article are reps, sets, and rest. When training strength I like to work under the 5 sets of 5 reps routine with about a 90 second to 2 minute rest. I will pick an exercise that can be done with good form for 5 sets of 5 reps. In my opinion the repetitions are the most important variable when it comes to building strength. If I pick an exercise or weight where I can perform 12 reps then that is too easy for me to build strength with and I am now working my endurance. If I choose an exercise that I can only do 1 or 2 reps of then it is too hard for me and I am now working my power. We have to keep in mind the definitions from above when choosing the right exercises.
Choosing the right exercises
So how do we choose the right exercises to help us build the most strength possible? When working strength we want to think strain, or strenuous. This is what made it click for me. When my mentor Kenneth Gallarzo said the simple word strenuous. If it’s not strenuous then it’s not putting strain on your body and you aren’t building strength. For example, 5 push ups is not going to be very strenuous on my muscles so I would do something like 5 handstand push ups because they are much more difficult for me. I could do 3-5 sets of handstand push ups to build strength and then I would do 12-15 regular push ups to build my endurance since I am already fatigued.
When it comes to weight lifting it’s easy to find an exercise to build strength, you adjust the weight accordingly. If you are doing bench press, chest press, or shoulder press, choose a weight that is challenging for you to do 3-5 sets of 5 repetitions. If you are doing squats, leg press, or dead-lifts, choose a weight that is challenging for you to do 3-5 sets of 5 repetitions.
Calisthenics (bodyweight training) is a little more difficult because we use leverage instead of weight to make an exercise easier or more difficult. For example, in a push up you are pushing about 65% of your bodyweight but when a push up is performed from the knees you are pushing about 50% of your bodyweight. So you are cutting the leverage or weight to make the original movement a little less strenuous. The same goes for elevating your feet on a stool or box, here you are increasing the leverage or the amount of weight you are pushing. This is an option for someone who wants to build strength in their push-ups but doing 5 regular push-ups is too easy. Pike push ups are another great way to increase the leverage or difficulty of a push-up for the more advanced practitioner. If you are reading this and have a hard time doing push ups on your knees that’s perfectly fine because everyone starts somewhere. Try doing push ups on a counter top or even a dresser, this cuts the leverage even more than being on your knees because your hands are above your feet, allowing you to go through the same range of motion for a push up but by pushing less of your body weight. Once you can perform 5 sets of 5 reps, find a lower counter top. This will allow you to build strength by progressively adding more leverage to your push up until you can perform them on your knees. This can be applied to any calisthenics exercise, pull ups, lunges, squats, dips, and the list goes on.
Overall, I think it’s important to stay focused on hitting 5 repetitions regardless of the exercise that you choose. Start out aiming for 3 sets and work your way up to 5 before switching to a more difficult version. Also focus on rest periods between sets, I encourage 90 seconds with as much as 2 to 3 minutes. This doesn’t mean that you have to do absolutely nothing during that time period, just rest the specific body part you are strength training. If you are doing one of the push up sequences I mentioned above, you can do a set of something else while you rest your arms. If you do 5 push ups and then follow them up with 20 reverse lunges and 10 leg raises, then you should be pretty close to your 90 second rest of the arms. Take a few deep breaths and then move on to your next set of push ups. Repeating that 3 to 5 times will turn into a nice little strength training session.
Below is a video demonstrating push-ups and modified push-ups.
As a personal trainer I can say there is a lot that goes in to programming for a client or class. It’s been years of education and training to find the best approach to getting the right results and not everyone has that time if it’s not their profession. But that shouldn’t be a reason to be mislead or not have the information at hand. A lot of information I have learned through continued education are things I can say I wish I knew then what I know now. It’s my goal as a fitness professional to save you from the same thing. This approach will make you stronger, save you time, and keep you safe so I hope you have found it useful. If you are interested in finding out more on how this programming can be applied in a full body workout to develop the true strength we all deserve, I offer personal training and weekly Streetsport Calisthenics classes where we focus on building strength and endurance. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, I hope you find it useful for your training.