In Part I of this series I addressed the less than optimal features of a program centred around percentages. I hope, rather than arguing for a case of universal abandonment of percentage programs for everyone, instead it asked you to question your training; to ask what new ideas presented could be effective for you at your current stage of training level.
In the second part of this series I present, again, points of interest and discussion that hopefully make you question your training on specificity. Whilst this doesn’t actively address this idea of ‘the demise of percentages based programs’, I believe this article is important as precursor to part III coming soon.
Don’t be one of those categorical, either-or thinkers that jams every round method in its square categorical box. Avail yourself to the nuance of viewing this as a sliding scale.
The above quote is by Mike Tuchscherer (the owner and founder of Reactive Training Systems) in an article on discussing specificity. I have put this here because above all with these articles at Standontheshouldersofgiants we want you to think. We’re big advocates of logical and rational thought, and when it comes to specificity the sliding scale Mike talks about is imperative here.
Specificity (in Powerlifting) for those that don’t know essentially refers to the degree to which a movement mimics a competition lift with regards to the movement itself and the loading parameters. So as an example, a ‘1 rep max’ deadlift attempt is as specific as you can get. A set of 20 one legged dumbbell stiff legged deadlifts would be at the other end of the scale.
Mike Articulates eloquently the need for specificity, but importantly, specificity that meets in the middle. If you’re interested in this topic, give the article a read, it won’t disappoint. Rather than regurgitate Mike’s arguments, instead I’m going to discuss my experience with specificity and why I believe the strength community is only recently emerging from a phase of damaging non-specificity.
Recently I had been caught up in the ‘Conjugate’ system hype, where non-specificity reigned king. Accessories and supplemental work were the fundamentals providing the volume, and non-specific main movements were the order of the day in the form of ‘max effort’ and ‘dynamic effort’ movements.. As Dave Tate (a man I highly respect and full of knowledge) advocated, a lifter needs to know the difference between lifts that are ‘testers’ and those that are ‘builders’. Seemingly in my mind this apparent identification and utilisation of ‘testers’ and ‘builders’ fundamentally advocated non-specificity as your bread and butter to ‘build’ the contest lifts (Notably for some (mostly geared) even the ‘testers’ themselves were non-specific to the competition lift. For example, I remember Dave saying his ‘tester’ was a floor press. If his floor press went up, he knew his competition bench had gone up). This rotation of exercises and never directly lifting the main lifts apart from in competition allows training without burning out. Something a raw lifter will unlikely experience given the (relatively) less strain on the CNS involved with raw lifting vs geared.
At the time this made sense to me. My triceps are weak, I should therefore target my main movement for a few cycles around JM presses to bring them up. Makes sense huh? Well no, it doesn’t, and it especially doesn’t for raw lifters. I’m very aware that I’m close to going off tangent here towards a Conjugate vs all other (more specific) methods for raw training discussion here. This has been done extensively by others and Mike himself (search Mike’s name on this blog for more on this). I’ll resist and simply bullet point some important advantages of more specific training that I have found in my own experience of running both general methods.
- Practising, and therefore becoming proficient at, the competition lifts is imperative for everyone at all levels. Practice makes perfect right? A 2 inch high box squat with a bowed bar with chains and bands attached will not create that proficiency and may in fact be detrimental (who am I kidding it’ll be down right useless..) to your technique development. Dynamic effort training that closely mimics your competition lift will not replace that loss of practice. Technique and form will not be challenged at these low weights for anyone but a beginner. Only at medium to higher weights will your weaknesses be challenged and therefore your technique improved.
- Training analysis over the long term becomes very difficult. Medium to long term manipulation of volume and intensity requires a comparison over time. Comparing and adequately planning future cycles becomes warped, and arguably meaningless when volume fluctuates so drastically. An example, cycle 1 where my main movement is 2 board bench, and cycle 2 is Paused JM Press; the volume for each cycle are so drastically different to the point that overall training volume in this main movement essentially becomes meaningless. If you don’t hold the importance of volume over time in your main movement as a high priority, you’re training sub-optimally (very sub-optimally).
- I personally found I’m injured less. When my training days are filled with, to a large degree specific movements, it allows me to hit hard those specific movements that will make me stronger (ie Squat, bench and deadlift), whilst allowing my ‘off’ days to be filled with all those accessories and supplement movements that alternatively would clog up my training days. So in a way my off days whilst as ‘non-specific’ as you can get movement wise to squatting etc, they are in fact specific to the aims of; keeping me healthy, helping me recover for the next session, so that I may be better prepared for those ‘specific’ training days. So for example, every off day for me is filled with rows and rear delts to ensure I don’t develop imbalances that would hinder my benching – i.e. non-specific to the bench movement itself but specific to enabling me to actually bench. So building on Dave Tate’s idea above I’d advocate a slightly different specific approach – think ‘builders’ and ‘enablers’ and leave the ‘testers’ to the actual 1 rep max attempts.
- The best raw lifters in the world do not train around the non-specific ideas of the conjugate system. I don’t think there’s much left to say here. The IPF world records are dominated by those that train to a large degree specifically around the competition lifts. There’s no getting away from it.
- Absolute specificity is as much a mistake as absolute non-specificity. Unless you’re Dmitry Klokov and his mates in the Olympic weightlifting circles, maxing your squat, bench and deadlift each session will break you down both mentally and physically. There needs to be a balance and this is where this idea of a sliding scale comes in. Read Mike’s article for more information of it’s importance.
- The confidence you create by staying specific is invaluable come testing or competition. I remember coming off cycles of box squats or good mornings supplemented with glute ham raises and dimmel deadlifts for example and attempting a new squat PB. As the weight got higher the more shaky I become both physically, and also mentally with respect to my confidence in my technique and ability to complete the lift. It was simply a case of treading uncharted water. I had no idea what a heavy competition squat felt like, because I rarely did them exactly to competition standard, as a result my form was always horrible and my weaknesses flared up repeatedly (and they were almost always different to what I thought my weaknesses were).
- There’s no ego lifts to hide behind. When you realise that 3 board 1 rep max PB that is a good 25kg (55lbs) more than your actual bench PB is essentially meaningless; you’ll be free to pursue actual strength where it matters.
I hope this article has awakened some ideas on how you can optimise your training. Finally I’ll leave you with one of my favourite articles written by Mike. The Seven Principles and You. Notice the case for specificity cropping up again and again. Don’t be distracted from the bread and butter of training and getting strong.
Here’s to part 3 coming a little sooner than part 2 did (hopefully)
Thanks for reading
Strong Body. Strong Mind.