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How important is specificity? S.A.I.D principle simplified.

Updated: Jun 21, 2023


In part 2 of our scientific principles of program design, we focused on the need for variability in order to avoid accommodation to training stress- in turn leading to stagnation and stalling of progress.

In part 3, we will discuss the Principle of Specificity, which for simplicity sakes can be understood using the acronym S.A.I.D (specific adaptation to imposed demands).

This provides an easy to understand concept; that when we impose a given demand on our body, there will be a certain degree of specific adaptation to the systems being stressed by the demand. Now, this may seem obvious, but let’s look a little closer at a few examples that will really allow us to understand why this principle, at times can become INCREDIBLY important.

Physical culture can come in many forms, such as yoga, general resistance training, competitive bodybuilding, cycling or Olympic lifting. With this wide variety in goals and adaptive outcomes, we get to see why the S.A.I.D principle is important in the decision making process of our program design.

Let’s say you are training for your first marathon. Ideally, you will be on a structured running program, that satisfies the first 2 principles we discussed in part 1 and 2 of this series. We know the mileage must be overloading enough to drive adaptation, that we need to vary the stimulus (intervals, hills, long runs, tempo runs, etc…) in order to avoid accommodation and stagnation, and it is probably a good idea to not swim and bike as your only forms of aerobic training.

On one hand, yes, the cycling and swimming will improve your aerobic capacity by increasing mitochondrial and capillary density and improving energy metabolism specific to long duration exercise, but that is not the whole story. There is also a need to specifically build work capacity, tendon integrity, muscular strength and movement efficiency in the specific musculature and systems to be used in running. This means you actually have to run in order to get very efficient at running…I know, nothing perplexing here!

Another example is strength training for the purpose of muscle hypertrophy (an increase in the size and cross sectional area of a muscle). Hypertrophy, historically had a belief that fairly specific demands needed to be met in order to make muscle actually grow. If you are over 30, the days of the internet providing lifting information were not yet so plentiful. Magazines and the advice from the “bros” for years led the charge. For several decades, it was pretty widely accepted that:

  1. 8-12 reps was the sweet spot for building muscle (textbooks even promoted this)

  2. 55-70% of 1RM’s were the ideal intensity to use to stimulate growth

  3. Eat 1g/lb of protein

  4. Complete multiple exercises for each body part 2-3 days/week with 3-4 sets/exercise.

Although I am only listing a few of the long standing glaring norms here, it gives you an idea that there was a lot of specificity required to build muscle.

Now, today, we know a LOT more about the science of how muscle grows, and honestly, it requires some of the least amount of specificity to accomplish decent results. We know fairly confidently that:

  1. Muscle can be stimulated to grow at rep ranges between 1 and 30+, as long as adequate levels of mechanical tension are created in the set to stimulate high threshold muscle fibers (which, have the greatest capacity to grow)

  2. As long as a minimum intensity of approximately 30% is used, and we take sets to near muscle failure, we will stimulate all available motor units

  3. Voluntary activation is highly important in order to stimulate muscle fibers

  4. Adequate protein is being provided to supply amino acids and stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS)

The point being made by the above examples, is that not all training and adaptation outcomes have exact specificity demands that need to be met- at least not to the same degree. Yes, we need to meet certain demands to build muscle, but the number of ways to structure a program to get to this outcome are many.

OK, so now we understand that there are various degrees required for the S.A.I.D principle and specificity. Not all goals require rigid requirements to be met, while other do. So let’s look at an example on the other end of the continuum.

Olympic weightlifting is a sport, which, at the high levels requires incredible specificity in training. The neurological coordination and timing needed for the snatch and clean & jerk places a serious demand and importance on skill development and technical mastery.

The training of an Olympic lifter can and will still require a few things:

  1. Adequate overload in training to elicit specific adaptations (adding more muscle, increasing power, etc…)

  2. Enough variety in the training plan to void accommodation and stagnation to training progress

An Olympic lifter has their own unique level of specificity required, especially when we get closer to a competition. While a competitive powerlifter may have 5-8 varied exercises that they use in a given week to improve each competition lift (squat, bench press and deadlift), the programming for an Olympic lifter will need to meet a much more precise volume on the exact movement patterns used in the competition lifts.

This can be easily seen by the fact that major Olympic lifting competitions have an actual training hall set up for the lifters to arrive early and complete their peaking cycles. Think about that for a second. The precision and timing of the Olympic lifts are so precise, that at the elite level, even a few days of having no specific stimulus applied can result in a reduction in performance. That is crazy! It is also a testament to the high level of neurological coordination and accuracy needed in order to complete in this marvellous sport!

To wrap up the principle of specificity, I think it is safe to say that there are a wide variety of approaches that can be used to stimulate adaptation. We know this, since people achieve amazing success in many physical competitions with completely different training programs and structure.

World-wide, there is no set standard, yet what is globally accepted is that certain principles cannot be neglected. At different times of the year, or when really trying to hone in on a desired adaptation, being more specific in our decision making process really starts to have a significant impact on the end result.


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