After reading Will Vatcher’s excellent article for BretContreras.com a couple of months ago, I started thinking more about the importance of finding the right balance between variation and specificity. Also, I found myself drifting back to one of the key questions lifters face: Should you primarily train to get stronger, or should you do a lot of different exercises, emphasise high-rep training, and chase the “pump”? Clearly, these things are not mutually exclusive, as you can definitely get a pump from heavy powerlifting-type training, and you certainly get stronger by doing high-rep bodybuilding-type training. However, as we know, training for pure strength is different from training exclusively for hypertrophy.
For a powerlifter, the answer to the question above is clear; getting stronger is the priority. He/she might add in some assistance work, mobility drills, etc., but the goal is always to progress in the big lifts. But what about those people who want a good mix of strength, muscular endurance, and hypertrophy, how should they train? And what about those folks who want to focus exclusively on maximizing muscle gains? For these people, it could be argued that both heavy training of the compound lifts (e.g., 4-6 reps squatting) and “pump” work/high-rep training (e.g., 8-15 reps in many exercises (often single-joint, isolation work)) are specific for their goal. However, the problem is often (not always) that high-rep, pump training ends up becoming very random. In other words, the types of exercises you do and the amount of sets and reps vary from workout to workout, and little attention is often paid to progressive overload.
So, although it could be argued that all forms of resistance training is “specific” for the average lifter interested in gaining strength and muscle, I’ll use the term specificity to refer to progressive overload in a set of multi-joint lifts, as this should be the basis of any good resistance training program. So, on one end of the spectrum you have a program that simply focuses on progressive overload in the squat, deadlift, and bench-press (specific adaptation), while on the other end you have a very “loose” program where the trainee does different exercises every workout (variation). An example of the former would be the starting strength training program, which only consists of a few compound lifts that are trained heavy several times per week, while an example of the latter would be crossfit workouts, where the exercises and intensity levels vary from session to session. If you’re a beginner who wants to gain strength and muscle, a starting strength-type program is all you need, and if you’re someone who just wants to have fun and stay in good shape, crossfit is awesome. However, for most people, a program that is somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum is optimal. But how do you find that sweet spot?
First off, I think it’s safe to say that regardless of whether your main goal is to build muscle or gain strength, getting stronger in a set of multi-joint lifts should be very high on your list of priorities. In other words, you should create a specific adaptation by focusing on progressive overload in the big compound movements – such as deadlifts, squats, presses, and pull-ups. Sadly, when you actually look around at a commercial gym, you quickly realise that this is not the way most lifters train. Rather they do a whole bunch of random exercises and have little control over their progress in terms of load, sets, and reps. In other words, they put too much emphasis on “muscle confusion” and variation, and they fail to create a specific adaptation. This is also some of the criticism of crossfit, it’s too random to create a specific adaptation. However, at the other end of the spectrum you have those people who always follow a strict training plan. They do the same exercises every workout and follow their training journal to the letter. These lifters typically focus on a set of compound lifts and are mostly concerned with slowly increasing the load in these exercises over time. This type of program definitely creates a specific adaptation, but for intermediate-advanced lifters, it’s usually not enough to promote optimal results.
There are certain things you never fully learn
When working as a personal trainer, the mix of science/books/literature and practical experience (both from your own training and from training clients) is what drives your competence level up. While some coaches choose to focus mostly on one of these aspects, the fact is that you need both. Without the theoretical knowledge, it’s difficult to understand the basic concepts of physical training, and without the practical experience you won’t know how to correctly apply theory to practice.
My learning curve during my first 1-2 years as a personal trainer was incredibly steep. Even though I had gone to school to become a PT and spent many years training by myself and reading up on sports science, the fact is that you learn the most by actually working. Every time you’re at work you discover something new you have to read up on, whether it’s a postural problem, technical issue, or any other aspect of training you don’t fully understand. If you’re a bad trainer, you probably just forget these things and continue doing the stuff you’ve always done. However, if you’re a trainer/coach who’s actually looking to better himself, you dig into the literature, try out new exercises/routines, and develop strategies for dealing with the problems at hand. Through this trial and error, you become better and better at what you do. Actually, the most important thing I’ve gained from my years as a personal trainer is knowledge – not the salary or any other factor you might associate with work.
For me, I felt that the learning curve started to flatten out after about 2-3 years. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot left to learn (you’re never fully outlearned), but I felt that I knew “exactly” how to train the types of clients I got. This meant that I could meet with a new client, and within a couple of minutes of talking and assessment of exercise technique, posture, strength, and flexibility, I had a plan ready in my head. Also, at this point in my career I had developed a strategy for dealing with the most common technical issues, muscle imbalance patterns, etc. you see, and I therefore rarely encountered something I didn’t know how to deal with.
Getting to this point as a trainer is great in the sense that you’ve become confident enough in yourself that you don’t have to plan everything in detail. Also, you always have a reasoning for doing what you’re doing. This is one of the most important things to remember when working as a personal trainer; you should always be able to explain why you have a client do that specific exercise in that particular way. Too many trainers simply have their clients do some random exercises and training routines that don’t really serve a purpose for that specific person. Everything you do as a trainer/coach should be done with a purpose in mind. That is not to say that you’re not allowed to make mistakes (everyone does, I’ve done my fair share), but you should always have a plan with what you’re doing.
However, getting to this point as a trainer can also negatively affect you in the sense that it feels like your progress is flattening out. I definitely knew that I had a lot of uncharted territory left to explore, but my learning curve was not as steep as before. You discover that although there’s always something new to learn, there are certain general guidelines that you should always stick to. You’re no longer learning new things every time you coach a client, and you often end up sticking to the things that you know are most effective. On one hand, you have to do what is most effective for that client. However, if you work many hours each day as a PT, you also have to mix things up a lot to avoid getting bored.
Okay, so why am I telling you all this? Well, because it relates to what i want to talk about in this post. While there are certain training concepts that you get a very good handle on after being in the fitness industry for a while, there are also some that you never figure out completely. One of these principles is the law of accommodation…
Specificity vs. variation
The law of accommodation is a law which states that the response of a biological object to a constant stimulus decreases over time. In other words, the principle of diminishing returns. This whole concept of specificity vs. variation is something that always keeps you on your toes as a trainer or trainee. What is the optimal blend of variation and specificity?
Here’s a great quote from the book “Science and Practice of Strength Training” by Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky and William J. Kraemer:
Because of accommodation, it is inefficient to use standard exercises or a standard training load over a long period of time. Training programs must vary. At the same time, because of the specificity of training adaptations, the training exercises should be as close as possible to the main sport exercise in muscular coordination and physiological demand. The highest transfer of training result occurs with the rise of sport specific exercises. These two requirements lead to one of the main conflicts in training athletes: Training programs should be both variable, to avoid accommodation, and stable, to satisfy the demand for specificity.
There are primarily two ways to add variety to your routine; either quantitative changes (e.g., volume, load) or qualitative (e.g., replacing exercises). While the paragraph above primarily refers to sports training, the law of accommodation definitely also applies to regular resistance training.
Here’s another great quote from an article titled “Overcoming Plateaus – A Guide for Continued Progress“:
The secret to avoiding or overcoming a plateau is variety in the training stimulus. Although this sounds simple enough, you must plan in order to have enough variety to keep progress steady, but not so much variety that your body does not adapt to your specific goals. So what you need to do is apply the right amount of variety and the right time.
From an evolutionary point of view, it does make sense that adding some variation into your workouts is beneficial. Ancient humans clearly didn’t train like endurance athletes or bodybuilders do today, but there is no doubt that they were very physically active, often partaking in a wide range of different activities.
Resistance training: Finding the right balance
Although the law of accommodation is relevant to all sorts of training, I’ll primarily discuss resistance training in this article. So, what does this law imply exactly? Can you avoid accommodation by simply focusing on increasing the load? No, not in my experience. While beginners and intermediate lifters who’ve never focused on building strength can get away with simply focusing on progressive overload (e.g., putting a couple of extra pounds on the bar every workout) in a set of compound exercises (e.g., squat, deadlift, press, and pull-up), this is not enough for more experienced lifters. For moderately trained individuals, who’ve been doing squats, deadlifts, and presses for some time, more variation is generally needed. Not just for getting optimal results, but also for staying motivated. However, these lifters should still focus on getting stronger in multi-joint lifts. In other words, they have to find the correct blend between specificity and variation and a good balance between low-rep powerlifting-type training and high-rep bodybuilding-type training.
There are many ways to find this balance. As I’ve previously mentioned, when training for hypertrophy, I like to stick to the general guidelines suggested in the review by Mathias Wernbom and colleagues. Not just because this is the most comprehensive review on the influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans, but also because their recommendations are well in line with my own experiences.
- Load:~75-80% of 1RM
- Repetitions: 8-10 to muscular failure or near (range: 6-12)
- Sets: 1-3 per exercise. Progression from 1-2 to 3-6 sets in total per muscle group
- Velocity and duration per repetition: Moderate (Ecc= 1-2 sec. Con=1-2 sec.)
- Rest between sets: 60-180 seconds
- Frequency: 2-3 sessions per muscle group/week
- Other comments: These recommendations are for novice to moderately trained individuals. Well trained athletes may need increased variation in intensity and volume.
So, how can we create a training program that is based on these guidelines and contain a good mix of specificity and variation and high-rep and low-rep training? There are many ways… A strategy I often use (both for myself and clients) is to pick one compound lift for each major muscle group (e.g., squat for legs, pull-up for back, press for shoulders, and bench-press for chest) that form the basis of the training program. I always focus on progressive overload in these lifts. To avoid stagnation I don’t always use the same rep ranges, and I might switch them out for a similar exercise after a while to avoid stagnation, but I make sure that I always stay on top of the progress. Besides these lifts, I add in some “random” exercises (e.g., varies from workout to workout) for each muscle group that are generally trained for higher reps. I often add the additional exercises for chest directly after the compound movement for that muscle group, the additional exercises for back directly after the compound movement for that muscle group, etc. E.g., for back, this could mean 3 sets of 4-6 reps of pull-ups, followed by 20-40 reps of “random” high-rep training.
This is just one example of how you can get more variation into your workout, without taking the specificity aspect out. There are many other ways to achieve this. You could change your training program every three weeks (without changing out your primary exercises), you could alter your rep ranges (this is often very effective), or you could replace an exercise with a similar – but somewhat different – movement.
My training: Personally, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. During certain periods I’ve definitely been in the “get stronger in the compound lifts” camp. This means that I only did 4-7 multi-joint lifts, I had a plan with everything I did at the gym, I stayed on top of my progress, and I focused on making small improvements over time. However, other times (typically when I’m not as motivated to train consistently) my training program has been more “loose”. I still focused on the multi-joint lifts, but I didn’t write down everything, and I typically mixed things up a lot. However, most of the time, I try to find a balance between these two very different types of training. Also, my resistance training program is highly dependent on my overall training program. During periods where I prioritze other forms of training (e.g., rowing, running) I sometimes only do the most basic multi-joint lifts.
What are the implications for you? If you’re one of those trainees who always chase the pump, do different exercises “every time” you’re at the gym, and don’t keep a training journal, focusing more on specificity and progressive overload is generally a good idea. On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who do the same exercises every time you’re at the gym and/or only focus on progressive overload in a set of compound lifts, you should probably add in some more variation.
Bottom line: Although I’ve primarily discussed resistance training in this article, the principles discussed also apply to all other forms of training. Too much focus on specificity often leads to stagnation, while too much focus on variation doesn’t cause a specific adaptation. What I’ve also found is that doing the same exercises every time you’re at the gym can sometimes lead to “undertraining” in the sense that the body becomes very well adapted for those movements. However, too much variation can quickly lead to “overtraining” in the sense that you constantly stress the body in new ways. The important thing is to remember that long-term progress depends on a good mix of both specificity and variation. Don’t go into the gym and simply do a lot of random stuff. Instead, plan for both variation and specificity, and employ both low-rep and high-rep training.