The Principle of Specificity for Muscle Growth
When the average bro thinks of working out, what comes to mind?
Lots of things.
Running, lifting, calisthenics, circuit training…
And for each of these you can push it pretty damn hard and get a good “work out”.
But do these all give you a “work out” in the same exact way? Or more specifically – the way you want them to if your goal is – like most people – to improve your appearance and attain an aesthetic physique?
Of course not.
What about if we stick to a more commonly accepted way of defining a “work out” and agree that it means you’re lifting weights? Well, this is still problematic.
Because many people erroneously assume that all weight-lifting is created equally.
This is a lie.
For example, you can lift weights for a whole multitude of reasons:
- Olympic Weightlifting
- Metabolic Training
- Sports Performance
- Attention whoring for Instagram
Or our favorite which we’ll speak about here…bodybuilding for aesthetic goals.
Each of these ways of lifting weights is a distinct goal with different determinants of success, and as such, the approach that you take must be specifically designed to achieve that specific goal.
Due to the nature of the beast, there will oftentimes be overlap, for after all, you ARE lifting weights, but the differences are abruptly clear. The training – and in tune, nutritional – approach of each of these should be different if you are chasing optimal results because the requirements of each of these disciplines are different.
This is easily explained by the principle of specificity.
The Principle of Specificity
The principle of specificity, also known as the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands), is one of the fundamental principles of training that dictates that the body will adapt accordingly to the stressor or stimulus that it is presented with.
The body is remarkably efficient and is inclined to remain in its current state of homeostasis, so rest assured that when it adapts, it’s going to do so appropriately in accordance with the stressor that it has faced to better maintain that homeostasis in the future.
In other words, what you do is what you get.
Or flipped around:
If you want to get something specific, then what you do needs to be specific to attaining it.
It’s strikingly simple. Common sense, even.
Yet you’d be surprised at just how often this basic, elementary principle is violated in training programs and the world at large as people live their lives and do things to achieve their goals (if they’ve even taken the time to define them with proper thought).
This is, of course, an atrocity to witness given that the principle of specificity has far-reaching ramifications in just about every facet of your program including:
- Exercise Selection
- Range of Motion
- Rest Times
- Proximity to Failure
- Tired yet?
- Equipment Choice (straps, etc)
- Even diet
Needless to say, specificity is vitally important.
If you want to build an Aston Martin, you don’t run out and drop all your cash on submarine parts.
Yeah, they’re both vehicles made of metal that require similar features, but you’d be an idiot to think they’re interchangeable for their desired purpose.
Clearly Define Your Training Goal
For the principle of specificity to even work in the first place, you must clearly designate your goal. Walking into the gym without a clear idea of your goal is flat-out stupid.
…I want to build some muscle.
That’s a decent start. But that’s not good enough.
Where do you want to build muscle?
How do you want to look?
Be specific with what you want to get out of your training because everything rests upon this.
Got an idea now?
Cool. But that’s not good enough either.
Ideas are vague and you need something concrete to grasp on to like your anchor in the storm and guide you to the Promised Land.
CREATE A VISUAL
Write it out, find pictures that demonstrate that ideal state you want to be in, and then take pictures of yourself so that you can determine what needs to be done.
NOTE: This is exactly what I have my clients do so that I can calibrate the program towards their goals based on their current state. For more on my coaching, click here.
In this way, the program of a man and a woman will be different.
And within each gender itself, the programs will be different according to their starting point and goal.
To expect anything less is foolish.
From there, you can allocate your (emphasis:) limited resources towards making that a reality based on the best available evidence behind what the best way is for you to get from here to there and a well rounded, top-level perspective such as I discuss in my evidence based fitness model here.
You only have so much time in your schedule and energy to expend on overloading your system to instigate adaptation.
How are you going to spend it?
Lifting weights and forging the ideal aesthetic physique is not clicking your cursor around for some online shopping or picking what you want for dinner off the menu.
Achieving an aesthetic physique will require grit, determination, and the willingness to go toe to toe with the burning discomfort staring back at you in the face for years.
You better ensure that you’re spending it wisely.
What a shame it would be to go through all of that and not even get what you want.
A little something for you to think about the next time you’re dug deep into the last 2 reps of your final set of squats cursing humanity on the brink of an out of body spiritual experience.
Muscle Specific Adaptations
Las Vegas is a helluva place.
Avalanches of alcohol. Boatloads of beautiful women. And the bright, flashing lights of Roy G. Biv pulsing in perfect sync to the barreling bass waves of the club mix being blared into the night sky.
And best of all? Anything goes in sin city because:
“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
What does this have to do with making gains and getting jacked? Because…
“What happens in a muscle stays in a muscle.”
Brilliant analogy. Yet scarcely understood…
What does it mean to be Muscle Specific?
You see, many people have a skewed vision of weightlifting for making gains.
“Squats, bench, and deadlift hit everything bro. That’s all you need”
This is a xo<333 !neat! <333xo little idea forged from a blend of incorrectly extrapolating powerlifting results and the new wave of fitness minimalism, but there’s only one problem:
Muscle growth is a local process.
You can do bicep curls all damn day, but they will do nothing for your cute little calves. And while those movements may hit many muscle groups, in many cases you may not achieve the optimal stimulation across the board of the activated musculature.
But the hormones, bro…
As a last ditch attempt to grasp onto the cliff, many bros will scurry off to the infamous hormone hypothesis, the idea that heavy compound lifts will cause hormones to surge and benefit muscle growth across your entire body.
This is another romantic idea, but the truth is that it simply does not hold much water and those acute fluctuations in hormones following a training bout are not going to make or break your muscle growth. You’ve got to be boosting it up to supra-physiological levels for sustained periods with exogenous sources to get the kind of growth most people think of when they correlate muscle growth to hormone spikes.
The fact of the matter is that you must…
Be Muscle Specific
If you want a muscle to grow the best, then start treating it like an individual and thinking in terms of muscle specific approaches rather than a magical event that takes place simply touching the weights.
I understand that this is a concept that is too difficult and too much work for some people, but then again…
Do you really want to be like most people?
Now let’s look at two of the most common areas of confusion when it comes to the principle of specificity for muscle growth.
Given that the principle of specificity applies to individual muscles, then your next question should be:
How am I going to target those muscles most effectively?
After all, your goal is to grow them and that’s going to require a stimulus.
Power cleans look cool. Should you do that?
What about bosu ball squats or awkward chest squeeze 9000 you saw some tool promote on Facebook?
Think about the principle of specificity for muscle growth and the following questions I have for you to ponder:
- Where does the muscle attach
- Which direction do its fibers run?
- What is its range of motion?
- What is its fiber composition?*
- How is the stress applied across the designated movement?
- Can I incrementally overload this movement?
*most muscles have about a 50/50 split, but in some muscles such as the soleus, this doesn’t hold true
THEN you can begin to look at which exercises are going to be best.
Compound exercises are given a tremendous amount of hype and many fitness minimalists believe that compound exercises are all you have to do to achieve maximal muscle growth.
Compound movements are useful insofar as they are efficient and adequately all of target the desired musculature, but in many cases they do not, and single joint movements* are going to be warranted.
Do not create imaginary divides in your mind when it comes to exercise selection.
*also known as isolation movements – a term I’m often wary of given that you can hardly ever truly “isolate” a muscle and this leads to a narrow perspective of the complex interaction between variables
Another common confusion amongst lifters is this idea that you must lift heavy. Lifting heavy has become a judgment of character. A concrete commandment.
Look familiar? You bet it does. This is the problem with giving a chimpanzee access to photoshop.
Do you really have to lift heavy to make gains? Let’s take a look.
The mountain of evidence on intensity and rep ranges lends support to the existence of a strength-endurance continuum. In basic terms, this means that low reps will get you strongER than high reps and high reps will get you MORE endurance than low reps will. The principle of specificity in action, ladies and gentlemen.
However, muscle growth – again…the goal, can be seen at ALL rep ranges and is less dependent on how heavy you go provided you’re putting in the work. Yes, even at 30 reps.
Volume is the king of muscle growth – not intensity.
Therefore, for the specific goal of muscle growth you should perform the bulk of your work in the rep range that allows you to generate the most productive volume over the long run.
Anything else is simply foolish and an exercise in ignorance or egotism.
For most people, that’s going to be between 6 and 15 reps per set depending on the movement.
The Principle of Specificity for Muscle Growth: Conclusion
Now of course, this is not the end all be all of how training or nutritional approaches should be catered to the goal based on the principle of specificity, and there are many more stones left unturned with regards to picking the right tools to get the job done based on the goal of muscle growth.
However, you now have a better idea about how to approach your programs with regards to the principle of specificity and are less apt to make rookie mistakes or be led astray by fallacious reasoning.
As I stated in the appetizer article for this piece here, you must always ask yourself this simple question whenever confronted with a training concept:
“How does this support my goal?”
For rest times.
For every single variable in your program. It must be calculated and calibrated. Anything less and you’re shooting in the dark with regards to your success.
For more on the principle of specificity for muscle growth, check out my book, Architect of Aesthetics.
For 1 on 1 coaching to take your physique to its peak, check out what I’ve got to offer here.